Table of Contents
One day last summer, Mr. Abebe Abate, the director of the International Labor Organization's Multinationals division, stopped by our office. Students from Columbia and Brown were also in that day, preparing materials and, in coordination with students across the country, planning the fall campaign for the "sweat-free" campus movement. Mr. Abate sat down with the students, and as they told him about their student network growing at universities across the country, his eyes sparkled with interest and excitement. Mr. Abate asked the students to be sure to contact their colleagues at universities around the world. Later on he told me that here in the United States, the American people were doing more to challenge corporations, calling for corporate accountability for human rights and a living wage, than anywhere in the world. Everyone, Mr. Abate said, is watching us. They are waiting to see how far this popular consumer movement will go. I was surprised. But it is true, the American people are leading the effort, and the world is watching. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
Surely one of the most exciting developments in many years in the struggle to defend human and worker rights has been the growing involvement of university, and also high school, students across the country. The growing student movement to make campuses "sweat-free" has the companies very worried. The last thing the corporations want is for students to start asking serious questions regarding where, under what conditions and at what wages the products we purchase are made. Also, corporations spend dearly on creating their public image, while directing their public relations operations to discredit anyone who challenges them, claiming they are a "special interest" who cannot be believed. But the companies cannot turn this "special interest" ploy against students. Your interest is in protecting the human and worker rights of people around the world—often younger than you—who make the clothing and shoes we wear. Whether or not you realize it, this gives students an enormous power. The companies are afraid of you, afraid that your sweat-free movement will keep growing.
Left to themselves, companies would like to drop their Codes of Conduct into factories operating behind locked metal doors, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, and then have Price-Waterhouse certify that the paper code has arrived. Never mind the 17- to 25-year-old young people who work in these factories, putting in 12 hour shifts for starvation wages, who can be fired for even discussing factory conditions.
For the companies, the codes they are promoting—running the gamut from the White House Task Force, the American Apparel Manufacturers' Association, Business for Social Responsibility and the Council of Economic Priorities—are meant as damage control, to protect the companies.
Students on the other hand know that for any Code of Conduct to be worthwhile, there can only be one goal, which is to pry open a legal space where the workers can first learn their rights and then exercise them—including the right to organize—without repression. The only real Code of Conduct is one that empowers workers. A real Code of Conduct can withstand the light of day, based on full public disclosure of the names and addresses of factories around the world producing the goods we buy. A real Code of Conduct must include a living wage, helping the workers and their families climb out of misery. A real Code of Conduct has nothing to hide and would welcome local, respected religious, human and labor rights, and women's organizations to independently verify compliance.
Most companies, and too many of their friends in the media, would like to be able to assign the workers in these factories just two options. Either take these jobs under these conditions, or have no job at all. Either work, or drift off into prostitution, crime, drugs, or return to being a peon in the fields. Under this scenario, the companies can then tell us that, though we are well meaning and should be commended, we are also naive, and our efforts to help defend human rights are actually hurting the very workers we want to help. This is a lie.
The Collegiate Licensing Company and the companies would love to take the wind out of the sails of your student movement for sweat-free campuses. This would be the worst thing that could happen. They will tell you that there had been problems, but now things are really moving ahead; everything is under control; it is different now, and you students can go back to your regular lives.
Do not let anyone silence your voice. Every worthwhile reform in our society was born out of a social movement. The workers in factories around the world sewing our clothes have no voice in the great North American market. You can be their voice. These workers want their jobs, and they may be poor, but they want their rights and will continue struggling for a fair wage so they can raise their families with dignity. They have the right to empower themselves, to organize to regain their rights and have some control over the conditions under which they work.
The most important thing you can do to protect human rights is to keep your student movement alive, vital, growing, deepening.
You have a voice. We do not live in an iron cage. You have the right to rock the boat, to challenge the system of business as usual, to ask questions and to be at the table to be part of, and even leading, the discussion over what kind of an economy we should develop, and what sort of a society we want to become.
There is more to life than a mortgage and being led to climb the corporate ladder. Please do not let your dreams for a better world be extinguished. We need you. The workers in these factories need your voice.
What could have been a chore for the National Labor Committee staff, in organizing this student delegation to Central America, turned out of be an uplifting experience. These students were the best and brightest—in the real sense of commitment to social justice. The students were moved by what they heard and saw. The sadness, the anger, the poverty, the injustice, the hope, the struggle they experienced deepened them as people. Nor did they shy away from 15-hour days.
I think you will find their report the same as I have. I could not put it down, and read it straight through. It is that good. They did a great job.
The worker from the Doall #3 garment factory in El Salvador is 33 years old. She has two kids. Her name is Paloma. Working 85 hours a week sewing shirts at the factory doesn't leave Paloma much time for her children, but the family needs the money. "I struggle for them," she says. And it is a struggle. The factory works at a blistering pace, managers set production quotas at unattainable levels, the lint and dust in the air cause respiratory ailments, the air conditioning in the factory has long been broken, the temperature rises to suffocating levels, with forced overtime the day seems like it will never end...and then she is home. Of course there is cooking, cleaning, laundry, and shopping to take care of her children. The 912 colones (approximately 105 U.S. dollars) she makes every two weeks doesn't go very far even when she restricts her family to the most basic necessities: rice, beans, plantains, flour, sugar, and the occasional cheap cut of meat. It is an anonymous lifestyle-packed into old American school buses, workers are hauled off by the thousands to industrial parks to work behind locked gates, barbed wire, and armed guards. Workers sacrifice their lives to barely provide for their families, and watch as they sink deeper into debt and poverty. Every day the weight presses harder: managers raise the production quota, the price of food goes up, school becomes more expensive, wages fall behind inflation.
Workers don't just struggle for their families, however, they struggle for themselves. They struggle for their human rights and dignity. The local Ministry of Labor is loathe to help, workers report. Complaints are either dismissed or delayed, leaving workers with no one to turn to when their rights are abused. The armed guards and searches on the way in and out of the factories make the implications clear-attempt to change conditions at this factory and you will lose your job or worse. But in spite of all the obstacles, workers like Paloma still hope that they can one day get together and demand jobs with dignity, respect, fair treatment, and a living wage.
Paloma and hundreds of thousands of courageous and dedicated workers like her are the reasons why we went to Central America. We went to hear their testimony first-hand and see the effects with our own eyes. As eight student activists from different universities around the U.S., we had heard that such abuses occurred and, when possible, we were active in campaigns to stop them. The sweatshop issue has been back in the news over the last few years and the American public has been shocked to hear that the beast of the early industrialization process, the sweatshop, thought to have been eliminated long ago, is back both at home and abroad. With campaigns pressuring high-profile corporations such as The GAP, Disney, Wal-Mart, and Nike, anti-sweatshop activism has made headlines and student involvement has swelled.
More recently, students have been pressuring their Universities to ensure that the clothing bearing their colleges' logos are not made under sweatshop conditions. The "Sweat-free" campus campaign has scored some important initial victories, including the passage of corporate Codes of Conduct at Duke University and Brown University. These Codes of Conduct are designed to ensure that university subcontractors or licensees adhere to fair labor standards. With these campaigns gaining steam and spreading rapidly across the U.S. and into Canada, our eight-student delegation took off for El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
The three nations we visited have seen exponential growth in their apparel industries, almost all of which is for export to the United States. Factories producing for export are called maquilas and they are often located in free trade zones, industrial parks specially set up so that owners pay no taxes of any kind either going to the U.S. or coming into Central America. El Salvador, ravaged by a ten-year civil war that left tens of thousands dead and "disappeared" (including 5,000 trade unionists and many more human rights activists and religious leaders), has seen a rapid increase in the maquila industry since the peace accords of 1992. In Honduras as well, the maquila industry has taken off. Honduras is now the fourth largest producer of apparel for export to the U.S., behind Mexico, China and the Dominican Republic. In 1996, an investigation by the National Labor Committee uncovered child labor and starvation wages at a Honduran maquila producing for Wal-Mart's Kathie Lee line. Like El Salvador, Honduras has suffered years of civil strife that took the lives of many outspoken workers rights advocates. Nicaragua was our last stop, and since the Sandanistas were voted out of office in 1990, the maquila industry has expanded markedly. It too was the focus of recent controversy when an NLC/Hard Copy investigative report aired in November 1997 uncovering forced overtime, below-subsistence wages, physical and sexual abuse, and illegal firings of organizing workers. In all three of these nations, workers complained that their local Ministries of Labor were ineffective or unresponsive to their needs. Garments bearing college logos are commonly made in these countries.
In our seven-day tour of Central America, we had meetings with hundreds of workers from many different factories. We also met with several different local human rights, women's, religious groups and unions. Several students from our delegation appeared on a Jesuit community radio station in Honduras, where we were able to dialogue with community members about what actions we could undertake to help improve working conditions for Honduran maquila workers. We also appeared on a television program (prime-time!) explaining the reasons for our visit. Dozens of workers called into the show to express interest and happiness with our solidarity work, and to complain of maltreatment at their maquila jobs. A press conference we held was well-covered by local TV and print media.
The first conclusion we reached from our interactions and experiences in Central America is simple: too often, workers in these countries sewing garments with U.S. labels are toiling in sub-human conditions for wages that do not provide the most basic human needs. Attempts by workers to organize and improve their situations are most often met with repression. To our delegation, this is unacceptable. We want all clothing that is produced for export to the U.S., starting with the clothes bearing our universities' logos, to be produced under fair and humane conditions, so that workers can have a decent standard of living, can afford to send their children to school, and can freely organize to ensure that their human rights are respected.
Driving through lush green mountains, I see a speck of white in the midst of green shrubs and trees. Our guide, Sergio, quickly lifts his index finger pointing to the little speck of white, saying we were almost there. "There" being the San Marcos free trade zone. Excited, because I've never seen a sweatshop outside of the United States, I can't look away from this little white speck, which was slowly growing to form rows of rectangular white domes with barred windows. After fifteen minutes of winding and turning down the highway, we reached our destination. As we drive towards the entrance, Sergio points to the overhead bridge, mentioning that the bridge had been constructed by the factories because many workers had been killed trying to cross the highway. It seems that factories will only repair and build things when it benefits them, such as repairing all the roads that the factories use to export and import goods. As we turn right into the free trade zone, many buses crammed with people are driving in and out. Some are yellow Unified District School buses. To my right, I see that these huge rows of white rectangular buildings, which are surrounded by a thick brick wall with thin steel poles sticking out on the top. This brick wall was approximately 15-20 feet high. Lined up are women selling sweet bread, coffee, pupusas and tortillas on small wooden tables. Swarms of workers are being unloaded from the buses, and a few momentarily stop at these vendors to grab a piece of bread or a cup of coffee for breakfast. Sergio mentions that these street vendors hold jobs that factories constantly boast about creating. But we must ask ourselves, how can a street vendor benefit from having an establishment in an area where their consumers are not even paid enough to adequately support themselves or their families? After we park the mini-van, we walk towards the main entrance where hundreds of workers, the majority young girls, are starting to enter a factory. A security guard armed with a huge rifle paces back and forth in front of the gates, occasionally telling the workers to hurry. Disgusted, I stand still as I watch hundreds of people walking hypnotically into these monstrous buildings enclosed by barbed-wire fences on a beautiful Sunday morning, which is supposed to be their only day off.
