April, 01 2004 |  Share

Gildan Production in El Salvador

Copatex S.A. de C.V.
San Marcos Free Trade Zone
San Salvador, El Salvador


Gildan labels from Copatex


  • San Marcos Free Trade Zone is surrounded by high cinderblock walls, rolls of razor wire, locked metal gates, and heavily armed private security guards.
  • Violation of core ILO internationally recognized worker rights: Denial of Freedom of Association and the right to organize. Anyone suspected of organizing will be immediately fired. Indeed, involvement in any protest will result in dismissal.
  • Obligatory overtime: Due to excessively high production goals—in effect, each worker must sew 154 t-shirts a day, 17 an hour, and one every 3.5 minutes—sewers can be forced to work up to 63 hours a week. The sewers must race through their lunch, taking just 20 minutes, in order to get back to work.
  • The workers are paid less than five cents for each t-shirt they sew.
  • The workers are under constant pressure to produce, to work faster to meet their excessive production goals. Workers report being exhausted and worn out at the end of the day, suffering especially from back and wrist pain due to the repetitive motion. 
  • It is common to fire the women once they reach 35 years of age, as Copatex management feels these "older" women are exhausted and worn out, and they want to replace them with another crop of younger teenagers.
  • The factory is excessively hot, and workers need permission to use the toilet or to drink water. The drinking water in the factory is filthy, with bacteria levels 225 percent in excess of international standards. The water also contains fecal bacteria.  
  • No worker has ever heard of, let alone seen, Gildan's Code of Conduct, which remains completely meaningless.
  • Workers' access to Social Security health care is routinely limited, and anyone attending medical appointments without permission will be docked two days' wages.
  • Workers who leave the plant or who are fired are routinely cheated out of the proper legal severance pay due them.


Copatex S.A. de C.V.
San Marcos Free Trade Zone, Building 9B
San Salvador, El Salvador
Phone: 503-220-1138
  • Korean-owned: owner Mr. Chi Young Lee [also owns the J&A Factory (Jatex) which produces exclusively for Gildan.]
  • Began operations: August 2002
  • Number of workers: Approximately 450
  • 100 percent of Copatex production is for Gildan—basic t-shirts in white, green, red, blue, black and yellow. Currently the factory is also producing Gildan children's t-shirts.

(Note: Workers cheated on severance pay and benefits. Up to December 2003, Copatex shared a factory building with a Taiwanese owned company called Rainbow S.A. de C.V., which also produced for Gildan. In December, the Rainbow factory was abruptly shut down, and the owner fled El Salvador, leaving behind 450 workers who were owed approximately $300,000 in legal severance payments, vacation pay, Christmas bonuses, and other social benefits. For the last five or six months prior to closing, Rainbow's owners also apparently stole the 6.25 percent pension fund fees which were deducted from the workers' wages. To date, the workers have not received a single cent of the severance pay and benefits owed them. The Salvadoran Ministry of Labor's involvement in this case has been very ineffective. The Ministry did seize the machinery which was left behind in the factory, which was sold for $100,000, but this will not cover what the workers are owed.)


  • Obligatory overtime due to excessively high production goals;
  • 11 and 12 hour shifts common;
  • Working six days a week;
  • At the extreme, workers could be at the factory 66 hours a week.

The legal workweek is 44 hours:


Monday - Thursday:

7:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.


7:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.

Morning Break (15 min.):

9:00 a.m. - 9:15 a.m.

Lunch (50 minutes): 

12:00 noon - 12:50 p.m.



Real working hours at Copatex:

Monday -Thursday:

6:45 a.m. - 12:00 noon 

(work / 5 ¼ hours)


12:00 noon - 12:20 

(lunch / 20 minutes) 


12:20 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

(work / 5 2/3 hours) 





6:45 a.m. - 12:00 noon

(work / 5 ¼ hours) 


12:00 noon - 12:20 p.m.

(lunch / 20 minutes) 


12:20 p.m. - 7:00 p.m. 

(work / 6 2/3 hours) 





7:00 a.m. - 12:00 noon 

(work / 5 hours) 


12:00 noon - 12:50 p.m. 

(lunch / 50 minutes)


12:50 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.

(work / 3 1/8 hours)

This schedule would put the workers at the factory 66 ¼ hours a week, while being paid for 63 ¾ hours of work.

On Saturdays, approximately half of the factory works until 4:00 p.m., while the other half gets out at 12:00 noon. Every other Friday when the workers are paid, the factory closes at 4:00 p.m. rather than 7:00 p.m.

