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Code Breaking

Trade Unions

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The rag trade doesn’t always get away with bad behaviour.
Bob Jeffcott and Lynda Yanz report on what trade unions and community groups
in Canada are doing to bring image-conscious chain stores and labels to book.

Bob Jeffcott at work on the Maquila Solidarity Network. It is June 1997, and Rose Cho – at the time Co-ordinator of the Toronto Homeworkers’ Association – is modelling an outfit bearing the label of the Woolworth Northern Group. She is taking part in a ‘sweatshop fashion show’ outside the Eaton Centre, a major downtown shopping mall. As the announcer describes sweatshop conditions, Cho holds up a placard comparing the retail price of $54.90 with the $2.63 paid to the Toronto sewer who made the garments she is modelling.

Later, Cho plays a recording of testimonies from homeworkers in Metro Toronto who have sewn clothes bearing the Woolworth Northern Traditions, Northern Reflections and Northern Getaway labels. Many have received the equivalent of $4.50 an hour – 65 per cent of the minimum wage – some as little as $2.50.

It is August 1995, and 18-year-old Judith Yanira Viera is speaking to a crowd outside a Gap store in downtown Toronto, Canada. Holding up a shirt bearing the Gap label, Viera tells the crowd: ‘In Canada, you pay $34 for this shirt. In El Salvador we were paid 27 cents to sew it.’

At a meeting afterwards Viera describes what she endured at the Taiwanese-owned Mandarin International garment factory in El Salvador. An ex-army colonel is the head of personnel and runs the factory like a barracks. If you attempt to organize a union you receive death threats – over 300 of the 800 workers at Mandarin were fired for doing so. If you demonstrate against the sackings you are attacked by company security guards.

Both Viera and Cho are participating in high-profile campaigns that challenge major North American retailers to take responsibility for the conditions in which their garments are produced. Both are working in alliance with unions and religious, women’s, human-rights and international-solidarity groups in an attempt to bring these issues directly to North American consumers.

Companies like Woolworth and The Gap don’t own the factories or have to deal with the workers that make their products. Instead, they contract out production to free-trade zones in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and now Africa, and to a chain of small contractors and sub-contractors in developed countries. Although labour costs are much lower in Southern countries, modern ‘just-in-time’ systems demand that retailers also have access to a cheap, ‘flexible’ labour force in the North, close to the point of sale.

Since the signing of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement the garment industry in Canada, too, has undergone major restructuring. One of the most devastating changes has been the loss of full-time factory jobs. Between 1988 and 1995 more than a third of Canadian garment workers lost their jobs – in the City of Toronto it was a half – as clothing production shifted from unionized factories to small contracting shops and homework.

The majority of homeworkers and contract-shop workers are women who have migrated from precisely those countries to which apparel production has been moving. Having come ‘North’ for a better life, they find themselves competing with women in the countries they left.

A few powerful retailers can dictate the price and turn-around time for the manufacture of their garments. This means apparel contractors are under constant pressure to lower labour costs. To meet deadlines, they impose strict production quotas and demand excessively long hours of work. Whenever workers organize to achieve a living wage and decent conditions, retailers threaten to shift production to other factories or countries.

In an era when governments everywhere are ‘deregulating’ to compete for investment, the power of global corporations sometimes seems impossible to challenge. Yet recent consumer campaigns are proving how vulnerable these giant, image-conscious retailers can be.

On 15 December 1995, The Gap responded to public pressure and signed an agreement to allow local independent human-rights groups to monitor the factories that produce its garments in Central America. Like many other retailers, The Gap has a code of conduct for its suppliers. The problem, according to Charles Kernaghan – executive director of the National Labor Committee, which co-ordinated The Gap campaign in the US – was that no worker had ever seen it. ‘Before we exposed The Gap’s practices in Central America,’ he says, ‘they hadn’t even bothered to translate their code of conduct into Spanish.’

Most foreign investors in Central America’s free-trade zones are Korean and Taiwanese manufacturers who produce apparel under contract to major North American retailers and labels. These companies are attracted by easy access to the North American market, benevolent terms of investment offered by Central American countries and by government distaste for unions.

How can international solidarity possibly be effective in such circumstances?