It was close to 7 p.m. We had been up since five that morning; it was a long trip from New York to San Salvador-five hours by plane. Luckily, TACA was a better airline than expected: the movie the airline showed actually made us laugh and the mushroom crepe breakfast we ate really did taste good. But now we were in a van, driving through the mountains of San Salvador. The sun had just begun to set an hour before and the once green and almost tropical landscape had become a network of shadowy sketches outlining dark roads and drab houses. We stopped. In front of one of the homes stood five women. They were workers at one of the maquilas in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone. The women, smiling, filed onto the van with us. They sat in the front, we remained in the back. They talked with one another as we stared at them. We, as students, were there to learn, to understand as best we could the life of a maquila worker. This drive was our first direct contact with any worker; the meeting we were heading towards would be our first of many on this trip. We all knew the facts and the statistics; we had all studied the reports, labor alerts, and testimonies concerning the industry and yet, at that moment, all of our previous knowledge had been erased.
Earlier that day we had visited the industrial park where many of these women worked. We were only able to see the outside, prevented from going in by high cement walls, barbed wire, wrought iron bars, and two men with semi-automatic guns guarding the entrance. Was this a factory or a prison? So we sat there, studying these women...and wondering.
Upon entering the National Labor Committee headquarters, we quickly realized that this meeting would be much larger than the five women who had filed into our van. There were people everywhere, thirty or more-men and women, but mostly women. Loud voices filled the room. Everyone was chatting, some even laughing. Yes, laughter. This was a good sign, was it not? Laughter is easy. Laughter means happiness and contentment. Things were good, or at least not as bad as the cement walls, barbed wire, iron bars, and armed guards would have us believe, right?
We all sat down: students on one side of the room, workers on the other. Now there was silence. We all introduced ourselves and then we began to learn the truth: laughter does not always mean easiness, nor happiness, nor contentment. Things were not good at Doall 2 and 3. They were not good at any of the factories. We quickly found out that the walls, wire, bars, and guards were there for a reason-to bury the stories of these workers that sat before us, to bury the truth about Doall 2 and 3 and the other factories that operated within the San Marcos Free Trade Zone.
Workers told us that they work seven days a week. They must be in the factory by 6:45 a.m. and must stay there until 8:00 p.m. with only a one-hour lunch break (and sometimes this break is cut to only a half hour) to sustain them through the day. Three nights a week, some departments must work until 10:30 p.m. On Saturdays, workers must stay from 6:45 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and are sometimes forced to work straight through the night until 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning. The standard Sunday shift starts at 6:45 a.m. and does not end until 4:00 p.m. Overtime is obligatory. Workers who cannot stay receive warnings, are suspended for one or two days, lose their seventh day's pay, and risk being fired. When workers are forced to work into the night, they receive a half hour supper break. At this time the company gives them 10 colones ($1.14 U.S.) to buy "tortas," a sandwich of beans or cheese and jam.
Essentially, employees must work between 76 and 84 hours per week and must remain inside of the factory approximately 85 to 93 hours per week. Workers who live far from the factory often bring a change of clothes when they know they will be working until 10:30 p.m., as the company pays for them to stay in a hotel overnight. However, workers are forced to sleep five to a room and the rooms are dirty. Often, workers either purchase or are given drugs similar to "No Doze" to stay awake for such long hours. These long hours are especially hard for workers in the pressing and cleaning departments who must stand all day. They often experience pain and swollen feet.
The base wage at Doall is just 5.25 colones per hour, meaning that workers earn only 42 colones ($4.79) for an eight-hour day! Including the seventh day bonus, workers are paid the weekly wage of approximately 294 colones ($33.56 U.S.) a week. Workers earn just 51 percent of the basic basket of essential goods and services that the average family needs to survive in relative poverty and just 27 percent of what is necessary to live poorly, but with dignity.
According to FUNDE, a highly respected Salvadoran non governmental research organization, a family must earn 2, 516 colones per month to live in relative poverty and 4,739 colones to live with decency. Doall workers earn just 1,274 ($145.43) colones per month. With these wages, workers cannot afford to purchase basic staples like milk or vitamins for their children. Nor will they ever be able to afford the clothing they produce.
To make matters worse, production quotas are very high. When workers meet the production goal it is raised the next day. Supervisors, not workers, are paid incentives when the factory meets the production goal. Consequently, supervisors pressure workers to go faster, screaming and nursing at them, "faster, you sons of whores."
New workers are forced to take pregnancy tests and are immediately fired if they are pregnant. Despite the fact that there are approximately 700-800 employees working at Doall 2, most of them women, there are only five women's bathrooms in the factory. Consequently, bathrooms are dirty. Workers may use the facilities only once or twice per shift.
Workers also told us that the factory has no air conditioning and poor ventilation, making it extremely hot. Dust and lint from the cloth fill the air, causing workers to experience bronchial problems, rashes, and allergies. When workers complain that they are sick, supervisors almost always deny them permission to visit the Social Security clinic. In fact, all of the workers we talked to confirmed that Doall does not permit absences for any reason. Even pregnant women who are sick have been denied permission to visit the clinic. Workers who go to the clinic without permission are docked two days' pay.
When workers attempted to organize themselves to protest such wretched conditions, they were met with firing and intimidation by the factory. Workers even rumored to be organizing or seen talking to union organizers are illegally fired immediately. On Wednesday, August 5th, eighteen workers were fired for protesting being made to work overtime on a national holiday. Consequently, many workers are afraid to protest and organize, as they feel that the factory will never accept the union. Similarly, the Ministry of Labor has been of no help to workers and workers actually believe that the Ministry is being paid off by the factories.
We then asked them what companies the factory was producing for. One or two dug into their pockets or purses and retrieved a couple of clothing labels. Charlie and Barbara took the labels and read them out loud: Leslie Fay and Liz Claiborne. Could this be right? Surely Liz Claiborne was not still producing under such conditions. Liz Claiborne is a member of the Presidential task force to end sweatshops and has been regarded as a leader in enforcing decent working conditions for its workers. We asked the workers, somewhat in disbelief, if they were still producing for Liz Claiborne. They all nodded that they were. In fact, the women told us that five lines of sewing operators were working on Liz Claiborne and Leslie Fay apparel. A production line of 20 women produced 650 pairs of Liz Claiborne pants in a shift, while a production line of 60 workers produces 600 Liz Claiborne jackets per shift, daily. Essentially, these women earned just 18 cents for every pair of $118 Liz Claiborne pants they sew and only about 84 cents for every $194 Liz Claiborne jacket.
But had any of the workers seen the Liz Claiborne Code of Conduct? The workers stared at us, blankly. Only one of them had ever heard of, or seen, such a code. One day, there was a badly Xeroxed copy of the code placed in a bathroom. No explanation had ever been given to the workers with regard to the content or intent of Liz Claiborne's Code of Conduct.
But were there not North American representatives who came to inspect the plant? The workers told us that there were but all of their visits were known in advance. Consequently, supervisors told workers that upon such visits they must wear their good clothes and shoes. Similarly, the representatives are never allowed to talk to workers alone but are accompanied by Doall managers at all times. In fact, the representatives never asked to speak with workers and had never proposed meeting with workers in a safe location away from the factory.
By the end of the meeting we students were successfully brought into a world far away from the one we had started in early that morning at JFK airport. Through this meeting, we were allowed, for approximately two hours, to see the other side of the walls, wire, bars and armed guards. We glanced at the underside of our favorite designers, far away from the smiling and tanned faces that cover our television screens. It was not the pristine world that Liz Claiborne would like to portray with the use, or rather, disuse, of its famous Code of Conduct. It was good, though, that this was the first meeting we experienced with workers. It showed us clearly what the sweat-free campaign is really about. It has little or nothing to do with hating Kathie Lee Gifford or Phillip Knight and has everything to do with fighting for decent working conditions for workers like the ones we spoke with. It became readily apparent that not just a few "select" companies produce in sweatshops. Workers mentioned labels that are considered well known as well as ones we had never heard of before. This is an industry-wide problem, one which will never be solved as long as we allow companies like Liz Claiborne, which exploits and demeans its workers in El Salvador daily, to be responsible for assuring that these wretched conditions are abolished.
To drive through Central America and many other parts of the world is to experience exactly what our delegation came across: rows of neat factories hidden behind closed gates, making the products that we all know and love. Not merely a shroud of secrecy, these factories operate under a woolen blanket. On a Sunday morning we could see workers entering the factory but we had no idea where they were going, what they were making, or how they were treated. Consequently, we came upon the process of independent monitoring.
Independent monitoring is a concept that has remained controversial. Many human rights organizations argue that only through true independent monitoring of factories can the extreme number of workers rights violations be exposed to the public and remedied. Companies, on the other hand, cry that full disclosure and independent monitoring violates their proprietary rights and is simply too expensive and impractical. For these reasons there exist only two true independent monitoring groups in the world. One of them, GMIES, works in El Salvador.
The Grupo de Monitoreo Independiente en El Salvador (GMIES), which has monitored the Mandarin International factory for the past two years, is a product of a long, continuous struggle. At the time, the factory was primarily producing garments for the GAP as well as Eddie Bauer and several other U.S. labels. Workers at Mandarin International were working forced overtime until 4:00 a.m., they were sometimes put in the hot sun as a form of punishment, and the factory employed over 100 minors who were forced to work the same hours as the adults and were not allowed to attend school. To make matters worse, employees were forced to drink filthy water, were allowed to use the bathroom only twice per day, worked in intense heat with no air conditioning and poor ventilation, and were verbally abused by their superiors. When workers at Mandarin International attempted to form a union, their boss, Col. Luis Alanso Amaya and his team of "bullies" proceeded to beat and threaten organizers lives, almost killing one. Colonel Amaya then fired hundreds of union members in an attempt to break the union.
