The Multinational Monitor



Made In Guatemala

Union Busting in the Maquiladoras

by Stephen Coats

No industry better illustrates the truly global nature of today's economy--and the degree to which it is built on global injustice--than the textile and apparel industry. Clothing labels in U.S. department stores now read "assembled in Mexico" or "in the Philippines" or "Indonesia." Increasingly, the labels are from Central America: Honduras, El Salvador and now, the country with the hemisphere's worst human right record, Guatemala. If there were truth in labelling, many of the Guatemalan labels would say: "Assembled by women paid $2 a day and denied their basic rights."

In the past five years, Guatemala's apparel exports have mushroomed. The number of maquiladora factories (foreign-owned assembly plants which produce for export) in Guatemala, nearly all of which produce apparel, has jumped from five to more than 200. They now employ more than 40,000 workers, 80 percent of whom are women. Annual apparel exports totalled less than $1 million six years ago, but today they are nearing $100 million, pushing apparel past bananas and sugar as Guatemala's second leading export (after coffee) to the United States.

Guatemalan, Korean and U.S. capital is fuelling the maquiladora explosion, but all of the apparel is destined for the United States, much of it for brand-name U.S. firms, including Levi's, Gitano, Liz Claiborne, Guess, Van Heusen, Sears and K-Mart.

The growth of the maquiladora sector, which comes as thousands of jobs continue to be lost in the U.S. apparel sector, is based on the combination of attractive Guatemalan investment laws that exempt firms from taxes for 10 years; a provision of former U.S. President Reagan's Caribbean Basin Initiative that allows unlimited imports of apparel from the Caribbean and Central America as long as the cloth is U.S.-made; and a U.S. trade law that applies duty on only the value added to pre-cut clothing. Since labor is so cheap, the value added is minimal and the apparel enters the U.S. almost duty-free.

Guatemala's maquilas have also gotten a big boost from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). According to Kurt Peterson, a Yale Law School researcher who is writing a book on the Guatemalan maquila sector, the primary Guatemalan government agency set up to promote investment in the maquila sector, the Non- Traditional Exporters Association, receives more than half of its funding from AID.

Locked in miserable jobs

The foundation of Guatemala's maquiladora growth has been cheap--and repressed--labor. Workers are paid between $1 and $2 a day for long work days that may stretch to 16 hours. Most factories require workers to work on Saturdays. Peterson found that most workers put in at least 50, if not 60 or 70, hours a week. Forced overtime is common. He cites countless stories of workers who are required to work until midnight and are then locked into their factory overnight so that they can begin work again early the next morning.

The working conditions in these factories range from poor to abysmal. The warehouse-like buildings have few windows, few fans, no heat and few exits, most of which are usually locked. Workers are not given health and safety training, and they are given no protection against the chemicals and dust to which they are exposed when working with dyed cloth. There are also frequent reports of sexual and physical abuse.

Labor organizing, labor repression

International labor organizations consider Guatemala to be one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world to organize a union. Only 5 percent of the country's work force is organized. The figure in the maquila sector is close to zero. While there have been numerous attempts by courageous workers to form unions, there is but one union, SITRAINTEXSA, in the entire maquiladora sector--and its workers were fired or suspended more than two years ago.

Efforts to form unions are especially difficult in the maquiladora sector in part as a result of the government's interest in attracting foreign investment. The Guatamalan government promises investors low wages and a tranquil work force, and has a well-deserved international reputation for failing to protect basic worker rights. It helps block union efforts by failing to enforce labor law, delaying the legal recognition of workers' applications for union status for years, identifying for employers "trouble-maker" workers who come to the government to complain about working conditions and establishing puny fines for labor violations.

Employers' techniques for fighting unions include firing of union supporters; bribery; temporary plant closings when a union does form, followed by the plant reopening a few days later as non-union; establishment of company unions; physical intimidation; death threats; and even disappearances.

This combination of government and employer opposition to unions is clearly effective. SITRAINTEXSA was formed in 1986 at the INEXPORT factory, owned by Henry Robbins-Cohen, a U.S. national. Shortly after workers and the company signed a collective bargaining pact in 1988, Robins-Cohen began firing his union employees. Within a year he had fired nearly all of the 180 union members. Despite Guatamalan court rulings, including one by the country's Supreme Court, ordering him to reinstate the workers, Robbins-Cohen refused to rehire them. The union fought back publicly, setting up a structure outside the factory gates where vigils and protests took place. Protesting union members were kicked and beaten by management personnel and plainclothes policemen, according to the union. Eventually, the police moved in and levelled the shack. A recent attempt to re-establish the union was uncovered by Robbins-Cohen, who again fired the pro-union workers. Thirty women carry on the struggle, at great personal cost and risk.

