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Maquila neoslavery, underconditions from bad to inhuman

The following is the last of an occasional series by Gary MacEoin who traveled through Central America early this year viewing the destruction wrought by Hurricane Mitch.

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Los Chinos dicen que los Nika orinan demasiado (“The Chinese say that the Nicaraguans urinate too much”). I heard this phrase repeatedly during a visit to Nicaragua last January.

Later in the month I heard similar comments in Honduras, but mostly about the South Koreans.

I had gone to Central America to find out what was being done for the survivors of Hurricane Mitch, the appalling storm that had killed thousands and left vast numbers homeless, many relocated to places where job prospects were minimal. The various governments were putting together ambitious plans to get new loans abroad and to spend them in ways that benefited mostly the small oligarchical groups.

For the displaced, however, the one concrete project was the expansion of the maquila industry, which provides starvation wages under intolerable working conditions. As President Arnaldo Alemán has expressed it, the maquila industry provides “the opportunity to convert Nicaragua into one big free zone.”

It was in this context that the comment about the Chinese -- actually Taiwanese -- maquila owners, was made. Many maquilas allow the workers, nearly all women, to go to the toilets (which they keep locked), only twice in an eight-hour day, each visit for one minute.

Minimum legal wage

Living as I do not far north of our border with Mexico, I had some knowledge of the maquila (or maquiladora) industry. There are hundreds in clusters around Ciudad Juarez, Nogales and Tijuana. They number 3,000 in all Mexico, employing over a million workers. The minimum legal wage, which is what most workers earn, is 34 pesos, (about $3.53) for an eight-hour day, about $78 a month.

Working conditions vary widely from country to country and from factory to factory, running from bad to inhuman. As a general rule, the worker earns the minimum legal salary in each country. Many maquilas pay by task, in which case it may take 10 or more hours to meet the quota for eight hours. A typical quota for a woman is to iron 1,200 shirts, standing, in a 9-hour day.

The industry has become widespread in Central America over the past 20 years. El Salvador has the greatest number of maquilas (240) and of workers (41,800). It also has the highest wages, an average of $129 a month. Honduras follows with 156 maquilas, 70,000 workers and an average salary of $83. Guatemala has 134, 70,000 and $81 respectively.

Nicaragua is in last place, in part because the Sandinista government, 1979-90, did not allow them. It now has 19 maquilas, 10,800 workers, and $64 monthly salary. Women constitute more than 80 percent of the maquila work force. (Figures are for 1996 and are approximate; statistics vary widely. In addition, the “average” salary reflects a work week that often exceeds 60 hours).

In Central American countries the minimum wage amounts to less than half the canasta basica, the income needed to feed a family of four. It does not include rent, utilities, clothing, health or recreation.

Ironically, while maquila employment had grown to 200,000 workers in Central America (1996), this had made only a slight impact on massive unemployment. Between 80 and 90 percent are new workers, women and children who were not previously in the labor force.

Applicants for employment are screened carefully. The younger, and therefore less likely to complain, the better. Even 14-year-olds are accepted if they say they are 16. Over 24, rejected. If “too fat,” rejected. Proof that the woman is not pregnant is demanded. Pregnancy is in most maquilas a cause for firing. Some maquilas in Honduras, according to Charles Kernaghan, director of the New York-based National Labor Committee, periodically give shots of the contraceptive Depro Provera, saying it is for tetanus.

There is no written contract. Workers can be fired arbitrarily and without notice. Many maquilas fire a worker before she becomes entitled to vacation time or the extra month’s salary due in December. There is thus a constant movement from one employer to another. A worker who attempts to form a union or is otherwise “a problem” goes on a blacklist that is shared with others.

Few survive the unhealthy working conditions, poor ventilation, lint-heavy air and the harassment, verbal abuse, strip searches and sexual harassment for more than six or seven years. Doctors say most common illnesses are allergies, abortions, depression and tuberculosis. They report pronounced bronchial hyperactivity and asthma from the cloth dust.

Newspapers in Honduras in June 1997 headlined a collective hysteria in a maquila in Choloma when a hundred women fainted. While the employers claimed that it was simply a trick by the workers to get more pay, doctors insisted it was caused by poor ventilation coupled with undernourishment. A more general indictment of maquila conditions in Honduras was made in a 1997 report of the Honduran Committee for Defense of Human Rights (CODEH). It said 40 percent of employees were physically punished by pushing, beatings, blows on the head, whipping and being made to wait under a burning sun.

Fighting trade unions

Governments make almost no effort to inspect for violations. Fines are nominal. When two Korean supervisors in a maquila in Guatemala were sentenced to 30 days in jail for physical abuse of workers, the sentences were commuted to payment of 5 quetzals (83 cents) a day, plus civil penalties of 75 quetzals ($12.50).

Consistent with the philosophy of neoliberalism, maquilas everywhere actively fight all attempts to form trade unions. Spies report on any efforts even to get together to discuss problems. Suspected leaders are fired and blacklisted. Members of the National Labor Committee, a human rights advocacy group based in New York, posing as investors, visited a Best Form maquila in Honduras in 1992. Identifying themselves as U.S. entrepreneurs, they asked questions about labor relations. Unions create no problems here, they were assured, because a computerized blacklist “weeded out all labor organizers, religious or human rights troublemakers.”

In the summer of 1998, the workers in Camisas Modernas, a Phillips-Van Heusen maquila, made history when the company signed a labor contract, the only one in Guatemala. It was the culmination of a six-year struggle backed by the United States/Guatemala Education Project and the Maquila Solidarity Network.

The victory was short-lived. When the workers arrived Dec. 11 to collect their Christmas bonuses, security guards blocked the entrances, and the 500 workers were notified that the factory was closed. Phillips-Van Heusen pleaded “surplus capacity” while admitting it would contract labor in other maquilas in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America. The lesson for agitators and troublemakers was clear.

Many groups are working to shame the transnational corporations who own the raw materials and sell the finished products under major brand names to insist on humane conditions for the workers. In the United Kingdom, the Ethical Trading Initiative, composed of nongovernmental organizations, companies and trade unions, has agreed to a code based on International Labor Organization standards.

Prodded by labor and religious groups, the White House last year convened a Task Force to End Sweatshops. Nike, Reebok, Liz Claiborne and other major apparel companies participated, as well as labor unions and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. After long and bitter haggling, the Apparel Industry Partnership produced a code of conduct and monitoring that the White House found satisfactory but which the labor and religious organizations rejected. It allows companies to choose their own monitors, does not require them to disclose the factories they use, or what factories they are monitoring. In addition, it lacks the International Labor Organization standards incorporated into the British code.

Here, then, is the neoliberal future for the “surplus population” of the world of poverty. This new international division of labor means the replacement of the national state by transnational corporations that swear fealty to no one. It means superexploitation of the helpless, the atomization of society, atrophy of the family and proletarianization of all culture. It is neoslavery.

Gary MacEoin can be reached at gmaceoin@compuserve.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999