When we travel to El Salvador’s capital city, San Salvador, to attend a conference we are greeted by an article in La Prensa Gráfica: ‘The arrival of foreign union leaders promoting a boycott of the maquilas was confirmed yesterday by immigration authorities.’ Despite the newspaper headlines a boycott of the maquilas is definitely not on the agenda.

The conference is hosted by the El Salvador Independent Monitoring Group, which includes the Human Rights Institute of the Jesuit-run University of Central America (UCA), the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, and the Labour Studies Centre (CENTRA). The meeting aims to assess Mandarin International’s conduct after two years of independent monitoring of the code.

‘Since the agreement,’ says Mark Anner, a former member of CENTRA and the Monitoring Group, ‘the worst violations have been rectified. The colonel has been removed from the factory... Women aren’t required to present pregnancy tests, nor are they forced to work overtime.’ Asked about the remaining problems he replies: ‘Independent monitoring in this one factory has been unable to touch the logic of how the industry works, the intensity of the work which is linked to the production goals... The next great challenge is to see to it that all the companies are feeling the same pressure to improve conditions.’

The Gap has conspicuously not allowed independent monitoring at any of its other contract factories in over 50 countries around the world. Nor did the company suffer much public criticism when Carmelita Alonzo died of exhaustion from overwork on 8 March 1997 – International Women’s Day. Before she died, Carmelita had been working 14 hours a day at a factory in the Philippines producing garments for The Gap and other brand-name retailers. Significantly, the company has not felt the need to participate in the US Apparel Industry Partnership, which is negotiating a multi-company code of conduct and a global monitoring system.

Negotiations between the various ‘stakeholders’ for multi-company or industry-wide codes of conduct are now underway in the US, the UK, a number of European countries, and at the level of the European Union. In Australia, a voluntary code on homework has been negotiated by unions, retailers and manufacturers, but it only applies to domestic production. In Canada, a broad coalition is demanding a federal task force on sweatshop abuses, which could include discussions on monitoring.

A major concern is how Southern workers can be represented in Northern negotiations and global monitoring systems. On the second day of the conference Sandra Ramos, a member of the Central American Women’s Network in Support of Maquiladora Workers, challenges Charles Kernaghan about the negative impact of some Northern campaigns. She charges that the ‘buy American’ message of the US media coverage has resulted in worker firings and a nationalistic backlash against organizers in Nicaragua. Kernaghan responds that Northern campaigners can’t control the US media, but access to the media does allow the stories of Central American workers to reach millions of North American consumers.

We and three women activists from the Mexican border region argue late into the night about on-the-ground organizing. While codes of conduct might be useful in the North, says one of the women, they shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to the struggles of maquila workers themselves.

One month later the Nicaraguan Minister of Labour, Wilfredo Navarro, signs a proclamation in front of 500 maquila workers. It is based on a Code of Ethics developed by the women’s network and reportedly signed by 30,000 Nicaraguans. The next day, the owners of all 23 maquilas in the Las Mercedes free-trade zone sign an agreement to adhere to the terms of the proclamation, which include guarantees of freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively.

Back in Canada, we want the Government to convene a federal task force on sweatshop abuses both at home and overseas. We want the Woolworth Corporation to take responsibility for what happens in Metro Toronto – and in the Las Mercedes free-trade zone in Nicaragua, where we have now learned that Woolworth has some of its garments made. We’ll have to talk with Sandra about how that information can best be used.

Bob Jeffcott and Lynda Yanz both work at the Maquila Solidarity Network.

The Maquila Solidarity Network acts as the outreach office for the Labour Behind the Label Coalition. You can reach both organizations at Popular Education Research Group, 606 Shaw Street, Toronto, Ontario M6G 3L6, Canada; Tel: +1 416 532 8584, Fax: +1 416 532 7688, e-mail: [email protected] or website: http://www.web.net/~msn
Labour Behind the Label, 38-40 Exchange Street, Norwich NR2, UK, Tel/Fax: +44 160 361 0993.
National Outwork Information Campaign, c/o Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, 6th Floor, 377 Sussex Street, Sydney NSW 2000. FairWear Australia, Tel: +61 3 9251 5200, Fax: +61 3 9650 4490, email: [email protected] National Distribution Union, Private Bag 68, 902 Newton, Auckland, Tel: +64 9 355 1855, Fax: +64 9 355 1850.

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New Internationalist issue 302 magazine cover This article is from the June 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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