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More than a year later, Leonor Castillo is still a very angry woman. She sits at the kitchen table of her two-room cinderblock house and talks in a gentle voice that mutes the rage about her six years at the plant: the sudden reorganization of the production system with the result that everyone seemed to be working just as hard and maybe even harder but taking home less pay; the day she was running a 102-degree fever and they wouldn?ft give her a pass to go home; those awful two months she was pregnant and kept asking for a change of assignment from the operation that required her to toss bundles of clothing over her shoulder from a sitting position.
Sorry, she was told, there was no lighter work available in the factory of more than 1,000 workers engaged in a dozen different operations.
?gWhen I miscarried, the doctors asked if I lifted anything heavy,?h she says. ?gThey had to do a Caesarean to clean me out,?h Leonor, who is 32 and childless, adds softly.
Then there was the aguinaldo battle in November 2001. The aguinaldo is a legally mandated annual bonus. For years workers had suspected they had been short-changed. They circulated a petition requesting a $60 increase in the aguinaldo and chose Leonor and four other workers to deliver it to management. The petition, signed by almost half the workers in the factory, couldn?ft have been more polite.
Leonor remembers the plant manager complimenting the delegation for presenting the request in this responsible manner and not resorting to a strike or other disruptive tactics.
The company?fs answer came in two parts. Ten days later all workers in the factory received an additional $30 with their annual bonus. A week after that Castillo and the other four members of the delegation were fired.
Within days workers were leafleting in front of the plant. Leaflets condemned the firings; they explained the legal limits on compulsory overtime; they decried inadequate health and safety precautions; they denounced the wages that were not enough to feed their families; they exhorted the workers to stand together and fight for their rights. Some of the leaflets urged workers to contact an organization called Sedepac for more information.
As a result four more women were fired for insisting that the labor laws of their country be obeyed. Before long the leafleting had begun again, one of the thousands of ongoing battles in the global sweatshop that never make it to the nightly news.
The country in this instance is Mexico and the company is the Sara Lee Corporation, but on any given day a variation of this scenario unfolds in dozens of other countries with equally familiar corporations playing their assigned roles.
The apparel industry has been called the canary in the mineshaft of America?fs de-industrialization, the first to move most of its manufacturing facilities offshore. For all its technological advances, the apparel industry has yet to invent a machine more efficient than human hands and eyes. Nor has the economic logic of the industry changed that much in the past 100 years. Costs are pushed down through a pyramid of retailers at the top and below them layers of manufacturers, contractors, and sub-contractors, with a massive base of workers at the bottom. A corollary of this arrangement is that garment workers, as cheap and easily exposable assets in a volatile and labor-intensive industry, must remain powerless.
?gThey get nervous when journalists come around asking questions,?h explains a Sara Lee spokesperson at U.S. corporate headquarters, politely denying permission for an interview with the plant manager who fired Leonor Castillo and her co-workers. ?gWe have people here in headquarters who are very well informed and can answer all your questions.?h
Well, not really.
Sweatshop scandals are bad for business. The strategy generally is to try to suppress them and, failing that, to ride them out. Sooner rather than later the public?fs attention is directed to more urgent matters and the system slides safely back into its mode of hidden production and lavish promotion.
Sara Lee is not just cheese cakes. Producing, distributing, and selling an astonishing variety of foods, beverages, apparel, and household goods from pork chops to shoe polish, wheeling and dealing with its 30,000 trademarks, constantly divesting and acquiring businesses to tweak the bottom line, it is a diverse, sophisticated, and thoroughly modern corporation.
Within this sprawling mix is one of the largest and most profitable apparel businesses in the world (Hanes, L?feggs, Playtex, Bali, Wonderbra, Champion, Polo Ralph Lauren, DKNY), which owns and operates manufacturing and distribution facilities in 8 U.S. states and 24 countries and sources its goods from sweatshops on 5 continents. Of course Sara Lee, like all the other big names in the industry, denies that it runs or uses sweatshops, even though anyone with a working knowledge of the industry knows it is impossible to produce clothing on the scale Sara Lee does under the current rules of the game without using sweatshops. Nevertheless, to prove its virtue, Sara Lee displays a corporate code of Global Business Standards claiming that the company complies with all labor laws wherever it operates, supports fundamental human rights for all people, including the right of its employees to free association, and is committed to a safe and healthy work environment. Nobody pays much attention to this boilerplate, which came into vogue after the Kathie Lee Gifford child labor scandal in 1996, but Sara Lee?fs presumptive ethical standards are notable in one respect.
