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February, 01 2004 |  Download PDF |  Share

Foul Ball

 

Major League baseballs sewn by sweatshop workers in Costa Rica,
Denied their rights & paid just 25 cents for each ball they make

Worker sewing Rawlings baseball

 

The Rawlings plant, located behind the Stadium Rafael Angel Camacho in the city of Turrialba, is about an hour and forty-minute drive east of the capital San Jose. It is a rural area, surrounded by coffee plantations. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the area's economy, and coffee is the principal crop. When the bottom fell out of world coffee prices a few years ago, it had a devastating effect in Turrialba and unemp loyment among the coffee workers soared. Rawlings used this to its advantage. With so mu ch unemp loyment it could hire more temporary workers, firing and rehiring them every three months. This new contingency work force has no legal rights, and their wages do not have to be increased.

There is a lot of fear in the factory, and the workers are afraid of even being seen talking with outsiders. It's a small town in a rural area. It's easy to be seen. No one wants to lose their job — especially as this was one of the very few factories in town.

However, several brave Rawlings workers did agree to speak out about factory conditions, as long as their identities were kept hidden. They are certain that if Rawlings management found out who they were, they would be fired that very same day. No one at the Rawlings company would agree to an interview — not the plant manager, the production chief, or the head of human resources.

In search of low wages, in 1969 Rawlings closed its plant in Puerto Rico and shifted production to Haiti. Soon, 1,000 Haitian women were sewing over 100,000 baseballs a week at the Rawlings plant, being paid just nine cents for each ball they sewed.

It was not until after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier's dictatorship in 1986 that Rawlings decided to open a plant in Costa Rica in 1987. The plant, called Figgie Costa Rica, operated with just 15 workers. These were warehouse and supply workers, since all the actual production of sewing the balls was farmed out as homework.

For 21 years Rawlings felt quite comfortable producing baseballs in Haiti under the father and son Duvalier dictatorship, and the military regimes which followed. However, when it became clear that military rule was coming to an end, and that Jean-Bertrand Aristide was certain to win the democratic presidential election on December 16, 1990 by a landslide, Rawlings quickly shut its Haitian plant on November 30, 1990. All remaining work was shifted to Costa Rica. By 1994, Rawlings had 400 workers at its Costa Rican plant and by 1998 there were 800 workers.

Rawlings representatives said they were pulling out of Haiti "because we have a responsibility to Major League Baseball and our other baseball customers."

More to the point, there was a growing concern among the maquila factory owners that under a democratically elected government in Haiti, factory workers would want to exercise their legal right to organize, and that there would be calls for an increase in the minimu m wage, which was just 22 cents an hour at the time.

In Haiti, as in Costa Rica, Rawlings prefers to operate in secrecy. In 1988, Rawlings even refused entry to its Haitian plant to a group of Figgie International—Rawlings' parent comp any—shareholders. On September 19, 1989, in the Journal of Commerce, Larry Luxer commented: "Rawlings appears suspicious of the media and refused to allow The Journal of Commerce to enter the plant and photograph the workers." Rawlings was no doubt afraid of attracting any such further coverage as appeared in the Toronto Star on April 29, 1998, where Bruce McLeod wrote that while company spokespeople tell us "that Rawlings products are 'nothing but the best,' Don't believe them. Every Major League baseball, however well made, is a symbol of third world exploitation, which is nothing but the worst."

Today, the Rawlings plant in Turrialba produces not only baseballs, but also uniforms and other garments, as well as sporting goods. We can only make estimates based on our communications with the workers since management refused to speak, but there could now be as many as 1,450 workers at the Rawlings plant — 850 people in the baseball department , and another 600 workers in the textile department.

Rawlings operates under the Free Trade Zone regime, meaning it pays no corporate, province, city or even sales taxes, and is 100 percent exempt from all import and export taxes.

No doubt the figure is far higher today, but even as of August 23, 1998, Costa Rica's La Nacion Sunday Review newspaper reported that the Rawlings plant produced two and a half million baseballs a year, of which half — or one and a quarter million balls — went to the Major League teams in the U.S. The other half were sold commercially.

Rawlings is the official baseball not only for the Major Leagues, but also for Minor League baseball and the NCAA college World Series. More than half of all Major League players use Rawlings gloves. Rawlings also supplies baseball equipment and uniforms in Japan.