Due to the excessively high production goals the majority of workers arrive at the factory between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m. in order to start working by 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. The workers routinely race through their lunch, taking just 20 minutes, so they can get back to their machines to try to reach their daily production goal.

Given these weekly fluctuations, on average, then, the sewers would be working 61 2/3 hours each week.

Below-Subsistence Level Wages: 69 to 82¢ an Hour

The average sewer's wage at the Copatex factory is between $85 and $90 for two weeks' work. The highest wage we saw was $100.80. This would put the average hourly wage at approximately 69 to 73 cents. The highest wage would be 82 cents an hour.

Low end wage
$ 0.69 an hour
$ 7.59 a day (11 hours)
$ 42.50 a week (6 days; 61 2/3 hours)
$ 184.42 a month
$ 2,210 a year

High end wage
$ 0.82 an hour
$ 9.02 a day (11 hours)
$ 50.40 a week (6 days; 61 2/3 hours)
$ 218.40 a month
$ 2,620.80 a year

Examples of high-end worker pay stubs:


Copatex pay stub


Copatex pay stub




Copatex pay stub




Excessively High Production Goals Workers Paid Less than Five Cents for Each T-Shirt They Sew

At the Copatex factory there are 11 modules, or assembly line units, with 26 operators per module. Management arbitrarily sets each unit's daily production goal, which is not negotiable, leaving the workers no choice but to remain until their quota is met. Management also unilaterally decides when it wants to speed up the production line, as it did in January 2004, increasing each module's daily production goal from 2,500 to 3,500 and now to 4,000 completed t-shirts per day.

This means, in effect, that each worker must sew 154 t-shirts a day, 17 shirts an hour, or one every 3 ½ minutes. (4,000 t-shirts ÷ 26 workers = 153.85 shirts; 153.85 ÷ 9 hours = 17.09 shirts per hour; 60 minutes ÷ 17.09 shirts = 3.51 minutes per shirt.)

Even if we take the very highest production wage in the factory of 82 cents an hour, this means that the workers are paid less than five cents for each t-shirt they sew. ($0.82 per hour ÷ 17.09 shirts per hour = $0.04798 per shirt.)

As Gildan t-shirts often sell for up to $18 to $20 each, this means that the workers' wages account for just 2/10ths to 3/10ths of one percent of the shirt's retail price. This proves two things. First, that the workers at Copatex are being terribly exploited, while on the other hand, it demonstrates how easy it would be for Gildan to pay at least a subsistence-level wage to these workers so they could climb out of misery and into poverty. If Gildan doubled its wages, there would still be less than 10 cents of direct labor involved in sewing each t-shirt. Surely Gildan could afford that.

Constant pressure to produce: The supervisors constantly pressure the sewing operators to work harder and faster to reach their high production goals. They do not yell or curse, but rather, psychologically pressure the workers saying things like, "Aren't you afraid of not fulfilling the goals? Look how hard your co-workers are working"You know if we don't meet our production deadline, then we will lose our North American clients—they will take their work and our jobs elsewhere."

The workers say it is Carmen Merino, the general supervisor, who is the hardest one, who "never cares about the workers at all, but only about meeting the production goals."

At the end of the shift, the workers describe leaving the factory exhausted, with pain wracking their necks, arms, wrists and ankles from the constant and rapid repetition of the same operations thousands of times a day.

Indeed, when the women reach 35 years of age, it is common for management to fire them or harass them into resigning, since they view them as exhausted and worn out and want to replace these "older" workers with more energetic teenagers.

Marina del Carmen Leiva, Copatex worker quoted in the New York Times, April 6, 2004:

" "It makes one angry when they say we have good laws for workers' rights. In four years, I won't have a job because the factories don't want us after we turn 35 years of age and then what will I do?"

" "If they would just treat us like human beings, even without raising the minimum wage, my life would be better."

Click here to read full article.


Factory Conditions

Excessive heat: As in other factories in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone, Copatex resembles a large army-type hanger, with a rounded sheet-metal roof that absorbs the heat of the tropical sun. Factory temperatures often soar to 90 degrees or higher. The workers describe being soaked in sweat all day long.

Needing permission to drink water or go to the bathroom: The bathrooms are locked, and workers must seek permission from their supervisor in order to use the toilet. If they receive permission, they are given a "toilet pass" which they must present to the person in charge of the toilets. Throughout 2003, the workers reported that the toilets were often filthy, lacking toilet paper, soap, towels and often even water. The workers were permitted to use the bathroom just once during the morning shift and again in the afternoon.