The court orders have yet to be enforced. Robbins-Cohen's continued defiance of the Guatamalan courts is tolerated by Guatemalan government officials who wring their hands while condemning Robbins-Cohen' behavior, saying they have done all they can do. While Robbins-Cohen has been ignoring Guatemala's courts over the last two years, INEXPORT has produced clothing for Sears, K-Mart and Montgomery Ward, and has sewed for familiar labels like McKids, Ocean Pacific and Guess. As of October 1991, INEXPORT was selling to two U.S. labels, Ocean Pacific and Russ Toggs.

Organizing at Phillips-Van Heusen

Now, a struggle for a new union is emerging at two plants owned by the leading U.S. marketer of men's dress shirts, Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH). If successful, the PVH union would be the first union established in the maquiladora sector since 1986.

PVH is one of the largest exporters of apparel from Guatemala. Its two plants employ 500 workers. In March 1991, following pay cuts and rising concerns about physical abuse by supervisors, a group of workers at one of PVH's factories went to the government's Labor Inspector's office to complain about working conditions. The workers were told to take their concerns elsewhere. Two days later, six members of this group were fired; one was physically removed from the factory. Witnessing her removal spurred her colleagues to apply for union recognition with the government.

There are several important issues at stake besides pay cuts. "We organized because of all the mistreatment, trips to the bathroom were controlled, we weren't treated as people," states one union supporter. "We are single mothers, the most exploited [group] in the maquila." Union leaders, all of whom are women, say that the base pay is about $2 per day and experienced workers earn about $3 a day, in an economy where $5-6 a day is needed to achieve a minimal standard of living.

Worker demands include an increase in pay, medical care, paid maternity leave, additional bathrooms, overtime pay, provision of sewing tools and no reprisals against union supporters. PVH has responded with a carrot-and-stick approach aimed at defeating the union. Union supporters say that the company's management personnel have offered bribes of up to $2,000 to union leaders to leave their jobs, threatened physical intimidation, reassignment and demotion of union supporters, established a company union, hired security guards, threatened to search the workers (including a threat to inspect one woman's tampon) and threatened to close the plants. PVH also moved to defuse some of the demands by increasing the number of bathrooms and the frequency of medical care, and providing sewing tools for the workers. In late May, Larry S. Phillips, the chief executive officer of PVH, flew to Guatemala to hold a party for the workers during which he announced his total opposition to the union, blaming it on foreign agitators.

But the workers believe they deserve more than parties. "The union is not intended to get into conflicts," says one woman organizer. "All we are asking for is equal pay, fair pay, a cost of living increase, work tools, better medical care, a bonus compensation, ... that we not be obligated to work overtime, a medicine chest. These are necessary things for workers."

Death threats from a "sweet thing"

Since the beginning of the conflict, union supporters have complained that one of PVH's personnel managers has issued a number of death threats, stating "everyone who is involved in the union is going to die," "if you join the union you will be killed" and "the union is a part of the guerilla movement." Death threats are taken extremely seriously in Guatemala, where they are often carried out. Yet Phillips dismissed the charges against his personnel director, describing the woman as a "sweet thing."

In early September, the workers decided that the threats were very real when a member of their executive committee was shot and nearly killed. On her way home after work on a Friday afternoon, Aura Marina Rodriquez, one of the three top leaders of the union and secretary for conflicts, stopped in a tortilla shop. As she emerged from the store, a bullet grazed her temple and took off a bit of her ear. A day or two later, unknown men came to her house and asked about her, pretending to be workers from the factory. Her mother denied that Rodriquez was home. Rodriquez then went into hiding in another part of the city. Her frightened colleagues make clear that they had no doubt that the shooting was an act of retaliation for union activity.

Curiously, the "sweet thing" personnel manager was fired 10 days after the shooting. PVH also issued a letter to the workers, saying it condemned the shooting (which it called a common street crime) and would not tolerate violence by management or workers.

PVH's letter also reiterated the company's commitment to oppose the formation of the union by all legal means. It is ironic that the company's support for legal means came long after the government had failed to act in accordance with Guatemalan labor law requiring action on an application for union recognition within 60 days of filing. Seven months after filing, the union has yet to be recognized by the government. As a result, there is still no active union in Guatemala's fast-growing maquila sector.

In response, several U.S. groups, including the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project, are beginning a campaign to persuade PVH to recognize the union--and not to pull out of the country. International attention and solidarity effort's may help provide the protection Guatemala's besieged maquiladora workers so desperately need.

Stephen Coats is director of the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project.

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