February 20, 2006

Unions Find Improved Conditions Yield Surprising Results

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“We experienced a lot of physical and verbal abuse; we could not use the restrooms most of the time, and we were timed if we did. We were unable to attend night school because of obligatory overtime work hours. [After we unionized], it wasn’t 100 percent changed, but we gained a lot,” said Josefina Hernandez Ponce, union secretary-general of a factory named Mexmode, of the sweatshop conditions she encountered. Ponce spoke last Friday with two other Central American laborers, Fredy de los Santos Martinez and Joaquin Alas Salguero, of how they were able to organize unions to break out of their situation.

The three were introduced by Allie Robbins of the National Organization Against Sweatshops, who spoke of the current state of garment factories in Central America and the changes and challenges facing them.

“We’ve obtained many victories in the past few years, but these victories can’t be sustained if factories can’t bring in sufficient income because of competing factories. We can’t allow the race to the bottom to continue,” Robbins said.

Each of the three speakers told their personal stories of the plant’s transition from sweatshops to worker-controlled factories. Ponce said that although wages and conditions have improved at Mexmode, from $30 to $120 a week, it has caused orders to the factory to dwindle.

“We were able to achieve our goals, but we were confronted with the fact we were considered a ‘good factory,’ and could not compare or compete with others,” Ponce said.

To emphasize this point, Ponce pointed out that Nike has 152 factories in China, but only 12 in Mexico, and only one – Mexmode – maintains good wages for their employees.

Salguero, the secretary-general of a textiles union in El Salvador, had a similar story. When he tried to organize workers to negotiate higher wages with the owner of his factory, the owner shut it down instead. But with the pressure of interest groups based in the United States and Asia, the owner agreed to reopen the factory, owning 99 percent, with a worker representative owning the other one percent, according to Salguero.

The factory was renamed “Just Garments” and has better working conditions, Salguero said, while also mentioning that it was having financial trouble and was at risk of shutting down. The factory received a commitment from Gap, but each time the factory sent in samples, Salguero said, Gap would send them back saying the measurements were incorrect.

“It was very mysterious. We would manufacture everything to what [Gap] wanted, but they would always send it back, saying we had done it wrong,” he added.

Instead, Gap would simply pay compensation for not accepting the samples.

“It was the easy way out. By paying compensation, they no longer had to place samples and it was cheaper for them.