?gWe feel a special responsibility to women?fs causes?not just because women make up more than half the world?fs population,?h its statement on Corporate Citizenship explains. ?gWomen are important to Sara Lee because: Sara Lee Corporation is the world?fs largest company named after a woman; about half of our employees are women; and women are the primary purchasers of Sara Lee branded products.?h
It is difficult to verify the accuracy of these statements because Sara Lee will not disclose the locations of its factories or permit independent inspections of them. Sara Lee is one of the few remaining big apparel manufacturers that still owns some of its overseas factories, rather than the more common practice of sourcing goods from local contractors. This gives Sara Lee complete control over the production process?and total responsibility for what occurs in these facilities.
That is the case of the plant where Leonor Castillo worked, one of two Hanes T-shirt factories that Sara Lee opened in the early 1990s in Monclova, an old industrial city in Mexico?fs northern desert, and the adjacent town of Frontera, about 150 miles southwest of Laredo. It was regarded as another of Sara Lee?fs astute, strategic moves, streamlining its corporate structure by closing down plants in the U.S. and moving production, a step ahead of its competitors, slightly into the interior of Mexico where wages were even lower than in the older maquila zones right on the border.
Almost everyone agreed that Monclova needed this new investment with the 2,500 jobs it would provide. For much of the last century the regional economy had been driven by Monclova?fs huge Altos Hornos steel complex, until it was hit by some of the same global trends that have reduced the U.S. steel industry to a shadow of its former self. Monclova and the surrounding state of Coahuila struggled with Depression-level unemployment rates, falling wages, and the social disintegration that invariably flows from economic decline of this magnitude.
While local governments everywhere compete to attract and retain these factories, national governments?pressured by international financial institutions and powerful corporate lobbies?keep pushing industries toward poorer areas on the theory that this type of investment will raise wages and promote development. Like most theories that serve to rationalize privilege and power, this one is full of holes and slightly ridiculous. Multinational corporations do not normally seek out lower wages in order to raise them, which only happens when workers have the strength to extract such gains. One study by the International Labor Organization found that real wages of apparel workers had decreased in three out of four countries where investment in the industry had increased.
Sure enough, ten years later in Monclova none of those social or economic indicators has improved, some have deteriorated, and there are constant rumors that Sara Lee will soon pick up and move to some more congenial place where wages are even lower and workers less assertive.
But they will not do this without a fight.
?gA lot of these women come from families of unionized steelworkers,?h says Betty Robles. ?gThey?fre not going to be rolled over so easily.?h
Betty Robles is a local leader of Sedepac, which stands for Servicio, Desarollo y Paz (Service, Development and Peace), a 20-year-old non-profit organization with branches in other states around the country. Mexico?fs political landscape is dotted with hundreds of like-minded groups that spring from student, worker, and other popular movements searching for new strategies to contend with the entrenched, unresponsive, and often repressive Mexican state.
Betty Robles went to work in the maquila when she was 14 and spent a dozen years on assembly lines making auto parts and thermostats. ?gBrutal,?h she says, ?gthey treat you worse than one of the machines.?h
We are sitting in Sedepac?fs cluttered storefront office on Frontera?fs main commercial street, a few blocks beyond the packed sidewalk market and a ten-minute drive from the factory. Several women meet around a desk toward the rear of the office, away from the window and prying eyes.
Last October they discovered that a lawyer who had been volunteering his services at Sedepac was being paid by the company to spy on them. Among other services rendered, he wrote an article ?gexposing?h Sedepac?fs participation in a network of U.S. and Mexican NGO?fs called Enlace and denouncing the workers?f activities as a nefarious plot to put Sara Lee?fs factories out of business. It was a full-scale attack. Thugs began shadowing Betty and some of the other activists, staking out the office and parking in front of their houses at night.
One woman unwinds a bandage from her wrist to display swollen tendons and bulging nerve cysts, another the scar from her Carpal Tunnel Syndrome operation, then more hands with a variety of disfig- urations as the meeting turns into a spontaneous testimony of the walking wounded: pain that begins in the hands and seems to work its way up the arms; pain in the lower back that spreads to the shoulders and then down into the arms; headaches from the dust and noise; skin rashes, coughs, and runny eyes. They are still covered with the lint that is thick in the air of the factory. But mostly it?fs the crippling pain.
Maria Ramirez (not her real name) looks strong and healthy, but her back and shoulder have been aching for the past two years and now everything hurts? back, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers. When she went in to see the company doctor, he wrapped a tape around her thumb and two fingers.
?gBut I can?ft work like this,?h she said.
?gI can give you a pill,?h the doctor replied.
