September, 08 2006 |  Share

Making School Uniforms for Elder Manufacturing Company in El Salvador

"We Were Frightened, But Now We've Risen"

The Case of Quality S.A. in El Salvador
Sewing School Uniforms for Elderwear


Workers outside the Quality S.A. factory are demanding their severance pay. They say they won't move until they get what is legally owed them.

Just as students everywhere are hitting the stores and emptying their pockets to prepare for the new school year, workers in El Salvador who make their school uniforms are being forced out of their jobs and cheated of their severance pay. One of the plants at Quality S.A., which makes uniforms for Tom Sawyer (an Elderwear brand), burned down in May of 2006. The workers were moved to a temporary location, which they report was "filthy," while awaiting reconstruction of the original plant. The plant, however, was not rebuilt. Instead, the factory was moved fifty miles away and transferred to another company named "Tom Sawyer." The workers were then told that they could either choose to travel an extra 50 miles per day, adding hours to their already onerous daily schedule or they could simply quit, without any severance pay. Over 200 workers camped out outside the factory demanding their legal rights. When these workers went to the factory's new location, they were prevented from even setting foot inside. Juan Carlos Romero, who was Chief of Personnel at Quality and is now working at Tom Sawyer, told them all: "You're fired."

As of today, September 8, 2006, the workers are still in negotiations with the management. The factory has currently only offered the workers half of the severance pay legally owed them.

Address:                       Esquina Calle al Matazano y Calle a la Pedrera
                                   Santa Lucia, Soyapango, El Salvador
Phone:                         (503) 2294-4402
Fax:                             (503) 2294-0479
General Manager:          Jubal Hacket

  • Workers forced to choose between adding an extra three hours to their commute or leaving without severance pay. This means that some workers who have devoted over a decade of their lives to Quality are being cheated of almost half a year's worth of wages in severance pay legally owed them.
  • Workers earning 63 cents an hour.
  • Over the course of the past year workers report conditions deteriorating rapidly. Suddenly, workers had to double their production speed, hemming 2.1 pieces per minute and sewing one shirt every two minutes.
  • "In practice the wages fell a lot. When they reduced the time we had for each operation, our wages fell because we couldn't fulfil the goals."
  • Workers are fined an hour's worth of wages for every minute they're late.
  • "The quality of the tap water used to be good, but then it started to run with a kind of yellow color."
  • Workers fined for garments ruined by broken down machines.
  • Workers earning half of what they earned only a year ago, down from up to $70 a week to a mere $30-$35.
  • The factory where workers worked temporarily after the fire was "deplorable" with filthy water and unbearable heat. "We ate near the garbage containers because there was no place to eat."
  • Workers are making "Tom Sawyer" brand school uniforms for Elder Manufacturing Company.

The NLC wrote a short report about the Quality factory and conditions there in 2001. By 2003, however, conditions had improved markedly. Workers were no longer forced to take pregnancy tests. There was no physical abuse. Overtime was mostly voluntary and most workers were being paid slightly more than the minimum wage, though still well below subsistence. Workers received a Christmas bonus and the factory played music for workers. Generally, workers reported that they liked working at Quality and that it was an above-average factory.

However, conditions have deteriorated rapidly. About a year ago, according to workers, the management began to crack down.



Deteriorating Conditions at Quality

The conditions deteriorated a year ago, more or less, at which point our piece rate pay was reduced. They started giving workers warnings, for what we believe are unjust reasons, so that they could fire them without severance. We started having problems with the water. The quality of the tap water used to be good, but then it started to run with a kind of yellow color. The pressure from the supervisors at work increased and all the parties the company gave were suspended. The bonuses for production were not given anymore. When the machines broke the supervisors accused us of being guilty of breaking the machines. The supervisors scolded us when the machines broke. Sometimes the problems with the machines would damage garments and they'd try to deduct [the price of the garment from our pay].

Another worker reports that, "We started receiving [warnings] for being 1 minute late" for which the workers were fined an hour's worth of pay — 63 cents. According to the worker, the point of all the fines and warnings was "so they could fire us after three warnings, without our legal benefits."

Warnings were also given when we answered to our bosses when we didn't agree with something. You're supposed to remain silent and nothing else.

The attitude of management seemed to have changed dramatically. "In the last months, the bosses have treated us badly, different from before. We had a supervisor, Geovanny, who started mistreating us. They raised our goals. He said that I was good for nothing."

