In America: Not a Living Wage

New York Times |  By Bob Herbert | October, 09 1995 |  Share  | Source Article

At 7 P.M., with the sky already dark and a light rain falling, the large gates opened, like the gates of a prison, and the waves of teen-aged girls and young women poured out.

The grim workday in the Progresso Free Trade Zone, which had started at 7 in the morning, was over. The trade zone, a huge complex of maquiladora sweatshops, is surrounded by cinder-block walls and barbed wire and is patrolled by armed guards. Long rows of buses were waiting outside the gates to take the women -- who are mired in desperate poverty despite their long hours of work -- back to their pitifully furnished and mostly ramshackle homes.

Such are the lives of the garment workers who make much of our clothing.

One of the women, having agreed to be interviewed, climbed furtively into my car. (All of the women fear that if they are caught talking to reporters, human rights workers or union organizers they will be summarily fired.) This woman worked in the Doall plant, which makes jackets for Liz Claiborne. The jackets sell in the United States for $178 each. The garment workers who make them earn 56 cents an hour.

Sources with access to data from one of the plant's production lines said a worker on that line earned about 77 cents per jacket.

What I was finding from interviews and meetings with dozens of workers was that the pittance they earned in the plants was not even enough to supply adequate food for themselves and their children. Infants and toddlers, for example, are commonly fed rice water or coffee instead of milk because milk costs too much.

The woman in the car spoke through an interpreter. She said she was 19 and had a 3-year-old daughter. I asked if the child had enough to eat.

"Oh no," she said matter-of-factly. "We are very poor."

I asked if her daughter drank milk.

"No," she said. "We can't afford it. We give her coffee."

She said her daughter might have an egg for breakfast and boiled or fried beans for dinner. That's it. A meal with meat or vegetables was extremely rare.

"It afflicts me greatly," the woman said, "because it is necessary for her to have a good diet. My daughter is very thin and also weak. Sometimes she falls down. When I took her to the doctor they told me to give her vitamins."

When asked about her own diet, a resigned look crossed the young woman's face. "There is not much food," she said. "My head hurts and sometimes I feel dizzy. I suffer that."

"The wages are not enough to cover the basic food basket," said Adilia Pineda, an investigator with a human rights ombudsman's office that is financed by the Government but operates autonomously. She helped investigate conditions at the Mandarin Company, a maquiladora factory in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone that made clothes for the Gap, J. Crew, Eddie Bauer and others.

"It is a scandal," she said. "There are workers who faint because of the heat inside the factories and because they are badly nourished. Various workers fainted when we were there."

In a startling admission, even the president of the Mandarin Company, a decidedly hard-nosed businessman named David Wang, agreed that the wages he pays are inadequate. During an interview, he said, "If you really ask me, this is not fair."

But then he offered a graphic, if unsolicited, lesson on the real world of international free trade. "In the United States, if you want to buy a Honda Civic, you can shop around and always you will find cheaper ones." That, he said, is exactly what the "buyers," the brand-name clothing companies, are doing. "They are shopping around the whole world for the cheapest labor price."

While conveniently excusing himself of any responsibility, Mr. Wang noted correctly that the Gap or Liz Claiborne or any other company can get its clothing manufactured somewhere else if labor costs go up in El Salvador. They shop around.

His comments were echoed by Maria Julia Hernandez, the respected director of the human rights office of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Salvador. "We are at the mercy of the great markets of the world," she said.