All of the above practices took place despite the GAP's self-proclaimed high ethical standards regarding workers rights as expressed in its corporate Code of Conduct. The GAP consistently denied all documentation that Mandarin International treated their workers unfairly claiming in a letter, "No human rights abuses or other violations of our corporate sourcing policies have been found." After an intense campaign with surprisingly strong solidarity from high school and university students, calling for the GAP to take responsibility for improving conditions at Mandarin International, the GAP signed an agreement to recognize the union, reinstate the fired union leaders and members-this was the first time this was won in the history of the maquila in El Salvador-respect all labor laws and worker rights, and opening the factory to independent monitoring by the Jesuit University, the Archdiocese and the Center for the Investigation of Labor. So, GMIES was born.
Through simple practices such as meeting workers on the street, talking to people on payday, setting up meetings in safe locations where the workers can speak freely, distributing surveys and questionnaires, and attending weekly departmental meetings held by the company, GMIES has been able to do what others, including the GAP, have not: detect, notify, and help create the framework so negotiations between the union of Mandarin workers (SETMI) and the Mandarin Company addressed and remedied many violations. In the two years that GMIES has been monitoring the Mandarin International factory, conditions have significantly improved. Mandarin's worst violations have been eradicated. The union leaders were reinstated, the workers are no longer forced to work overtime, the locks were taken off the bathrooms, clean drinking water was brought in, ventilation was put in place, and the humiliations and screaming ended. However there is still much to be done. The company used the year and a half that the real union was locked out to bring in replacement workers, but only on the condition that they join the "company union." There was a lot of fear. You were either with management or you would be fired. People were poor and desperate and had their backs up against the wall. So the real union has had a tough, uphill battle under very difficult circumstances.
Nor did GMIES enter Mandarin International without complications. Of course, neither the GAP or Mandarin wanted this-they were forced into it. No other company would go along with it-to the American apparel companies truly independent monitoring was an anathema. They wanted to isolate and destroy it. Also, the legacy of the violent Civil War in El Salvador has left people scared, afraid, isolated. During the war you could be killed just for belonging to a union.
The companies and others started rumors to divide the monitors and the unions, saying GMIES wanted to substitute itself for and play the role of the union. It has not been easy to establish a new structure to effectively defend human and workers rights. But the monitors and Setmi have persevered. The monitors are very clear on this, they do not want to and will not act as a union. Rather their role is to guarantee that the legal space is open for the workers to exercise their rights, for the workers to empower themselves, to organize to defend their rights and negotiate a collective contract.
Despite everything done to destroy and undermine the Setmi union and the monitors, they are still there and this invaluable experience goes on for all the world to see. If only they would look.
Companies who proclaim that independent monitoring is too costly and impractical have done themselves a great disservice by not studying the GMIES model more closely. In two years, this group has managed to accomplish what large accounting firms like Ernst and Young have not: they have exposed and taken part in trying to remedy the unjust conditions of workers inside the Mandarin International factory on a budget of only $18,000 per year (this budget includes the cost of running an international conference). Consequently, companies that claim that independent monitoring is costly and ineffective are either not aware of GMIES and the GAP campaign or simply find it more beneficial for them to spend extra money on their own monitoring, which usually find that there are no human rights violations whatsoever, as the GAP had-an assertion that was totally contradicted by GMIES' and the National Labor Committee's own findings. No violations, no need to take action.
There is still much about independent monitoring that is unknown. The truth is, GMIES and Mandarin International are participating in a highly experimental partnership. This association has gone forward with practically no pre-existing models. However, we should not hesitate to learn and benefit from GMIES. After going to El Salvador and seeing for ourselves factory after factory shut behind iron gates, guarded by men armed with rifles, the argument in favor of independent monitoring has become powerful. There is too much unknown about these factories. Not even the companies these factories produce for have been able to ascertain exactly what the conditions are like inside, hidden behind the tall cement walls and iron bars. There have been times when the Ministry of Labor has been denied access to enter the premises. What are these factories trying to hide? Arguments concerning the experimental, and thus, unknown, nature of independant monitoring are overwhelmed by the highly secretive conditions of workers trapped on the other side of the iron bars. Full disclosure and independent monitoring seem to be the most potent way to bring these conditions out into the open. Workers rights will never be respected while greed and self-interest are responsible for protecting these rights. Measures that fall short of independant monitoring leave the wolf to guard the sheep.
The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
-Marc Antony, "Julius Caesar"
The simplicity with which they framed it belied yet revealed the magnitude of what they were sharing with us. On the second day of our trip we visited a small museum in the Jesuit University, a museum dedicated to the deaths of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. These people were brazenly and bloodily murdered on a November night in 1989. They were very outspoken for human rights and fought on behalf of the poor whose rights were being violated. They were opposed to the military's violence and impunity and were not afraid to document and denounce these violations. Therefore, the military and the government placed them on the side of the guerrillas. The bravery of their souls astounds me since it sounds probable that when they were dragged from their beds to be murdered that warm night they were not particularly surprised. The evil of these murders, to be sure, still scares us but this is a case where the good done by the Jesuit priests does not lie buried with them in their graves but lives on through the work of Father Brackley and the others who moved to the Jesuit University immediately following the murders. In addition, the murders were one of the key factors bringing the plight of El Salvador onto the international scene. Regardless of whether there had ever been a time for this war, in 1989 its end was certainly past due.
In a small classroom-like room, on a table in the back, there are large photo albums with snapshot after snapshot of the murdered people and the night on which they were slain. As I stood in the doorway waiting to get out, it did occur to me that there was a note of strangeness in men of the cloth keeping photo albums of blood and guts and displaying them to all. Indeed, it may seem rather macabre for anyone to have a photo album of dead bodies. Nevertheless, the Jesuit priests are certainly doing the right thing in keeping these remembrances. We need to know and remember what El Salvador's people have gone through and what has been done to them. And perhaps the vivid detail of the photos, the bright red of the blood and the green of the grass, will recall to us that these events were not so long ago, and that things are not so different now from then.
Furthermore, in a sense, the photos are just as beautiful as they are horrible. Of course the dead bodies (so real, so human) covered with blood, painfully remind me of the things one human can actually do to another. But the very blood and gore is also beautiful as a piercing image of what humans may be, and have been at times throughout history, willing to sacrifice to help others.
As we load into the soon-to-be cramped beige mini-van, I quietly listen to our guide, Sergio, explain how we should pay attention to everything we see during our drive through the Honduran countryside. Luckily, I get to sit by the window and have a "perfect" view of the outside world. Our drive begins and in a few minutes of driving I can no longer recognize the street names. Almost immediately Sergio extends his right arm and points with his index finger beyond the window, a maquila complex. By this time on the trip, I can spot these from a mile away. They all seem to be constructed in the same manner...several white domed rectangular buildings, which are completely fenced in with large brick walls/metal fences and barbed wire. There are armed security guards at a large metal gate, which is the only entrance and exit. I see the yellow school buses lining up, preparing to pick up the exhausted men, women, and children which will slowly pour through the heavily guarded gate. We momentarily stop to take some pictures and notes, and continue our journey. Every five to ten, sometimes fifteen minutes, one after another, we reach another maquila complex. Once again I see the same scenario, white domed rectangular building, armed guards, yellow school buses, and exhausted workers. After an hour of driving, Sergio tells the driver to slow down. While turning and facing us, Sergio says, "Look outside." I gaze outside my window and see the orange and red sun slowly
climbing down into the earth as the sky darkens with every moment. The sky is full of white and dark puffy clouds, which warn of the rain shower to occur. The wind's brisk movements gently sway the green trees and shrubs on the hills and mountain sides. Several white rectangular blotches stain the landscape's rich green color. I know what these white rectangular blotches are, Maquilas! Ten, twenty, thirty, fifty! How many maquilas have I seen on this drive, not even counting the ones before me? Disgusted and outraged, I imagine how many more I haven't seen. There must be hundreds, thousands! I turn to my right and look the opposite way, where I see a beautiful rainbow. All the colors are bright and visible, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The picture is so ironic. The natural beauty of this country is overwhelming to my eyes, yet inside each of these white blotches the people of this country are being subjected to the most horrendous conditions and experiences ever imaginable. Even more ironic is the fact that the beautiful rainbow seems to end on top of a maquila. Obviously, this is an optical illusion, but I have to ask, "Isn't there supposed to be a pot of gold under a rainbow?" It seems to me that there is a pot of gold, but the people under the rainbow are not receiving even a minuscule fraction of it. So who is?
"In the name of all workers, we need your support, we have no representation, we have no union."
Our first assignment in Honduras is to meet workers from the New Elim factory who are concerned that their jobs are being shipped off to Guatemala. The New Elim factory once housed Global Fashions, where thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls were found sewing Kathie Lee clothes seventy hours a week under dismal conditions.
Recently workers from New Elim came to the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CODEH) with heavy suspicions that the factory was moving out of the country. Managers had slowly moved equipment out of the building, reduced some workers' hours, and told others that they should quit or risk disciplinary action. CODEH's investigation confirmed that the factory was indeed planning to move; sewing machines and other equipment belonging to the factory had been found waiting to be shipped at port. Despite the overwhelming evidence, managers from New Elim still denied the move, and still refused to give workers severance pay as required by law. CODEH alerted a local customs attorney.
As the delegation arrives outside the New Elim gates, workers are on their thirty-minute lunch break eating at the company-owned cafeteria. A customs lawyer is on the scene, as are two guards from the Port Authority appointed after CODEH's investigation. The guards, who happen to be unionists, are on watch to ensure that no more equipment leaves the factory without an agreement on severance pay. As they are familiar with CODEH's work, they let us through the gates.
We enter the seating area of the cafeteria and talk to workers about the conditions at New Elim. Eager to vent their frustrations, workers crowd around us to tell their stories. One 17-year-old worker named Hugo told us of the dangerous walk home at night when workers are forced to work overtime. "We have no transportation home, and on pay day, it is incredibly dangerous. I was shot and robbed." Hugo pulls up his shirt and shows us the scar where the bullet entered in his stomach and exited his back.
By the time Hugo finishes his story, the energy in the room has escalated. Although the sitting area is shaded, the heat is intense and everyone sweats, especially the delegation. Curious, excited and frustrated, workers crowd around us; our mass has doubled in size in the last five minutes. The room buzzes as workers talk to each other, our delegation, and the customs lawyer.