  • The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that in 2006 the average family is expected to spend $527.08 on back-to-school shopping, which adds up to a total of about $17.6 billion.
  • According to the Census Bureau, there are 17.4 million college students in America. In 2005, the NRF estimates that they spent about $34 billion dollars on back-to-school shopping, or almost $2,000 per student, of which $327 is spent on clothing. That's $5.7 billion spent on apparel.
  • Business Week estimates that "tweens" (age 7-12) control over $50 billion in purchasing power and another $170 billion in family buying power. NPD estimates they spend $12 billion a year on apparel. 
  • There are 21.4 million high school aged children in America. NPD estimates they spend about $25 billion a year on apparel.
  • There are 33.8 million teenagers in America in June, according to the Census Bureau. Packaged Facts estimates their combined purchasing power at $190 billion a year, which is greater than the GDP of Finland. 


Management Speeds Up the Pace of Production

Workers explain that management suddenly sped up the pace of production, sometimes drastically.

For example, "hems for shirt sleeves, that operation used to be 120 pieces (60 shirts) in 54 minutes and the time was reduced to 26 minutes for the same 120 pieces. Also, sewing the sleeves to the shirts, we used to have 62 minutes for 60 pieces (30 shirts) but it's been reduced to 54 minutes. The same happened with other operations. We all got angry because we had to put more and more effort into doing our operations in time. As we were frightened to lose our jobs we didn't dare speak with the bosses about the situation, but now we've risen and we're going to continue with this struggle."  




The consequence of the increase in production speed was that workers were earning less because they couldn't meet their production quotas. "In practice the wages fell a lot. When they reduced the time we had for each operation, our wages fell because we couldn't fulfil the goals."

Another worker explains that "Last year there was a lot of production and I earned up to $130 or $140 for a fortnight (two weeks) with overtime and production incentives. Since January (2006) the wages started decreasing. For the whole year we've been earning very little, only the minimum wage, $60 or $70 a fortnight."

  Take-Home Wages At Quality in 2003 Take-Home Wages at Quality in 2006
Per Week $40.23-$51.77 $30-$35
Per Month $172.41-$221.87 $128.57-$150
Per Year $2,091.96-$2,692.04 $1,560-$1,820

Workers are earning a basic wage of only 63 cents an hour, 3 cents above the legally mandated minimum wage.  Despite this fact, Elder Manufacturing Company's website claims that, "Our workforce earns (on average) more than twice the Salvadorian minimum wage."

 Quality Workers Still Not Earning Enough to Climb Out of Misery and Into Poverty

When the NLC wrote a report on the Quality factory in 2003, we noted that the Salvadoran government considers a wage of $66.46 a week as necessary for a family of 4.3 people to escape from "abject poverty" to achieve "relative poverty."  While wages at the time were significantly short of that standard, currently workers at Quality are earning barely half the wage that would qualify them as relatively poor. These workers are living in abject poverty.


The Fire and the Resulting Catastrophe For Workers

On May 10, 2006 one of two plants at the Quality factory, both of whom manufacture uniforms for Edler Manufacturing Company, burned down. However, the workers were moved to another plant in El Matazano, Soyapango, where they continued working. The plant was at Desarrollo Park. "We continued working there while the plant at Quality was being repaired. They told us that we were going to work there for two months."  The conditions at the plant, which was basically just a warehouse, were "deplorable." Workers report that the plant had "filthy water," was "very hot" and had "bad smells." "We ate near the garbage containers because there was no place to eat," reports one worker. The General Manager, Jubal Hacket, told the workers not to worry about it. "He always told us he was a worker like us, but it's not true."

On August 11, 2006, Thomas Joseph James, Vice President of Finance at Elder Manufacturing Company and President of the newly-formed Tom Sawyer Company, told the workers, "I want you under the same roof because we are a great family." He declined to mention, however, that the factory was in Santa Ana at the American Park, 50 miles away.

On Friday August 18th, management and inspectors from the Ministry of Labor announced that, starting August 21st, there would be buses at the Quality factory to transport workers to American Park, where they would work at a new factory called "Tom Sawyer." While the management at Quality claim that they ceded their property, including their workers, to Tom Sawyer on August 9, 2006, the workers were not aware of it until August 18th, a mere 3 days before they were to start working at American Park. They were informed that there was an "employer substitution" and that the Tom Sawyer company would take responsibility for all of the workers. However, one worker reports that, "It's all just words, we haven't received any documents about it."