?gI don?ft know what?fs in it.?h
?gBut I can?ft work with my fingers taped like this.?h
?gIt?fs nerve damage. There?fs nothing you can do about it. Take the pill, I take off the tape.?h
Of course there?fs a lot you can do about it.
?gIt?fs an ergonomic problem and it?fs extensive in the maquilas,?h says Dr. Jorge Hernandez, who has an occupational health practice in Frontera. ?gThere are all kinds of studies that demonstrate these injuries can be reduced and prevented. The employer, the government, the union, nobody does anything. But it?fs the employer?fs responsibility.?h
Ramirez took the pill. When the pills didn?ft help any more, she went to Seguro, the public health clinic. Workers believe that the doctors at Seguro are in cahoots with the company, reluctant to make diagnoses that might require the company to cover work-related injuries. In Maria?fs case, the Seguro doctors don?ft agree on the diagnosis. One says Carpal Tunnel, another a herniated disk in her neck, and still another a twisted spinal column due to the long hours sitting.
Dealing with their pregnancies at work is a sensitive subject for these women. Many have stories like Leonor Castillo?fs. Title 5 of Mexico?fs federal labor code explicitly prohibits employers from requiring pregnant workers to lift weights that endanger their health. Companies in Mexico do not like to employ pregnant women because one of the few consistently enforced provisions of the labor code is three months paid maternity leave. When pregnant workers aren?ft screened out with pre-employment pregnancy tests?an illegal but widespread practice?the normal wear and tear of the job can hold down maternity benefits when expectant mothers quit or miscarry.
We are talking about a virtually unregulated global industry in which millions of workers put in 12-hour days and longer for as little as $2.50 a day, reports of indentured servitude are verified with regularity, and the U.S. Supreme Court cannot decide whether Nike has the constitutional right to lie about the conditions in its factories. Sara Lee could argue that compared to what?fs out there, its Monclova factories are not that bad. They are probably right, which will give you an idea of how rotten the industry is.
The production system in the Monclova factories is modular, typically teams of 12 workers, each performing a different operation?hemming various parts of the garment, attaching sleeves, finishing seams, tying and inspecting the bundles. A supervisor is assigned to each team, monitoring the flow of work and pushing everyone to meet their quotas.
Ana Velasquez stitches the hem that runs around the bottom of the T-shirt. Her quota is based on a time and motion study that has broken down every operation and is used as the template in all Sara Lee factories producing this garment. Ana?fs movement through the five separate motions of her operation is so rhythmic, fluid, and quick it seems almost effortless.
Getting the garment from the pile on her left, folding it, smoothing the fabric for the stitch, maneuvering it through the machine with her right hand while turning it over with her left, placing it on the pile in front of her for the next worker in the team, and then beginning again?a complete cycle every 9.4 seconds to meet her quota of 32 dozen T-shirts an hour. The more efficient she is, the higher the bar is set.
These workers are paid around 70 cents an hour plus incentive bonuses for making quotas. In a typical week of 45 to 49 hours worked, gross pay ranges between $50 and $80, but there are numerous deductions, many for loans facilitated by the company. It is not at all unusual for weekly take home pay to be as low as $25 or $30. Most of these workers are in debt, their income keeping them below the poverty line. Contrary to popular belief, the cost of living in places like Monclova is not light years away from that of more developed economies. Maquila workers further north regularly cross the border into El Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville for groceries and other basic goods because they?fre cheaper there than on the Mexican side of the border.
?gIf you make the payment on the furniture, you can?ft buy shoes,?h Velasquez says. ?gIt?fs pathetic what they pay us, don?ft you think??h
They could pay more. The company estimates that a worker like Ana costs $1.68 an hour in ?gfully loaded?h wages, which include bonuses, benefits, and payroll taxes. At that rate, Ana?fs team of 12 workers are paid a total of $20.16 for the 384 T-shirts they produce in an hour. These T-shirts sell at retail from $5 to $12, which means that the Moncolva workers are paid between 1.1 percent and 4/10 of 1 percent of the retail price. If you doubled their pay, it would add a staggering 5.3 cents to the cost of that T-shirt.
Whether these additional pennies were passed along to the consumer or absorbed somewhere along the line between Monclova and retailers like WalMart (2002 profits: $8.04 billion), one of Sara Lee?fs largest customers, it does not seem like an amount that would ruin any business. In the meantime, consider the difference it could make in the lives of these workers and their families.
We sit around Laura Garcia?fs living room with half a dozen other workers from the plant. To minimize risk for the workers, Betty Robles and the two other full-time Sedepac organizers hold house meetings in the ejidos and barrios where most of the Sara Lee workers live. Some neighbors are afraid to attend because word has gone out that anyone connected to Sedepac will be fired. But the room is soon filled.