Workers complain that managers routinely refuse any request for sick leave and deny government-mandated medical benefits (called Social Security in Honduras). Another government-sponsored program, a student bonus that is supposed to enable maquila workers to attend school at night, is also denied. In fact, a young woman reports that managers tell workers not to go to school. And child labor? "We have workers here as young as fifteen years old working six days a week with the rest of us," she says. The hours are grueling: Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.. The wage is 280 lempiras a week for this schedule, or approximately 21 U.S. dollars. Workers laugh when we ask them if it is enough to buy everything they need. Solemnly, a female worker asks for our help: "In the name of all workers, we need your support, we have no representation, we have no union."
As the half-hour lunch break comes to an end, Hugo suggests that we should come into the factory and see the conditions for ourselves. After some considerable negotiating by Esperanza from CODEH, the Korean factory managers agree to let us in to the office area, where we can see the shop floor from a wall of windows. The management is clearly unsettled by our presence and requests that we do not take pictures, although in the general confusion a student snaps three shots. In the sterile, drab office, the scene is quite peculiar: a few of us speak with the extremely tense managers, who look over our shoulders to monitor the rest of us as we crowd to the windows. Through the tinted glass, dozens of workers can be seen sewing at blistering speeds on the dirty and crowded factory floor, desperately fanning themselves at the same time, working on sewing machines that appear to be from the mid-nineteenth century. A student identifies the garments on the sewing machines as J. Crew jackets, probably costing upwards of 200 dollars. Overloaded with information and amazed with what we have seen, we leave New Elim.
Behind a large clear window in the owner's office, I stared and jotted notes, mesmerized by the scene before me. There were approximately 150 or more workers lined into rows. Seated on brown, backless wooden benches, each worker sat and leaned forward against his or her machine with large, bright lights directly overhead. Sweat glistened on their faces. There was only one visible exit, and only two opened, barred windows. A worker could barely stand with these huge bright lights overhead, and lifting or moving the filled, steel carts seemed impossible. Little beige cards with Korean writing hung over their work area directly in front of each worker's face. The sweat slowly poured down from their exhausted faces to their soggy clothes. Some workers stared at us. One woman in particular did not stop to stare at us, foreigners, taking notes. Her small frail figure was slouched over the beige 1950's sewing machine, showing the imprints of her spine through her bright pink shirt. To her left, there was a steel cart piled with folded blue pants and to her right scraps filled the half-empty steel cart. A huge pile of blue pants which threatened to fall over were to her left and a bunch of waistbands were to the right of her sewing machine. She reached over and picked up a pair of the blue pants, stretched the waist, and grabbed one of the waistbands, carefully placed the waistband on the loose waist and slid them under the old sewing machine. She quickly grabbed a pair of scissors nestled in the scraps on the small wooden table and cut the connecting thread. Then she folded the pants and placed them on top of the other folded blue pants in the steel cart. Repetitiously she continued this process. I estimate that she did about 8 to 10 pairs in one minute. I was amazed, disgusted. I stared as I saw her body contort in every motion. Pick pants up, Sew waistband, Cut threat, Fold, Wipe sweat off face, Pick up Pants, Sew Waistband, Cut thread, Fold, Wipe sweat off face. All this sweat and hard work for pennies, ONLY pennies. I never made eye contact with this woman, maybe she was scared of looking up and being scolded by the ever-present supervisor. If I had gazed into her exhausted eyes what story would they have told me?
After arriving in Honduras early Tuesday morning, interviewing workers at the Nuevo Elim Factory, and meeting with CODEH, the delegation found itself parked on a dirt road at dusk next to the Ecotex factory. We sat inside the van with nowhere to go. Charlie and Barbara had told us to sit and wait while Esperanza, a leader of CODEH, left the van and disappeared into a crowd of workers. We must have waited for at least fifteen to twenty minutes while workers near the van stared at us. It was hot, we were tired, and it was getting late. Finally, Esperanza reappeared with close to ten workers. We filed out of the van and stared at each other for a few minutes in silence. This was not the average interview: no chairs, no desks, no introductory presentations. However, by this time we had become skilled interviewers. We were ready. The interview commenced.
We first wanted to know about the workers' schedules. What time did they start? When did they get out? One woman answered that they had to start at 7:30 in the morning and stay until 6:30 in the evening with only a one-hour lunch break. Sometimes they had half an hour to eat. They had to work this eleven-hour shift during the week in addition to a four or eight hour shift on Saturdays.
We then inquired about their wages. For a 59-63 hour work week, they must earn good money, right? Wrong. Workers told us that the base pay was approximately $20 per week. However, most operators earned around $26 per week. That means that for a 59-hour work week, workers received approximately 44 cents an hour! Well, perhaps this was a good wage in Honduras. Perhaps our standard as Americans was too high. Maybe 44 cents an hour in Central America is the equivalent to $8.00 or $9.00 an hour in the United States. However, when we asked workers whether this wage was enough to survive they emphatically said no. After the cost of transportation each week and the cost for rent each month, workers were left with not enough to pay for many of the basic necessities of life. One man told us that he saw the price tag for a shirt he was sewing for the company Knitworks. The shirt cost $28.00-more than an entire week's salary! The Ecotex workers, and many others like them, cannot afford to buy their children new clothing let alone the clothing they produce.
Workers can receive incentive pay if they meet the daily production goal. However, if they miss the goal once they do not receive any bonus pay for the whole week. When workers do fulfil the production goal for a week, the factory often raises the goal until it is unattainable. This atmosphere of constant pressure is made worse by supervisors who constantly scream at, push, and even hit workers to force them to work faster. If a worker makes a mistake, the supervisor throws clothing in her face.
Our attention then turned to working conditions inside the factory. The workers told us that despite the intense heat, there was no air conditioning. To make matters worse, the factory did not give workers free access to drinking water. Rather they had to ask permission.
By this time, the seven or eight workers who originally surrounded us had multiplied to more than 20. It was getting darker out, and those who were uncertain about the safety of speaking with our delegation overcame their fears and joined us.
Some workers complained that the factory failed to provide masks to protect them from the lint that fills the factory air-a result of production. When we asked if the factory provided dust extractors to clear the lint from the air, the workers shook their heads no. The only piece of "protective" gear they were provided with was a thin sweater vest which did little to protect them from lint but did add to the already intense heat on the factory floor. As a result, workers complained that the lint gave them lung problems and skin rashes. Furthermore, when workers get sick at work they are often denied time to go to the clinic. At times, supervisors will give pregnant women permission to be absent from work only to take away that permission later and refuse to pay them their seventh day pay.
Workers then told us about the factory bathrooms. They said that the bathrooms were dirty, lacked toilet paper, and were cleaned only when executives came to visit the plant. We asked if workers were allowed to use the restroom whenever they needed. The workers shook their heads, no. One woman then pulled a plastic bathroom pass from her pocket which she had taken from the factory. She explained that each production line must share one pass. The bathroom is only open for a couple of hours in the morning and in the afternoon. Supervisors permit workers to use the restroom twice per day and write down at what times they go.
Finally, we asked the question that had been weighing on our minds. Is there a union? Workers told us that they had wanted to form a union, but just last week all of their union leaders were fired without severance pay. What about the Minister of Labor? Will he help? All of the workers shook their heads in disgust. They claimed that the Ministry of Labor has sold out to the companies. One man told of a friend who complained to the Ministry about the Ecotex Factory. Instead of helping the friend, the Ministry punished him. Workers told us that just a few days before our interview the union had gone on strike. For this action the company deducted 100 lempiras, or $7.41 per week for two weeks from the striker's paychecks. Despite this harsh punishment, workers told us that they were planning another action for the next day; they will fight as hard as is necessary to improve their conditions.
And that was it. After a little more than an hour the interview was over. The student delegation filed back into the van as the crowd of workers watched us drive off. We were then acutely aware of the struggle that would carry on after we left. The workers we talked with, like the vast majority of maquila workers, need these jobs. However, they also need to work with dignity and in factories that provide safe conditions. We are thousands of miles from Central America now but the struggle still surrounds us every time we purchase an article of clothing that is made under a veil of secrecy. Is this what these companies are trying to hide? Do they not want us to know about the millions of maquila workers who produce clothing in similar conditions to those in Ecotex? Do they not want us to know that workers are severely punished for trying to improve their conditions? This meeting with the workers from Ecotex demonstrate all too clearly exactly why we need full disclosure. There are thousands of other factories exactly like Ecotex but we cannot find their workers. We may not even know they exist. A mechanism must be put in place to reveal the disgusting conditions where the workers are forced to labor.
As early as five or six in the morning, we have all loaded into our old mini-van, ready for yet another meeting. This entire trip has consisted of meeting after meeting with workers, unions, and non profit organizations. Oh, the stories I have heard-well not really stories because they sadly are the harsh reality. Everytime I enter the mini-van, I wonder what the day has in store for my ears, eyes, and heart. Will it be the same nightmarish stories of forced labor, humiliation, and pain? Will I see the tired faces, puffy eyes, and scarred bodies? With those thoughts piercing my mind, I quietly looked out the window. Small houses and brown cardboard shacks paint the green landscape. Our destination for the moment is a Jesuit house which has been working closely with workers and their community. Coming to a halt, we step out into the hot summer air, and face the white wooden building. In a few moments Father Falla, the Jesuit priest who runs this house, steps out of the door with open arms and a large smile, welcoming us into his house. He tells us that today we will be meeting with an anthropology professor and his assistants. Leading us into a small room, we quietly sit in a circle and are introduced to the professor and his assistants. They have been living with workers and documenting their experiences. Quickly each assistant and the professor gives a presentation on their findings and conclusions. The Honduran government had said that maquilas have made the economy boom, but the professor and his assistants showed how in reality they were only a temporary and added source of income which did not benefit the communities in the long run. One of the reasons is that workers, the majority being young women, are encouraged to buy food, appliances, etc. on credit, since their daily wages do not cover their basic needs. This "loan" is given at extremely high interest, usually 20 percent per month, which further forces them into debt. Therefore the young female workers are unable to get out of the cycle of working in a maquila in order to repay the "loan", as well as buy food, clothes, etc. A second reason is that the women's bodies cannot withstand more than four years working in a maquila, and most of the young women do not have time or energy, or are not allowed, to attend night school. The assistant explained that most girls are under-aged, but they borrow papers claiming the minimum age. Women who are twenty-five and up borrow papers claiming that they are younger. So after these women work their maximum of four to six years, they are left heavily in debt to loan sharks, with no prior education in a different field of work, and extensive damage to their bodies due to the hazardous working environment. Another point the professor made is that the economy
has boomed, but has done so because the workers receive goods and monies from relatives working in the United States, not only because of the maquilas . For example, some workers may have television or appliances in their household, but they have them because they were sent as gifts from the United States, or sometimes they have been introduced to the "loan" cycle. These are only a few points of their presentation, but can they be any clearer? I don't know what's so hard to understand. The maquilas and their harsh working conditions DO NOT benefit the "economy," workers and their communities, but quickly erode their everyday existence and surrounding environment.
It can be easy to get caught up in the complexity of a situation, so much that action to resolve problems becomes a daunting and seemingly impossible task. Many people claim that for countries like the ones we visited in Central America, the maquila industry is a gift. These people claim that without the maquilas most developing nations would fall into economic isolation and, thus, desolation. The truth is, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua all need industries to employ their people. The poverty that follows any one driving through the cities or towns in these countries is more than overwhelming-it is pervasive. Maquilas appear to offer hope to the workers and a promise that has long been the centerpiece of America's own culture: those who work hard will be rewarded. However, most maquiladora workers have no delusions of a life in which the streets are paved with gold or that they will ever own a big house with a white picket fence and a dog. Right now, the biggest struggle is making ends meet and doing so with dignity and respect. Workers at the Chelsea factory in Honduras were blatantly denied any benefits of their hard work. After interviewing a number of them regarding the closing of their factory, the complete injustice of their situation and the situation of most maquiladora workers became apparent.
Imagine having to wake up every morning in the searing Honduran heat, only to have to go to work in a place with no air conditioning or ventilation to sew clothing you could never afford to buy. This grim reality was only the beginning for workers at the Chelsea factory. Once workers actually arrived at the factory, conditions were much worse than this. Their boss, Brandy Pollack, gave workers no masks or gloves to protect themselves from the harmful chemicals present in the glues used to attach accessories. The affects of these chemicals were intensified by the general lack of ventilation on the factory floor. As a result, workers often suffered from headaches, bronchial problems, and hand pain. To make matters worse, despite the fact that the Chelsea factory deducted money from workers' paychecks for social security benefits, in the last few months before the company closed workers did not receive these benefits and were unable to treat ailments they received as a result of their work.
The factory often forced workers to work overtime straight through the night. When workers finished they were then forced to leave the factory and walk home alone at night, causing many to fear for their lives. In the surrounding communities where workers live, crime is an everyday occurrence. As a result, many workers have been assaulted, robbed, and raped on their way home from work. And yet the factory took no responsibility and did not provide transportation for its workers. Their walk home was especially scary for the numerous minors working at the factory. Children as young as twelve and thirteen worked alongside adults to produce clothing for labels we wear everyday. These children were also forced to work through the night, unable to attend school. In the face of these wretched conditions, workers did attempt to form a union. However, the organizing members were then fired from the company. The union was broken.
Despite the fact that the Chelsea factory exported approximately 21,600 garments per week to the United States, producing for retailers like Cosco, Kohls, Macy's, Bloomingdales and Burlington, workers only received approximately $22.16 per week in wages. When workers were forced to produce through the night, they often earned up to $27.88 per week-not nearly enough to support their families. Child care alone costs a worker up to 200 lempiras a week, or $14.80. If we calculate based upon workers wages with forced overtime through the night, this only left families with a little under $15.00 to get through the rest of the week. For approximately $15.00 workers could buy gas to cook with, beans, rice, lard, cornmeal, wheat flour, one dozen eggs, coffee, and milk-no vegetables and no meat! Workers had to then figure out how to pay for rent and books for their children to go to school. In order to survive, workers often turned to loans at 20 percent interest!
We use the past tense to describe these events not because Chelsea has taken the initiative to remedy these conditions, but because the factory has closed down, most likely moving operations to another country. In 1997, the company ran into financial problems and stopped paying their workers. After weeks, Chelsea finally paid up but only gave them a part of their wages. Not long after, workers received letters saying that they were being suspended for 75 days. This action amounted to an indirect firing, forcing many workers to look for other jobs without receiving severance pay. By January of 1998, 75 percent of the Chelsea personnel was fired and the other 25% were not being paid. Throughout this entire process, Chelsea management insisted that everything was fine and the factory was not closing down. However, a few months later the factory did close down after the Pollacks claimed to leave for Christmas vacation in the U.S. The workers were left empty handed. These workers gave the company all of their energy, their time, and their hope. The factory, in turn, left them with nothing-no back-pay, no severance pay, and no answers. At our interview, workers were emphatic-they just want what is due to them. They want some form of justice.
The most striking part about our meeting with the Chelsea workers was that it exposed the grim reality not just of the maquila worker but of the highly avaricious nature of the industry. The maquila factories are not content with the current rate of exploitation. Rather, they are always looking, and will always look for countries which will accept even lower standards of living and a higher rate of exploitation. Factories like Chelsea commonly steal social security benefits and fire workers without giving them their severance pay. To these companies, it is not simply enough to rob workers of their hopes for a better life, they must also steal what few benefits their employees have.
Unfortunately, due to the secrecy of this industry, little is known about the Chelsea factory and others like it. All that is known is that Chelsea currently has an office located in Miami. The Chelsea factory has moved production somewhere else but no one knows where. The only thing we can be sure of is that wherever the factory did move, conditions for the workers are even worse then they were in Honduras. However, due to the highly mobile nature of this industry and the excessive poverty of most of the countries in which they operate, many maquila factories have been able to do what they want; steal from whomever they want (mainly their workers), and go wherever they please with no sense of responsibility to the workers they employ or the countries in which they produce. These unethical norms of the industry are not acceptable. The former Chelsea workers and the student delegation demand that the Chelsea factory come back to Honduras and pay the workers what they are owed: back wages, compensation for stolen social security benefits and severance pay. These workers have earned this.
Today we had the fortunate opportunity to meet with Doctor Juan Carlos Interiano. For the past five months he has been caring for the people in a village of maquila workers for no cost.
The doctor chronicled the sicknesses that appear in the maquila workers. He told us sicknesses like chronic allergies, bronchitis, asthma, and bronchi hyperactivity. They are caused by the inhalation of the fabric particles over long durations of time. The factories don't have the proper fans to remove the particles from the air. This constant settling of particles in the lungs is cancerous. The children of the workers are not in good health either. Complaints of muscle pain, low weight, anemia and slow intellectual development were common. The lack of proper nutrition is the cause of these childhood ailments.
Their parents can't afford to buy the basic basket of goods because their wages are so low. The companies are causing this suffering. Pay workers a living wage! Throughout the whole meeting I couldn't help but get angry at the fact that these families shouldn't have to suffer. The mothers work hard and should be paid enough so that their children are well feed. They need a decent salary that they can truly live on and not just survive. There is no need for a company to be so greedy and pay their workers so little.
We didn't have a long meeting with the workers at the Kingstar factory. Their accounts validated what we learned from other workers. They spoke of the denial of access to medical attention. It is almost impossible for me to hear that this is actually happening. How in the world can you justify not allowing workers to receive medical benefits that they paid for already because they are deducted from their wages? We listened to them talk about how they don't get their severance pay. This to me is an assault on the dignity of a person to not receive the pay that has been earned. The companies are no more than a thief. They are exploiting honorable, hard- working people.
This meeting stirred up my feelings and memories. I began to think of my family in Panama. Some of them may work in the maquilas or have friends that do. The people that we spoke with, ate with and laughed with are my brothers and sisters. I have great anger, sadness and determination to change a situation that doesn't have to be. I hate injustice and I will fight against it until the day I die.
-Milton George Austin III
Wednesday, August 12th, Honduran daily el Heraldo: "It's about Charles Kernagan (sic). COHEP [association of maquila owners] asks that maquila enemy be denied entry to the country-asks that he be declared non-grata for having caused great damage to Honduras by denigrating the maquila industry."
Same day, Honduran El Nuevo Dia: "He only brings us problems: 'Gringo' unionist is 'Persona non-grata'-Facusse [president of maquila association] characterized Charles Carrigan (sic) of the U.S. as arch-enemy of Honduras and said that he is only 'coming to impose his bad offices and denigrate the country internationally.'"
Arriving in San Pedro Sula on Tuesday, our delegation is a little amused by the two or three cameramen following us around. But when the above headlines appear in Wednesday's newspapers (and similar headlines appear in every other major paper) we are shocked. The newspapers accused the delegation of coming to call for a boycott of Honduran products, which we have explicitly said that we will not do, and of being agents of North American unions, which is of course false.
Over the next few days in Honduras, the celebrity status the media accords us turns from amusing to annoying. A government official singles out a delegation member for questioning, following her into the elevator at the hotel and continually questioning her over the next two days. The cameramen make us claustrophobic, but the delegation disarms at least one of them for a few minutes by having him pose for a picture.
With the headlines on Thursday looking much like those from Wednesday, the delegation decides to call a press conference jointly with CODEH. In the morning at the CODEH offices, the press attend in full force. Laura McSpedon gives an eloquent speech about our mission as university students. She emphasizes that we are not recommending a boycott of any kind but rather want to ensure that maquila factories remain in Honduras and respect the rights of workers. We expect that our position will be clarified as we left little room for misunderstanding in our interviews and testimony. To our surprise, on Friday, there are no more headlines. While a few papers carry fairly accurate articles, the precious few are confined to the very back pages behind the sports section. The articles are coupled with reactions from the maquila industry spokespeople.
The Honduran mainstream media's obvious pro-business bias, and the maquila association's attempt to have us thrown out of the country convinces of us of one thing: these factory owners are terrified of being exposed. They know that they exploit maquila workers. They have barbed-wire fences and armed guards around the factory, and should any information escape from there, they have their hands in the pockets of the local press. And, if somehow you can break through the veil of secrecy surrounding garment manufacturing to hear workers' testimony, they try to have you thrown out of the country.
It is not just the maquila owners themselves who operate behind closed doors, however. North American corporations, such as Russell, Disney, The GAP, or Wal-Mart, are not required to release to the public where they manufacture their products. Thus, our college clothing could be made anywhere in Honduras. Even behind barbed wire fences in a remote free-trade zone under armed guard. The only way human rights advocates now can learn which labels are being made in a particular maquila is to ask workers who often don't see the labels at all.
What do the producers have to hide? Clearly from our interviews with workers and meetings with human rights organizations, these maquilas, not as an exception, but over and over again in too many locations break local and international labor laws, violate the rights of women, and pay wages that keep their workers trapped in misery.
Friday, August 14, Tiempo: "Kernaghan assures: 'I do not desire to boycott Honduran maquila, but I will continue denouncing the abuses-they pay a Honduran 6 lempiras an hour while a U.S. workers earns 119 lempiras for the same work, although the garment produced be it in Honduras or in that country is sold for the same price.'"