On that same day workers were told: "Those who want to use the buses can use them, and those who don't want to use them can stay here." They were also informed that those who did not travel to the new factory would not receive severance pay.

The new factory however, is 50 miles away and workers must battle the traffic in San Salvador and Santa Tecla, adding 3 hours to every worker's daily commute. A typical work day starts at 7:30 and ends at 5:30, already a 10-hour work day. However, to get to the new Tom Sawyer factory, workers have to get to the old factory at 6 a.m. to catch the bus and won't return until 7:00 p.m. Most workers come from neighboring cities, like Cojutepeque, Suchitoto, Ilobasco, Miraflores or San Pedro Perulapan. For those who live in Ilobasco, commuting to the old Quality factory already takes an hour and a half. Transfering to the new factory would mean commuting 6 hours a day. They would have to leave their homes at 5:30 a.m. and wouldn't return until 8:30 p.m.

The workers would also have to spend more on food, eating two or even three meals a day away from home. Workers are already spending $1-$2 a day on transportation, despite earning a base wage of $5.04 per day. If the workers were to eat only two meals a day away from home, it would add at least $2.50 to their expenses. That would leave workers with a mere $0.54-$1.54 a day.

Base Wage Per Day $5.04
Transportation $1.00-$2.00
Two Meals (Breakfast and Lunch) $2.50
Remaining Income $0.54-$1.54

110 workers agreed to commute to the Tom Sawyer factory at American park. One worker explained that "the economic situation is very difficult and we have to pay school fees for the children and food, clothing and rent."

232 workers decided, however, that they could not. They held a vigil outside the Quality factory, demanding that those workers who cannot commute an extra 50 miles to the new factory receive severance pay. They have been forced out of their jobs and, in effect, fired. They never agreed to be "ceded" to Tom Sawyer like property. If Quality no longer wishes to employ them, Quality owes them severance pay. Some workers have dedicated up to 13 years to working at the Quality factory. Legally, they are owed one month's pay for every year they have worked. That means these workers are being cheated of over half a year's worth of wages legally owed them.

On August 28th, the 232 workers went to American Park and were told they could not enter the factory. A spokesperson from the Tom Sawyer factory told them, "Tom Sawyer is different from Quality," implying that they had no obligation to the workers. Juan Carlos Romero, who was Chief of Personnel at Quality and now works for Tom Sawyer, was more blunt. He explained simply: "You're fired."

The workers are now holding vigil outside the Quality factory trying to prevent equipment from being hauled off to Tom Sawyer. They say they will continue until they get what is legally due them. As of Friday, September 8, 2006, the workers report that management is offering them half of the severance pay due them. This is not enough. They deserve to have their rights respected and they need your solidarity. Please write to the Elder Manufacturing Company and let them know they cannot get away with cheating veteran workers out of their severance pay.


Elder Manufacturing Company

Elder Manufacturing Company
P.O. Box 273
St. Louis, Missouri 63166
Phone: 314-469-1120
Fax: 314-469-0523
President and CEO: Ron Sher


Elder Manufacturing Company's website claims that "Our workforce earns (on average) more than twice the Salvadorian minimum wage." Please help us make clear to them that the minimum wage in El Salvador is 60 cents an hour and that paying one's workers 63 cents and hour does not constitute paying them "(on average) more than twice the Salvadorian minimum wage." Furthermore, they need to ensure that all of the workers who have been forcibly removed from their jobs at Quality/Tom Sawyer deserve to have a real choice — to either work at Tom Sawyer or receive their legally owed severance pay.

Below is a model letter you can cut and paste into an email. To email your local sales representative, please visit the Elderwear website here.


Dear [Local Sales Representative]:

I have recently heard that workers making Tom Sawyer brand uniforms in El Salvador at the Quality factory have been forced out of their jobs and denied their legally owed severance pay. As one of the leading manufacturers of children's uniforms in the United States, I hope and expect that Elder Manufacturing Company will take this situation seriously.

Not only is the factory management denying these workers their legal rights, but workers also report recent instances of verbal harassment, excessive fines and a reduction in pay.

I hope that Elder Manufacturing is as concerned about these workers as I am. Please ensure that no worker is left without their rightful severance pay.

Thank You.