They go around the room with stories about sick children, the guilt at not being to care for them, the fines for missing work when they do, the hundreds of dollars in doctors?f fees and medicine.
?gWhen one of my kids gets sick, I don?ft go to work,?h a woman says firmly. ?gBut it?fs a problem. They never want to give you permission.?h
?gYou can always bring it up with the union,?h someone says and gets a big laugh.
Officially, there is a union and perhaps even a collective contract in Sara Lee?fs Monclova factories. Perhaps, because when workers question some policy or other they are often told, ?gIt?fs in the contract.?h But when they ask the union delegate to see the contract, they are told to get it from management who tells them to get it from the union. Last October eight workers filed a legal complaint asking the state labor board in Monclova to make a copy of the contract available to them. They are still waiting and the prospects are not good.
?gIt is judically impossible for me to comply with that request,?h explains Juan Carlos Maldonado, president of the board. ?gOnly the parties to the contract?the company and the union?have a right to the contract. Either is free to make it available.?h
The local office of the union, the Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM), is on the same street as the Sedepac office, but several blocks away in a nicer section of town, befitting the CTM?fs status as a major political player in the state. On a morning in mid-March the secretary general of this CTM region, the elderly, plain-spoken Jose Dimas Galindo, laments the terrible state of the economy and vents his fury at Mexican President Vicente Fox for not supporting the U.S. war in Iraq.
?gThe Sara Lee workers say they can?ft even get a copy of the contract.?h
?gIt?fs not mine. You have to talk to the big guy in Saltillo.?h
?gThere?fs nothing the workers can do??h
?gIf they try to do anything, it?fs goodbye T-shirts.?h
The big guy in Saltillo is Tereso Medina, the secretary general of the state CTM and a deputy in the state legislature, who confirms that he controls this particular contract. The problem isn?ft the contract, he explains, it?fs Betty Robles and Sedepac. ?gIt happens everywhere, these local NGO?fs supported by unions in the United States to stir up trouble, destabilize the industry here to discourage firms from leaving your country. Their own lawyer admitted it. We need these jobs and everyone knows they?fll take off overnight to find cheaper labor.?h
He suggests that the U.S. unions would be better off working with the CTM on the basis of its seven-point program: jobs, labor peace, productivity linked to salaries, education, housing, health, and social security for all the workers of the world.
?gUnder this program, do the Sara Lee workers get to see their contract??h
?gIt costs money to print them,?h he says. ?gWe?fll have to collect dues.?h
?gWe?fre obviously not opposed to foreign investment here,?h Betty Robles says. ?gWe?fre doing everything we can to keep these factories in Monclova. But these companies come and go. All we ask is that they respect our rights while they?fre here.?h
?gWhat about the charges of stirring up trouble with the gringo unions??h
Betty laughs. ?gYou mean it?fs a crime for workers to organize internationally to deal with an international company? Besides, it isn?ft just gringo unions. It?fs students, women?fs groups, churches, labor rights organizations, and not just in the United States. We have allies, this new global justice movement, and it?fs a good thing we do. Given the size and power of this corporation, how can we win without them??h
One of those allies weighed in recently when the $30 billion New York City pension fund, concerned about the company?fs performance and reports from Monclova, filed a shareholder?fs proxy resolution with Sara Lee urging it to establish a program of independent monitoring of its global human rights standards.
?gA poor record on labor and human rights abuses can damage the reputation of the company and the long-term interests of shareholders,?h says Michael Musaraca, chair of the fund?fs proxy committee. ?gWe have a fiduciary responsibility to prevent that from happening.?h
The pressure is building and not a moment too soon. ?gThere is a widespread impression here,?h Robles wrote, ?gthat these factories will be closed to punish workers for speaking out against conditions that are clearly inconsistent with Sara Lee policy and in some cases are illegal?c. We are aware that some multinational corporations have recently left Mexico for countries where wages are even lower than in Mexico. It is neither necessary nor wise for such a large and well-run company like Sara Lee to engage in practices that are increasingly repudiated by both expert and public opinion?c?h
Three weeks later the plant manager in Frontera told the workers, though he did not put it in writing, that there were no plans to close in the near future. Perhaps this is true, but only a month earlier Sara Lee announced it was expanding its apparel business in China and ?glooking at India as a sourcing hub for our products in the U.S. market.?h Stay tuned.
Alan Howard is former assistant to the president of UNITE. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Nation, and public television. The names of current Sara Lee workers have been changed.
Originally appeared in Z Magazine
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