Friday, August 14, Tiempo: " 'We have come to learn about the situation, we have talked with maquila workers, we have seen that these people are being abused and the only thing we seek is that they be treated with dignity and respect and be paid a just wage that permits them to live decently with their families and children,' concluded McSpedon."
Shortly after we arrived at the hotel in San Pedro Sula, while I was sitting alone for a moment by the front desk, a man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties began a "casual conversation" with me. Of course, he was the one asking all the questions; I was too busy trying to answer politely without saying anything important to even think to ask him his name or anything else. So he asked: "Who are you with? What are you doing here?, Oh, so you don't have much free time?" This first encounter began a pattern that would continue the next few times I ran into him-he would speak to me in perfect American English (I don't think I noticed even the slightest accent), and I would respond in Spanish. He also seemed to have the general practice of leaving off talking to me as soon as anyone else from "my group" joined us. Charlie and Barbara suggested that he may be a plain clothes government security guard. Hmm ... Truthfully, the man wasn't that good at not raising my suspicions. Instead of following me around they should be investigating the Honduran maquila association which called for the expulsion of Charles Kernaghan. I ran into the man later in the elevator, and later I saw him checking out at the front desk (at which time I noticed that attached to his belt was a beeper and what looked like a cell phone or a walkie-talkie.) He disappeared right as we were getting ready to leave for our press conference.
Today I met this girl, younger than me, but really she was older. I know her life story in a few sentences, but I don't even know her name.
Along with Esperanza, a woman named Maritza has been accompanying us around Honduras. Maritza is with CODEMUH, el Colectivo de Mujeres HondureÃƒÂ±as, or the Honduran Women's Collective. While the rest of the group went to film the TV show, Mieke, Cori, Laura and I got to go have a short meeting at CODEMUH's office. At the meeting we were introduced to an 18-year-old who had been working in the maquilas since she was 14 at a factory called Sunny (nice little touch of irony there), which makes shirts for JC Penny's Arizona label. Maritza told us that she was very shy, so when it was time to talk about her experiences, someone else spoke for her. She had come to them a few weeks ago with her stomach swollen out like a watermelon, and even with swelling along her arms, and they had taken her to a doctor. Now CODEMUH is working to try to force Sunny to admit that her illness was work-related. As if it could be anything else!
The girl's face was amazing. My immediate reaction was that she looked younger than 18. She's a small person and to me she seemed very fragile and childlike. I immediately wanted to take care of her. Later on though, someone, Laura I think, said that she seemed so much older than 18, and that's true also. When I was younger, I read this book about a young girl during the Holocaust called "The Stolen Years." And this girl also has had part of her youth stolen from her. She's spent four years as an adult working all day-and probably lots of evenings too-in sweltering heat, bent over a sewing machine. So of course she seems older than 18, older than me at 21. Of course she's tired and worn out like we normally expect only old people to be. That's what happens from four years of manual labor in an environment where nobody, including fragile young women like her, should have to work.
For us students in the U.S., when you go to college and have to listen to all those speeches, they all talk about how you're young, your life is just beginning, you have your whole future in front of you, and all that jazz. But here in Honduras this young girl is burned out at 18. And you know, this really could have been me.
Our discussions with workers in El Salvador and Honduras had helped us gain some understanding of exactly what a maquila job did and did not provide a worker with, in terms of salary, benefits, and so on. But in order to get an even more concrete grasp of what a typical worker could afford to buy for her family, we asked four women workers from the "Queen of Honduras" factory if we could accompany them as they shopped for one week's groceries.
The workers, mostly single mothers, had all told us when we met with them that morning in the CODEH office that, with great sacrifice, they could spend 300 lempiras per week ($22.22) on groceries for their families. (The base wage in Honduras is 46.80 lempiras a day-$3.47 at the exchange rate of L13.5 = $1.00). So if they worked the entire week and were paid the "Seventh Day" bonus, they made 327.60 lempiras-$24.27 a week. After spending $22.70 on food for their 4 or 5 person families, they were left with only $2.05 to pay rent, transportation to work, school fees, clothing, and everything else. In other words, they were living in extreme poverty.
So we split up into two teams, two workers and several delegation members each, gave each pair of women 300 lempiras and asked them to buy exactly what they would normally purchase each week. The attached table lists the purchases made by two of the women, each of whom had two children.
As you can see, there is little here to tempt a palate nor, more importantly, to infuse into a body the nutrients needed for a healthy life.
During a normal day, most of us consume some fruit and some vegetables, helping us stay healthy. Our children drink juice and milk. In the mornings we vary our breakfasts between pancakes, muffins, eggs, and an endless array of cereals.
In contrast, the people we were visiting can consume little or nothing of such categories.
We were surprised by the degree of consensus about family purchasing decisions: 5 or 6 pounds a week of rice, 5 pounds of beans, 5 pounds of sugar and cornmeal, a kilo of lard, a dozen eggs.
In other words, the great bulk of what these families eat is cheap calories in the form of carbohydrates and fats; some protein in the beans and the 12 eggs is all they can afford each week. But what is shocking is what the workers sadly said they could not buy: almost never meat, milk, almost no vegetables or fruits.
Shopping in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, 8/14/98
Basic Necessities for a family of 5 for one week:
|Item||Amount Needed||Price Per Unit
|Total Per Item
|Beans||6 lbs.||7 lmp./ lb.||42 lmp./ $3.11|
|Rice||5 lbs.||4.5 lmp./ lb.||22.50 lmp./ $1.67|
|Sugar||5 lbs.||3.4 lmp./ lb.||17 lmp./ $1.26|
|Lard||1 kilogram||14 lmp./ kg.||14 lmp./ $1.04|
|Cornmeal||Two 5 lb. bags||16 lmp./ 5 lb. bag||32 lmp./ $2.37|
|Wheat flour||One 5 lb. Bag||16 lmp./ 5 lb. bag||16 lmp./ $1.19|
|Boullion cubes||6 cubes||40 centavos/ cube||2.40 lmp./ $.18|
|Soap for clothing||2 bars||7.5 lmp./ bar||15 lmp./ $1.11|
|Clorox for clothing||2 packets||2.5 lmp./ packet||5 lmp./ $.37|
|Salt||1 lb.||1.5 lmp./ lb.||1.5 lmp./ $.11|
|Soap for dishes||1 bar||2.2 lmp./ bar||2.2 lmp./ $.16|
|Coffee||6 bags||1.3 lmp./ bag||7.8 lmp./ $.58|
|Eggs||1 dozen||15 lmp./ dozen||15 lmp./ $1.11|
|Bathroom soap||1 bar||2.2 lmp./ bar||2.2 lmp./ $.16|
|Bathing soap||1 bar||7.5 lmp./ bar||7.5 lmp./ $.56|
|Toilet paper||2 rolls||2 lmp./ roll||4 lmp./ $.30|
|Spaghetti||2 lbs.||14 lmp./ lb.||28 lmp./ $2.07|
|Tomato Sauce||2 bags of 1 lb. Each||5.5 lmp./ lb.||11 lmp./ $.81|
|Pear tomatoes||2 lbs.||5 lmp./ lb.||10 lmp./ $.74|
|Potatoes||2 lbs.||5 lmp./ lb.||10 lmp./ $.74|
|Green Peppers||2 peppers||4 lmp./ pepper||8 lmp./ $.59|
|Onions||1 bunch||8 lmp./ bunch||8 lmp./ $.59|
|Carrots||1 bunch (4 carrots)||6 lmp./ bunch||6 lmp./ $.44|
|Cilantro||1 bunch||3 lmp/ bunch||3 lmp./ $.22|
|Garlic||1 head||1.5 lmp/ head||1.5 lmp/ $.11|
|Putaste (a vegetable)||1 putaste||5.5 lmp./ each||5.5 lmp/ $.41|
|Gas (for stove)||2-3 bottles||20 lmp./ 5 bottles||10 lmp./ $.74|
307 lmp./ $ 22.74
It's August 13, 1998. Somehow I wish the date was much earlier, perhaps a month after I was born: July 19, 1979. As a one-month-old my conscience is clean and there is still time for me to be a freedom fighter. The revolution in Nicaragua is brand new, and there is no such thing as a "Contra." Hope is brand new. Two hundred and twenty-nine months after I was born: August 13, 1998.
Somehow I wish the date was anytime but now, and that we were anywhere but here. But here we are in Nicaragua, a tiny nation that my country, the United States, destroyed. In Nicaragua, listening to a history of the last 50 years of his country from a sincere and fantastic and fascinating and outspoken human rights advocate. One of the many we have met on this trip.
Pedro Ortega is the head of the apparel workers federation of the Sandanista labor central, and a survivor of the last twenty years. He explains to us the history of his country's revolution, and the U.S. intervention to crush it. Sitting in these lawn chairs in one of Nicaragua's few hotels, I watch intently as Pedro, slouching in his cast-iron lawn chair, cranes back his head, interlocks his fingers, and with a slight smile explains to us his country's history. "From its independence from Spain in 1821, to the time when the Somosa dictatorship was installed in 1948, Nicaragua received thirteen military interventions from the United States. The worst was yet to come. The U.S. funded and trained the Contra army that invaded Nicaragua for ten years. International Court ruled twice against the United States including a 16 billion dollar settlement for our country, which was never paid."
Never paid. Our debts are never paid, and I don't feel well. Since the drive through downtown Managua seeing tiny kids in threadbare rags begging at a revolutionary monument, with their parents watching from burned-out office buildings that they reside in above, I'm more than a little uncomfortable. I'm sick. I am so sick, I can feel it in my stomach and it reaches out and makes my knees and elbows burn and lose feeling, until I look up. At the interlocked fingers, craned back head, and tilted smile.
Pedro is telling the story of the Chentex factory workers' strike in the free trade zone, the first of it's kind. The Chentex workers completely shut down the factory and in a matter of two hours won reinstatement for all the 300 fired union members. Workers forced management to legally recognize their right to collective bargaining, a ground breaking event in post-revolution Nicaragua. The day before we arrived they reached their first collective bargaining agreement with Chentex management. Pedro is looking forward. He has his head up, going forward with the nascent Chentex union. The revolution is eight years gone, but the maquila workers' struggle for justice in Nicaragua is every morning, every lunch break, every overtime hour, and every night. In the heart of these workers, and in union organizers like Pedro, the revolution never stops.
Nothing in my life to date prepared me for what I have seen today in Managua. I have been so shaken today that behaving as I usually do seems inappropriate, but I don't know how to fix that. I'm not sure of exactly what it was that has left me feeling this way, but it definitely wasn't one particular experience or image from the day. It is an overall impression that I got as we drove through the city today. "Downtown" Managua was simply the most devastated place I have ever seen. The only word I can find to describe it is naked; everything, from the skeletons of once-impressive buildings, to the extreme poverty of the children and their parents who followed us into the street asking for money, is exposed.