Then in 2004, there was a change, no doubt because of a campaign by the Canadian human rights organization, the Maquila Solidarity Network, pressuring Gildan, and because of an investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium. Now the bathrooms are at least clean. Each module is given toilet paper. There is soap in the bathrooms, and the workers can use the bathroom twice in the morning and again in the afternoon.

The drinking water in the factory is filthy. Purified drinking water is not provided. Rather, the tap water the workers have to drink in the factory comes from a cistern. Laboratory tests on water samples taken in late 2003 show that the water contains bacteria levels 225 percent in excess of allowable international standards. Coliform bacterial levels were 590 percent above allowable limits. Fecal coliform bacteria was also present. (Lab test attached.)

Fines: Anyone arriving three to five minutes late is docked one half hour's wage.

Restrictions on attending Social Security health appointments: By law, the Copatex workers are inscribed in the national Social Security health care system, and the fees for this are deducted from their wages.

However, especially when the factory is busy, as it is right now, management routinely denies the workers permission to be absent from work to go to their Social Security medical appointments. The supervisors say, "now we have a lot of work and we don't want any delays in the goals, so you cannot leave."

Anyone who insists upon attending their medical appointment—even in cases of serious emergency—and does so without management permission, will be docked two days' wages as punishment.


Gildan's Code of Conduct unknown and meaningless: No worker has ever heard of, let alone seen, Gildan's Code of Conduct. Nor has the concept of Gildan's Code of Conduct—which Gildan claims is meant to guarantee respect for worker rights—ever been explained or even mentioned to the workers by factory management. Gildan's Code of Conduct remains meaningless.

Denial of Freedom of Association and the right to organize: The workers are very clear on this. If they ever tried to organize an independent union, they would be immediately fired.

Indeed, the workers report that they have no power to protest anything, not the extreme heat, nor the excessive production goals, nothing. If they dared protest these conditions, they would be fired. They feel powerless.

Supervisors routinely ask the workers what they think about unions and if they belong to a union. Anyone naïve enough to answer that a union could benefit the workers will be quietly fired the next pay day, with no explanation given.

Prior to getting a job at Copatex, every worker must give the name of the factory they last worked in, along with the phone number of the personnel manager there. Needless to say, anyone connected to union activities in the past is not hired.

Cheated on severance pay: By law, workers who resign or are fired from the factory are entitled to a severance pay of at least one month's pay for every year worked. Copatex never pays the proper severance, but instead bargains with the workers. Trying to get 100 percent of the benefits due would mean at least a year-long court battle with Copatex--including bringing other workers as witnesses that one worked in the factory, after which they would very likely be fired. During 2003, the workers were cheated, on average of 50 to 60 percent of the severance pay due them. In 2004 for some reason, the company softened its position and workers leaving the factory now receive 70 to 75 percent of the severance benefits due them.

No U.S. Textiles
Gildan's label reads "Made in El Salvador," which means that U.S. textiles are not being used in the t-shirts. If that were the case, the label would read, "Assembled in El Salvador."
No Taxes in El Salvador
In the San Marcos Free Trade Zone, companies are exempt from all import and export duties, all corporate, state and municipal taxes and even from the local sales tax. If a poor worker sewing Gildan t-shirts wants to purchase milk for her children, she will have to pay the local sales tax, but Copatex/Gildan do not.
Without any taxes, these garments carry no "social fabric" or link tying them back into the local community, supporting schools, local infrastructure or public safety"nothing.




Clearly there are numerous serious violations of internationally recognized workers rights standards at the Copatex factory, leading even to an appeal by the workers that they be treated as human beings.

This does not mean Gildan should abruptly pull its work from the Copatex factory. That would be the worst thing Gildan could do, since it would punish the workers for daring to speak the truth. The workers in El Salvador desperately need these jobs. But they also want their basic legal human rights to be respected. Gildan should keep its production in the Copatex plant while it works with its contractor to clean up the factory and to guarantee that the rights of the workers will finally be respected. Gildan must move quickly to end the climate of fear and repression in the factory, where any protest will lead to immediate dismissal.

Gildan must post its Code of Conduct and hold a serious open meeting with management and workers, explaining clearly that under both Salvadoran law and Gildan's Code, the workers have the legal right to organize an independent union without fear of reprisal, and that Gildan expects and demands compliance with this fundamental labor right.

Gildan could ask the independent FEASIES union to come into the factory to conduct a popular labor rights training with the workers.


Copatex Water Test:





San Marcos Free Trade Zone:



Workers entering San Marcos Free Trade Zone past armed guards: