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The Female Face Of The Proletariat

Aotearoa/New Zealand

THE LABOUR behind the label
The female face of the proletariat
Sara Chamberlain reports on the giant sweatshops of Central America,
where fresh solutions to fearful challenges are being worked out.

Frosted Lucky Charms (so magically delicious!), Lion King T-shirts and Pocahantas mugs – whatever your consumer heart desires is abundantly available in shopping malls around the world. With all these products on offer, the industrial proletariat can’t have vanished entirely; it must have its nose to the grindstone, working overtime, doubletime, somewhere....

Sure enough, behind the magical materialization of ready-made Levi jeans and baby Gap rompers lie the Export Processing Zones of Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, where an overwhelmingly young and female industrial working-class spends 12 hours a day churning out brand-name products in inhumane working conditions for seven dollars a week.

Maquillas (from the Spanish maquillar, ‘to make up’) are the giant sweatshops of the global economy, where foreign-owned companies or domestic subcontractors employ armies of poor women to assemble goods for export. Most maquillas offer transnational corporations (TNCs) tax holidays and export subsidies, free them from trade barriers and import duties on raw materials, and provide subsidized utilities and infrastructure such as roads and warehouses, built at public expense. Because of these benefits and cheap labor, TNCs make vast profits. In both El Salvador and Guatemala, the number of maquilla workers grew from 3,500 to 50,000 between 1985 and 1994, while apparel exports in Central America jumped from $1 million to $300 million.

Between 50 and 90 per cent of the workers assembling garments, toys, shoes, cigarettes, or electronics in Central America’s maquillas are women between the ages of 14 and 25. According to Lydia, a former union organizer now living in the US: ‘Factory conditions are unsanitary. There’s no ventilation and the washrooms have no running water. Accidents occur frequently and the owners refuse to provide medical coverage.’ The US/Guatemala Labor Education Project adds that the maquilla system has ‘workers beaten for not meeting production goals, imposes mandatory overtime without pay (often locking workers in the factories until they finish an order, sometimes overnight), and withholds wages.’

Many of the rights that maquilla managements violate are gender-specific. Jacaranda Fernandez, a member of the Nicaraguan trade union FETSALUD, says that most maquillas will only hire women who can prove with a medical certificate that they are not pregnant, give birth-control pills or contraceptive injections to their female workers, and punch women in the stomach or sack them if they get pregnant – all because they don’t want to pay maternity leave. Women workers are also sexually harassed by their male overseers. An unofficial ‘lay down or get laid off’ policy operates in many maquillas.

Why do working-class women in Central America put up with these conditions? Because a maquilla job is better than no job. In a region where unemployment is often above 50 per cent and the UN estimates that 70 per cent of the total population lives in poverty, competition is fierce. TNCs claim they hire women because they’re more ‘nimble with their fingers’ than men and because, according to the garment industry, sewing is ‘women’s work’. In fact TNCs hire women because they think they are less likely to unionize, and because around the world and throughout history, women have been paid less than men.

In 1990 the US magazine Bobbin advertised the benefits of investing in the maquilla industry in El Salvador: ‘Rosa Martinez produces apparel for US markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador. You can hire her for 57 cents an hour. Rosa is more than just colorful. She and her co-workers are known for their industriousness, reliability and quick learning.’ According to the Central American Human Rights Committee, the same advertisement appeared again a year later, with one crucial difference: Rosa’s wage-rate had dropped to 33 cents an hour.

Minimum wages continue to be cut by Central American governments desperately competing with each other to attract foreign investment. TNCs justify their exploitation of women by arguing that they are secondary wage earners supported by husbands, who are the ‘real breadwinners’. In reality, many married women now have to support their unemployed husbands, and 40 per cent of women in the maquilla sector are single mothers.

Dangerous place
Women’s work is also cheapened by preventing them from organizing. Central America is currently one of the most dangerous places in the world to join a trade union. Lydia, a former Salvadorian union organizer now living in the US, states that: ‘There were constant threats against our union leaders. We were all put under surveillance. People were taken from their homes and found a few days later, brutally tortured. One worker from my union was taken away and three days later we found him dead. His jaws had been separated and his face completely disfigured.’

Maquilla workers have great difficulty organizing precisely because, as women, they often lack the support of their male family members, and the male-dominated unions. TNCs capitalize on the fact that in many Central American societies it is considered ‘un-feminine,’ and ‘improper’ for women to challenge male authority in public. Women maquilla workers are frequently discouraged from joining trade unions by male relatives: ‘There have been severe problems, even divorces, because of this,’ says Francesca Romero, officer of the Union of Social Security Institute Workers in Mexico. ‘Sometimes it bothers a man when his wife is out fighting for a cause, going outside the home more often and spending her days on strike. He’s used to being served and taken care of, so he starts to protest.’

Trade unions – not only in Central America but around the world – reflect the bias of their predominantly male membership. Many male trade unionists don’t see women as ‘real’ workers because, like the TNCs, they think they’ll eventually get married and stop working, and also because they see their demands for benefits like childcare and maternity leave as women’s needs, not workers’ rights.

However, trade unionists of both sexes are beginning to realize that unions will never be effective if they ignore half the work force. New, unconventional methods must be used if the ‘feminized’ working classes are to organize. Unionists are discovering that mobilizing on the factory floor frequently ends in dismissal and distrust of labor unions. Working in the community, on the other hand, creates a more secure, unified base from which to voice demands. In order to do this, unionists have had to develop relationships with local women’s organizations and religious groups that are more in touch with the needs and strengths of the community. ‘The tremendous mobility among maquilla workers and the exhaustion caused by the double day make it very difficult to organize among these women. That’s why we feel we can work better in the neighborhoods. Women feel strongly connected to their communities, and they are supported by being able to be close to their families... Women don’t compartmentalize the world. They integrate their work lives with their home lives,’ said Union member Gloria Tello.

However, because of the extraordinary mobility of corporations and capital – managements immediately threaten to relocate if unions succeed – very few union initiatives are effective without international support. The old adage, ‘workers of the world unite’ is fast becoming the ‘rice and beans’ of trade unionizing.

Multinational networks involving labor, women’s, environmental and anti-poverty groups, social-justice coalitions, health and safety centers, are being developed.

Consumers can also play a large role in these campaigns, because by boycotting goods manufactured in the maquillas they can help force giant corporations to the bargaining table. GAP was forced to improve labor conditions in a Korean-owned maquilla that assembled its clothes in El Salvador, thanks to the support of international trade organizations, religious groups and consumers. During the first half of 1995 the Mandarin maquilla fired 771 workers simply for organizing a union. Among those fired – and then blacklisted – were the entire elected board of directors of the union, and 63 pregnant women.

The campaign, co-ordinated by the New York-based National Labor Committee, was such an embarrassment to GAP that it suspended its contract with Mandarin. This put the jobs of every mandarin employee in jeopardy. The campaigners responded by demanding that GAP take responsibility for how its clothes were manufactured, instead of running away from the problem. Consumer support for the campaign eventually forced GAP to renew its contract with Mandarin, and made them agree to a face-to-face meeting with the locked-out union leaders and allow immediate monitoring of factory conditions by El Salvador’s Human Rights Advocate.

The main stumbling block for ‘solidarity without borders’ is nationalist racism, which brings us to industrial job losses in the North. Kalima Rose of San Francisco-based Equal Means states: ‘The recession in the US is deep and people are scared, because they see factories closing all around. When their own plant closes and then reopens in Mexico at four dollars a day, they don’t get mad at the company or the government but at Mexican workers.’ Corporations are actively stirring up racist sentiments by pushing for concessions from labor and blaming it on international competition.

One of the solutions to nationalist racism is to increase North-South communication, understanding and co-operation. The UK-based Unison is working towards this goal by ‘twinning’ with trade unions in Central America. There are also experiments with international trade-union conferences and workshops, union-member exchange schemes and training for women.

If workers cannot see beyond their national borders, then what journalists Viky Villanueva and Rebeca Martinez describe as ‘industrial human sacrifice’, whereby ‘the welfare of the very workers that make our world go round is subordinated to the cold and calculated quest for greater productivity, at whatever the cost’, will continue unchecked. In Central America the Transnational’s latest victims will be the new class of industrial working women.

Sara Chamberlain is a freelance journalist based in Oxford. She has just moved to England from San Francisco where she worked as a researcher and writer for Earth Island Institute’s ReThink Paper Campaign.


Nadia Rapihana Nadia Rapihana is 16 years old. Her home is a three-bedroomed state house and she goes to Nga Tapuwae College in Mangere, South Auckland, where only two of the 570 pupils are Paheka, or white.

‘Most of the kids round here struggle a lot,’ says Nadia, ‘when it comes to buying their uniforms and paying their fares. You get some kids, when you say “Mangere”, they say “Oh, that place!”, they really put it down. But I think it’s quite a nice place. Homely. I think they think we might be street kids. But I really like it anyway.’

Nadia has little or no idea of what life would be like on the other side of the Harbour Bridge. Nadia is, however, involved in a cultural-exchange programme which takes her for three months across the bridge to the middle-class Paheka suburb of Tacapuna, and to the private, Catholic, Carmel College.

‘Before I came here I thought it was going to be snobby,’ she says, straight after the move. ‘But it’s not. It’s just loud. They talk too much.’ One difference that strikes her immediately is in the food. ‘Here we have, like, rabbit food, vegetarian food, always vegetables and always greens, and I hate greens!’ At Carmel College all the children take packed lunches; at Nga Tapuwae College no-one does.

During the exchange she lives with a family in a smart home near the Tacapuna beach, returning to Mangere at weekends. After she’s been on the exchange for a while she begins to reflect on the real differences between the children:

‘I don’t think they realize how lucky they are,’ she says of the Carmel College students. ‘Half of them are driving cars and they just throw money around, buying heaps of flash clothes. The kids over here are struggling to get things and wishing they had things. They want more but they know they can’t get it. The kids on the [Tacapuna] shore, they take what they’ve got but they want more and they get more, because they’ve got a lot of money.’

And, when it’s over and she’s back in Mangere for good, she says: ‘I thought it was worlds apart. It has changed me, made me go for my goals. I feel most comfortable for school at Carmel. But I live here.’

From How the Other Half Lives, a film made for TV by Robyn Scott-Vincent Productions.

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