Scattered around the city were monuments erected by the Sandanistas, the socialist front that ruled Nicaragua during the 1980s. One was an enormous statue of a man holding a sickle in one hand and raising a machine gun to the sky with the other. The inscription on the base of the statue read, "Only the workers and the campesinos will go to the end." Given that this is a sight we would never see in the U.S. we were fascinated and a bunch of us ran over to take a picture with the statue. Two small kids who had been following us joined us in the picture also. As we walked away to get back into our van and drive back to our comfortable hotel, the two kids began to ask us for any money we could spare. We gave them a granola bar and congratulated ourselves on our generosity and went on our way.
For a second, it became unmistakably clear to me how remarkably privileged I am. Not only because I don't have to beg for food or money, but also because I don't have to understand what those kids have gone through, nor what caused it. Someone in our group commented on the fact that taking our picture with the statue condoned the violence that the War represents. I'm now realizing that he was right in a way. Even if it didn't condone that violence, it simply betrayed how privileged we are that we could disregard or forget about the costs of that violence. Because I do not live in a place that has been ravaged by war or natural disaster, because I, nor anyone I know, has ever had their lives torn apart by violence, I could casually step out of a van and take my picture with a statue of a campesino with a machine gun. The kids who posed in the picture with us and their parents, who are probably among the sixty percent of Nicaragua's population that is unemployed, are all too familiar with the effects of violence. I realized that as a middle-class, white, highly-educated, US citizen, I will never fully understand the costs of violence. I will never know what those kids already know.
We sit around a lot and talk about what needs to change in other countries, and how we can help that change come about, but it became clear to me today that we are really in no position to do this. We will never understand the pain and torment that the people of Nicaragua, and other peoples around the world have known, and we can't decide what is best for this or any other country. That is not to say that we can't do anything constructive, it is simply to say that it would be dangerous and damaging in the work that we do to ever forget how far removed we are from these situations. The work that we try to do to improve conditions for the women and men who work in the maquilas and make the clothes we buy can only be done in cooperation and consultation with the workers themselves and the local groups who understand the local situation. Ignoring is exactly what the Collegiate Licensing Company is trying to do ... make Codes of Conduct without ever speaking with the workers themselves. I don't mean to say that anyone has suggested otherwise, but it became clear to me how important it is that we don't forget that. We have no idea what it is like to work in a place where you are humiliated and mistreated each day, but you are actually among the fortunate who have a job in your country. We are so far removed from this reality, and we should never forget that fact in our quest to make it a more humane reality.
As we drive up to the dump area we could see the surrounding villages. All the houses were cardboard or thin plywood. Some of them had thatched roofing.
Entering the dump all we could see was a thick cloud of smoke. There was burning garbage everywhere. It had been explained that since the "Hard Copy" story had aired, the companies were more cautious as to what they dumped and where. The companies now burned all of their trash to make sure that no incriminating evidence was left behind. We were supposed to be viewing the cleaned up version of the dump. Seeing the dump as it was now I couldn't imagine what it looked like before.
As we pulled up through the smoke seven figures emerged from the clouds. There were five children, what appeared to be their parents and a family dog. They looked at us strangely as we did them. I'm sure they were wondering the same thing that we were; what are they doing here?
We jumped out of the vans and began to explore the dump. The site was unbelievable. The thick clouds of smoke, the swarms of flies, garbage everywhere, and in the middle of it all there's this family and a group of college students. At times the smoke was so thick that you could barely see what was in front of you.
The smell was so overwhelming that I had to walk around with one hand over my nose and mouth. Partially it was to keep from getting sick from the smell, and partially to keep the flies away from my face.
I couldn't help but wonder what this family was doing spending such a beautiful day in such a horrible place. I noticed Tico and Laura walk up and start talking to the children. They asked them what they were doing there. The children replied that they were looking for things for their family like household goods, scraps of clothing, and food. My heart later sank when I heard this. I couldn't imagine having to find my clothes or my food from a garbage dump.
I continued to wander around aimlessly through the piles of garbage. I kept hearing people in all directions yelling "here's another label" and "I found another price tag", but I couldn't see any of them. Some of the labels and price tags that we found in the dump included Arizona from JC Penny, Faded Glory from Wal-Mart and B.U.M. Equipment. Looking down at the ground I saw piles of blue dye everywhere from the making of blue jeans. It was as if I was in another world that was totally new and strange to me.
As I reached the other end of the dump I stopped to get a full view of my surroundings. The horizon was beautiful. The sun was setting and the sky was lit up in shades of red and orange. The surrounding area around the dump was flat grassy land. There was a trench to one side of the dump that had water in it. You could see where the garbage was overflowing into the water. The whole area was hazy with smoke, infested with the worst stench and millions of flies. In the distance I could see the children and other students walking around. The children had begun to help us on our search.
Looking at the surrounding area I started to think about the people who lived in the villages on the outskirts of the dump. I began to picture their everyday life of going to the maquilas early in the morning where their rights were violated, only to return home at the end of the day to face the site that I was now observing. The thick clouds of smoke rolling across the grassy fields, the garbage overflowing into the water trench, and the blue dye seeping into the ground. No wonder these people have polluted water and are so sick. Not only are their human rights violated at the maquilas, but also in their own backyards. There is no place for them to escape.
Nicaragua, the Caribbean basin's second poorest nation after Haiti, is our last stop. We travel outside of Managua, the capital, to a neighboring city called Tipitapa, where many garment workers live. An evening meeting is arranged in Tipitapa with workers from the nearby Chentex garment factory.
The Chentex maquila was the subject of a November 1997 investigation by Hard Copy and the National Labor Committee that exposed child labor, physical and sexual abuse, forced overtime, and below-subsistence wages. The Chentex workers were sewing jeans for JC Penny's Arizona, Wal-Mart's Faded Glory, and Bugle Boy. When the Hard Copy story broke, many Americans were shocked, but the aftermath in Nicaragua was chaotic. Immediately after the report aired, Chentex managers fired several workers who were interviewed on the show. The issue dominated local press, with maquila owners denouncing Pedro Ortega, a local union leader who helped the investigation, as a "traitor" and "FSLN [progressive political party] combatant." The Taiwanese managers of the Chentex factory ordered a demonstration against Hard Copy and the National Labor Committee at the Ministry of Labor's office. Managers gave the workers a 100 cordoba bonus to attend the demonstration. Buses picked them up from the factory.
Luckily, local unionists and workers who had secretly been organizing their factories were ready for the uproar, and would use the national attention on the maquilas to their advantage. Pedro Ortega and the group of fired workers showed up at the demonstration against Hard Copy, and took a megaphone that was being passed around. When Maria, a worker fired for complaining about work conditions, yelled through the megaphone to the entire demonstration "Are we exploited in the free trade zone?," the maquila workers called back "Yes, we are exploited!" She continued: "Is there sexual harassment in the free trade zone?" The answer: "Yes there is sexual harassment!" When a bewildered official who was addressing the crowd asked her why she did not come to the Ministry of Labor, she replied that she did, and for that she was fired. The demonstration completely backfired, and the media was there to cover it all. Later workers gave testimony to Nicaragua's General Assembly, and gave interviews to TV, radio, and newspaper sources.
While all this was going on, workers and union leaders were busy gathering signatures and strengthening already considerable support for a union. On January 24th, workers submitted a list of signatures to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Labor to request legal recognition for their union. The next day, a Saturday, 90 workers whose names had appeared on that list were fired. Immediately, workers went on strike-1,200 out of 1,500 walked off the job by 10:00 that morning. Management caved in and the fired workers were reinstated and the union gained legal recognition. After more conflict in the months to come, the union and Chentex factory management signed their first collective contract in July, one of the first collective contracts in any of the Nicaraguan Free Trade Zones.
It is after this year-long labor struggle that we speak with Chentex workers. They are ebullient about the union. "Before," a young worker says, "they would take our time cards and threaten to fire us if we did not work overtime. Now, we only work overtime if we want to." Saturday work is no longer required. The work week almost looks normal: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., with a 45 minute lunch break. For the first time, a sick worker is allowed to go to the doctor, and there is compensation for the family of a worker if that worker should die. The factory pays for half of workers' eye care and glasses. Managers respect workers now, a young woman tells us, but before they did not.
Unfortunately, no wage increase was included in the contract, but the workers believe that as more maquilas organize, and they strengthen their own union, that they will be able to win wage increases in the future. Chentex currently produces for Arizona, Bugle Boy, Britannia, No Excuses, and Gloria Vanderbilt.
We "recognize that wages are essential to meeting a worker's basic needs." How virtuous we all are. Students, administrators, human rights groups, and even manufacturers (at least in writing) all agree with this statement as a principle. However, some of the aforementioned entities are only willing to agree to the principle so long as they know it will never be enforced. This sentence is the initial compromise that was reached on the Apparel Industry Partnership and has been plagiarized by all universities that are currently considering codes of conduct. They aren't even willing to "recognize" the importance of wages.
As altruistic as this "basic needs" principle may sound, it suddenly becomes disturbingly vague after visiting with the workers to whom the sentence refers. Just outside of Managua, where Nicaraguan lush landscapes and barren communities intersect, our delegation was invited by several workers to tour their homes. The experience would leave me with invaluable insight about the lives of the people for whom we have been advocating on our campuses, and renewed resentment towards the sentence that sounds so noble yet does so little.
I felt the dirt floors under my shoes and noticed the crudely constructed roofs above my head. I saw the beds and sleeping places of every family member cramped into one small room, and I imagined what it would be like to live without a moment of privacy. I watched a woman extract her family's drinking water from a dark and dirty well, and I imagined the contaminated stream from which that water must have come.
But nothing was as emotionally draining as meeting the children of these garment workers. How painfully ironic that the women who make the clothes that we purchase in the United States cannot even afford to buy clothing for their own children. So our churches and philanthropic organizations collect our hand-me-downs and bring them back to Central America. Did the young boy wearing the old T-shirt of some high school in the United States realize what the words on his chest represent? Will he ever own a new T-shirt or will that always require spending a substantial portion of his mother's earnings?
For those children with whom I had conversations, I continuously under-guessed on their ages. The child who I had estimated to be six would tell me that she was actually nine. The child who I had guessed to be eight would tell me that he was actually eleven. The inaccuracy in my estimations is not because of my error, but rather because of the gross malnutrition that all of these children must suffer. But I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that families can't adequately feed their children after witnessing the deteriorating houses in which they live.