Sewing Major League Baseballs is Tough Work — an Estimated 80 percent of the workers are injured

  • A worker must sew a minimum of 156 baseballs a week, approximately 4 per hour, and one every 15 minutes.
  • On average, the worker will be paid just 28 cents per completed ball.
  • 108 stitches are required per ball, or one every 8.3 seconds, 432 an hour, and 4,536 stitches in a 10.5 hour shift.
  • Factory temperatures reach 97 degrees Fahrenheit, and the workers are sweating constantly.
  • For 10 hours a day, the worker's body is in an awkward position bent over her press, repeating the same strenuous stitching motion, pulling her arms up and out, hour after hour, day after day.
  • Factory workers estimate that 80 percent of the baseball sewers are injured, suffering some form of repetitive motion disorder — to their back, shoulders, wrists, hands, and especially their vision due to the constant need to focus and concentrate.
  • The Rawlings Company makes no attempt to prevent these repetitive stress injuries, not even implementing the simplest of measures, such as requiring periodic breaks, and structuring exercises, wh ich would cost the company nothing.
  • Further, Rawlings refuses to consider these repetitive stress disorders as work related, classifying them instead as personal injuries for which the company is not responsible. In fact, if an injured sewer requests a day off to consult with a doctor, Rawlings docks her pay.
  • Workers injured badly enough so that they cannot consistently reach their minimum quota of producing 156 baseballs a week are fired. They receive some small severance pay, but are left incapacitated, some unable to do any physical work.
  • Few workers sewing baseballs for the Major League last more than two or three years.
  • Sewers jab themselves with their needles, often under their nails. The company provides safety equipment, but the leather is stiff and uncomfortable, causing the workers to sweat even more, which results in the needle slipping. Forced to meet their high production goals, the workers instead wrap their fingers in masking tape. Rawlings does not object to this, however if a worker jabs and injures herself, it is simply her problem. Rawlings will accept no responsibility, since she was not wearing the protective gear — despite the fact that she could not reach the mandatory quota if she had been wearing it. Either way, she stands to lose.
  • The bathrooms are locked and a worker needs to get permission to use the toilets, which is limited to one or two visits, or at the most three a day.
  • Talking during working hours is prohibited.
  • Company rules strictly prohibit workers from assisting each other either in the sewing or repair of the baseballs.
  • Production reports are kept on each worker, which the accounting department uses to measure their productivity and efficiency, monitoring the workers constantly. Sewers making too many errors will be "replaced."
  • Workers who produce their quota of 156 baseballs two weeks in a row will receive a bonus of $7.42 — or a little more than two cents per ball. Supervisors also receive incentives when their team of sewers reaches their production goal.
  • There is constant tension and pressure to reach the comp any's goals.
  • At 7:15 a.m. each Monday the workers mu st attend a meeting where their supervisor gives them a pep-talk, encouraging them to work with greater speed and efficiency, and pointing out the most common errors made the week before.
  • New workers in training at the factory's "little school" are not paid. Instead, Rawlings reimburses them only for their bus fare. They will remain in school until they can consistently produce 7 to 10 flawless balls.
  • Rawlings policy on absences:
  •  
    • Two paid days for marriage;
    • Three paid days for the death of one's child, spouse, or parents;
    • One paid day for the father on the birth of his child.
    • All other absences are unpaid. Still, a worker needing a day off must submit a written request at least three days in advance. Permission is rarely given to those who are not consistently reaching their production goals.
  • Rawlings has an odd policy, considering that their workweek is Monday through Friday, of requiring workers to seek permission to be "absent" on Saturday, for example, if they want to take an exam or go on a family outing. Management invariably denies permission and instead instructs the worker to stand by and be ready to work, just in case a shipment either arrives or must go out. One worker going to school at night had to pray that a shipment did not come in on Saturday so he could take his Biology exam. Rawlings had refused to give him permission to be "absent" on his day off.
  • Sexual harassment: at least one worker we spoke with said some male supervisors showed a certain favoritism toward the younger women—e.g. overlooking any defects on the balls they had sewn — if they would "date" him outside the factory.
  • Three-month contracts without rights: Few workers at the Rawlings plant have any sense of security, knowing they can be fired very easily at any moment. Everyone knows that Rawlings "keeps a whole mountain" of applications on hand for just that reason. However, it now appears to be getting even worse, as Rawlings is increasingly hiring workers without contracts, employing them for less than three months, firing and rehiring them. This way the workers have no legal protections and no rights to any benefits, since under Costa Rican law these rights only apply after a person has worked for more than three months. Rawlings is creating the ultimate contingency workforce.
  • At the Rawlings plant, the workers were very clear: If they ever attempted to organize a union, they would be illegally fired on the spot. And if they were ever somehow successful, Rawlings would shut down the plant and move it to a place like China.

 

Rawlings factory

 

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