And even though legal minimum wages are obviously insufficient to meet "basic needs," we are content solely recognizing the importance of wages. We choose not to enforce this principle. How virtuous we all are.
Forced overtime, dismal wages, the denial of access to medical care, poor ventilation, exposure to dangerous fumes, verbal abuse, public humiliation, and the repression of the right to organize are all standard working conditions for the women and men laboring in the maquilas of Central America. They make the clothes we buy here in the U.S., and yet the vast majority of U.S. consumers are unaware of how our clothing is produced. A movement has begun in this country to educate the public and eliminate ignorance about the prevalent abuse and exploitation in the global garment industry, and students are a big part of that movement. Our experience on this trip and our first-hand witness to the crimes committed against thousands of workers each day will contribute to our ongoing efforts to eliminate sweatshops. We are pressuring our universities to adopt Codes of Conduct that call for a living wage and full, public disclosure; informing other students and consumers about the reality of sweatshops; and are calling on North American corporations in general to be accountable for their actions by disclosing their factory names and locations to the public.
There is a growing movement among students to pressure their universities to take responsibility for the way that clothing with their logo is produced by adopting Codes of Conduct. These Codes are designed to set the standards to which manufacturers who make university-licensed apparel must adhere. So far, Codes have been adopted by Duke University, Brown University, Notre Dame University and State University of New York at Albany and are being considered by many more schools. Our experience in Central America has led us to some unmistakable conclusions about what is needed for these Codes of Conduct to be truly meaningful and effective. The following conclusions from our trip are some of the ways in which we hope to continue to strengthen the collegiate Codes of Conduct.
First and foremost, the Codes must absolutely guarantee the right of workers to organize a union. This is a fundamental human right as recognized by the United Nations' charter on human rights, and it is basic to making serious change in developing nations. We met many women and men who work in many different factories throughout El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, and nearly all told stories of being fired for trying to organize a union, or for simply being sympathetic to the idea of a union. Fear was cited over and over again as the reason that more unions did not exist in Central America. These conditions are unacceptable. The fact is that Codes of Conduct and periodic visits from sympathetic North Americans, such as our delegation, cannot by themselves bring about the permanent and radical change that is needed in this industry. It has become clear that Codes of Conduct must open a legal space for workers so they can empower themselves through collective bargaining.
Second, the need for our Codes to support the concept of paying workers a living wage became startlingly clear. In nearly every meeting we had with workers, the suggestions of having a bank account or owning a car were laughed at. These were not realistic goals. On a more fundamental and serious level, the question of whether or not workers earned enough to buy milk and vitamins for their children was too often answered with a regretful shaking of their heads. This is so outrageous and difficult to believe, but when they broke down their income for us, we understood how it was possible. The costs of rent, schooling, child care, basic food like rice and beans, and transportation to and from work were barely met by their paychecks. Like the milk and vitamins, medicine for workers and their children is often an extravagance that workers just can't afford. The workers we spoke to are earning wages equal to or exceeding the minimum wages in their countries, and this is clearly not enough. It is not enough to subsist, let alone enough to contribute to the development of these nations. Our universities have an obligation to defend the rights of women and men around the globe to earn a decent salary, and should support this concept in our Codes of Conduct.
It also became obvious to us that the garment industry is intentionally set up to conceal the abuses and the exploitation that are behind the labels. Factories are surrounded by enormous walls with barbed-wire fences. At the entrance to the factory stands a guard armed with a rifle. It is nearly impossible to know what goes on behind those walls because workers are regularly intimidated and instructed not to talk to outsiders about conditions in their factory. The egregious violations that take place each day behind those walls can only occur because they are hidden. We must bring these factories into the light of day, so that all can see what is going on and hold the factory owners and the multinational corporations responsible for what goes on in those factories. This process begins with the disclosure by U.S. corporations of all of the names and addresses of the factories that produce their apparel to the public. This would make it possible for human, workers, and women's rights groups around the globe to investigate a company's factory, and then go to that company to address the violations found.
Finally, students can assert our influence on multinational corporations by educating other students and consumers about the conditions under which the goods we buy are produced. The conditions we witnessed are immoral and unjust, especially when we consider the enormous profits that U.S. corporations make at the expense of exploited workers in the developing world. We saw winter jackets being produced in one factory for J. Crew; workers told us of producing labels ranging from the expensive Liz Claiborne and Ralph Lauren, to the GAP, to Jacqueline Smith's K-Mart line. We also met workers who made sweatpants for Russell and sweatshirts for GEAR for Sports, two popular sporting apparel manufacturers. It is intolerable that these companies are either ignorant about, or uncaring about the conditions under which their goods are produced. The fact is that U.S. consumers do not want to buy goods made under abusive conditions, and we can use our influence on corporations to force them to be more respectful of those who labor in their factories.
After witnessing the widespread exploitation of women and men working in factories that produce clothes for the U.S. market, our delegation has returned with insights into what will be needed to end these abuses. We will pressure our universities to adopt Codes of Conduct which recognize a worker's right to earn a living wage and his or her right to organize a union. We will educate other students about what goes on in the factories that make the clothes that we wear, and ask them to use their influence as consumers on the companies that control those factories. Finally, we will call on North American corporations to take responsibility for their actions around the globe. Using our moral voice as students, we can and will change this overwhelmingly abusive industry.
So, what can we do about sweatshops? This is the logical question that many of us ask ourselves as we become aware of the horrors that go on each day in the production of the clothes that we wear. Students around the country began to answer this question about a year ago. A few visionary people came up with the idea of the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign, which began on a few campuses last fall. The idea behind this campaign is simple: our universities' logos are featured on clothing. Our universities often earn a significant amount of money by licensing the name and logo of the university and by selling these clothes in our college bookstores. Thus, our universities are morally responsible for ensuring that clothes with our logo are not made under abusive and exploitative conditions. The way to do this is to adopt a strong and meaningful Code of Conduct which sets the standards for the conditions in the factories that produce goods with our logos.
Student activism around sweatshops has been incredibly successful. At over twenty campuses, students have been educating and informing other students about the issue of sweatshops, and calling on their universities to adopt Codes of Conduct. Through petitioning, leafleting, sweatshop fashion shows, and other creative forms of activism, students have been able to put a great deal of pressure on both their universities and the companies that produce college apparel. This activism culminated in April 1998 with the visit to eight campuses by two workers from the Dominican Republic who worked in a factory that produced baseball caps for many U.S. universities under the Champion and Starter labels. They spoke of incredibly low wages, discrimination against women and against students, and the repression of the right to organize in their factory.
In March, Duke University became the first school to adopt a Code of Conduct, with such significant breakthroughs as the disclosure of factory locations and independent monitoring of those factories. However, Duke's Code of Conduct does not permit disclosure of the factory names and addresses to the general public or the student body. Instead it only discloses this information to selected university officials. In addition, who will monitor the factories where Duke produces its garments is still up for debate. Duke could choose independent monitoring groups from local human rights, religious and women's groups. Local monitoring groups interview workers in safe locations away from the factory grounds. They conduct announced and unannounced visits to the factory location. They do not take the place of unions but instead work to open a space for the workers to be able to empower themselves. Or, Duke could choose corporations like Ernst and Young and Price Waterhouse who claim to monitor factories. The workers do not trust the monitors who come from the multinationals and are not interviewed in a safe environment away from the factory. Instead, the workers who will speak with the so-called monitors are selected by the management before the visit. In addition, the management knows when they are coming and the factory is cleaned up before the corporations come to visit.
In April, Brown University followed suit and adopted a similar code. These codes were ground breaking in the standards they established, as well as in the fact that they were simply unprecedented. Universities were recognizing their responsibility to the women and men who produce their apparel. However, these codes need to be taken a step further. The language needs to be strengthened surrounding several issues such as the need for a living wage.
Soon after the adoption of these two codes, the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), the go-between for 160 universities and manufacturers, formed a task force consisting of fourteen of their member institutions, to try to write a Code of Conduct. The fact that this task force was assembled is a credit to the students who were able to create the public outrage necessary for universities to take action on this issue. However, while this group has the potential to make serious change in the sports apparel industry, for the last few months, they have been meeting to discuss a Code of Conduct in the absence of students. This is a disturbing development especially because manufacturers have had access to the process and have been able to comment on draft Codes of Conduct. In addition, important standards, like a living wage and full disclosure of factory locations to the public, must be included for any code to be considered meaningful and effective. At this point, it appears as if the CLC code will not include such standards.
This year, the movement has doubled and students at over forty different schools, both CLC and non-CLC, are going to continue to raise awareness about the issue of sweatshops, and continue to pressure our administrators to do what's right. The student movement against sweatshops is growing exponentially each day and we hope to consolidate and coordinate our outrage so as to best influence our universities and the companies responsible for this abuse. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), formed in July, 1998, is a coalition of student groups at work on this issue.
Monday, August, 10, 1998-El Salvador
Visit San Marcos Free Trade Zone and watch
Meeting with Independent Monitoring Group (GMIES)
Meeting with university students from the Universidad de Centro America (UCA)
Tour Jesuit museum and the garden at the UCA
Meeting with workers at MAM (women's group)
Tuesday, August, 11, 1998-Honduras
Arrive in Honduras
Orientation meeting with CODEH
Meeting with workers at the New Elim plant
Driving tour of the countryside and maquilas
Meeting with workers outside of the Ecotex factory
Wednesday, August 12, 1998-Honduras
Visit free trade zones to see workers entering factory
Meeting with Chelsea workers
Meeting with Father Ricardo Falla at the Jesuit house
Interview on the Jesuit radio station which reaches workers throughout the country
Meeting with SITRAKIMI workers
Thursday, August 13, 1998-Honduras
Preparation for the press conference
Press conference at CODEH offices
Meeting with Dr. Custodio
Meeting with independent monitoring team
Meeting with workers at CODEMUH
Meeting with King Star workers and Dr. Juan Carlos Interiano
Interviews on national TV station: "The Eye of the Storm"
Party with CODEH
Friday, August 14, 1998-Honduras
Meeting with university students
Meeting with Queen of Honduras workers
Shopping trip with workers
Arrive in Nicaragua
Saturday, August 15, 1998-Nicaragua
Orientation and history meeting with Pedro Ortega
Tour of downtown Managua
Driving tour of Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone
Visit to the garbage dump
Meeting with Chentex workers
Visit Chentex workers' homes
For more information about the delegation contact:
Milton George Austin III
State University of New York (SUNY)-Stony Brook
University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)
Georgia State University
For more information about how to be involved in this exciting student movement contact United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS):