Life on the line
It makes no difference whether you’re in San Antonio, Texas or Tehuacán, Mexico – if you’re a migrant and a woman who stitches jeans for a living you can be sure of a mean deal. Miriam Ching Louie reports on the seamy underside of a nasty business.
Beneath the roller coaster of global styles and markets lies a seismic shift, shaking the lives of the women who stitch jeans together. Women in the developing world, and migrants to the First World, increasingly find themselves working on what feminists have dubbed the ‘global assembly line’. Constant restructuring and global integration mean that a ripple at one end of the line can slap women workers like a tsunami tidal wave at the other. The experience of Mexican immigrants working for Levi Strauss & Co in San Antonio, Texas, and indigenous migrants in Tehuacán, Mexico, reveals the perils of life and labor along the global denim line.
Fuerza Unida – ‘United Force’ – is a women-workers fightback organization baptized when Levi Strauss & Co closed down its Zarzamora Street plant in San Antonio, Texas, in 1990 and relocated operations to Costa Rica. The plant was Levi’s largest in the US and was not unionized. As the biggest in San Antonio’s history, the closure wrought havoc in the community.
Of the 1,150 workers who suddenly found themselves out on the street, 86 per cent were female and 92 per cent Latinos. Many received less than 24-hours notice. Denied useful retraining and other assistance, they lost not only their jobs but their peace of mind.
Viola Casares, a co-coordinator for Fuerza Unida, recalls: ‘As long as I live I’ll never forget how the white man in the suit said they had to shut us down to stay competitive.’
Petra Mata, also a co-coordinator, remembers: ‘People screamed, cried, fainted. When you lose your job you feel like nothing but trash, a remnant, a machine to be thrown out. They take away your dig-nity. You get scared. How are you going to pay for the car, the house, the kids to eat and go to school? Hijole! After so many years of working for Levi’s, overnight we had nothing.’
Viola, Petra and their co-workers were not the first – or the last – victims of Levi Strauss & Co. Between 1981 and 1990 the company closed 58 plants and put 10,400 people out of work. It shifted about half of its production overseas, where the best-paid seamstresses made about a tenth of the wages of their US counterparts. By 1990 Levi’s had 600 subsidiaries and contractors in developing countries around the world, including Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
Late in 1991 a Levi’s contractor in the US Pacific territory of Saipan was accused of keeping imported Chinese women in virtual slavery, confiscating their passports and forcing them to work 84-hour weeks at sub-minimum wages. A contractor in Indonesia who had been given a clean bill of health by a Levi’s inspector was found to be strip-searching female workers to determine whether they were menstruating as they claimed and thus were entitled to a day off with pay in accordance with Muslim law. Employees of a former Levi’s contractor in Mexico said that at least ten children aged under 14 worked at the plant; workers were laid off for a few days if they went to the toilet ‘too often’, and rain-water poured through the roof, collecting in puddles and causing electric shocks.
After cutting 1,000 white-collar jobs in February, in November 1997 Levi’s announced plans to close 11 of its US plants in Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee and Texas, employing 6,395 workers – a third of its total manufacturing workforce in the US and Canada. Media reports said the announcement followed a year-long Levi’s evaluation of its US plants, yet workers and local public officials were taken completely by surprise. There were union demonstrations in front of Levi’s Europe headquarters in Brussels when Carl von Buskirk, CEO of Levi’s Europe, said that ‘measures – including closures – could be announced in 1998 concerning certain facilities’.
Sylvia Alvarado, a Saint Mary’s University student in San Antonio, called her mother to find out how her relatives were taking the closure of the Levi’s plants in El Paso. Alvarado said: ‘The [plant] nurse told my mother the tears haven’t stopped falling. There are problems between husband and wife. People have devoted more than 20 years of their lives to their work, only to realize that their jobs are over.’
Petra Mata says: ‘This is the same strategy Levi’s use on us – to work you and then throw you away like trash. They have no respect for workers’ rights as human beings.’
Fuerza Unida built a workers’ center. In addition to waging an eight-year campaign for justice, the group runs a sewing co-operative, food bank and drop-in crisis-and-support center. With the new round of layoffs they have been flooded with calls from Levi’s workers from other plants.
Down below the southern states of the US, the Mexican side of the border is now peppered with maquila factories producing manufactured goods for export. Once confined to Mexico’s northern border with the US, they are popping up deeper inside the country’s interior.
Tehuacán, in the state of Puebla south-east of Mexico City, was known principally for its mineral waters until the 1970s, when it began to attract shops that produced garments primarily for the domestic market. But with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 business began flowing in from the US. The local Human Rights Commission estimates that there are now 60 registered maquilas that pay taxes – and up to 500 ‘underground’ shops. Maquilas range in size from a handful of workers to over 1,000. Sixty per cent of the industry is denim, with the material usually produced and cut in the US, then shipped to Tehuacán for sewing.
US-based companies, like Guess? Inc, the VF Corporation (Lee and Wrangler), Calvin Klein, Sun Apparel, Ditt and Kellwood contract with local plants to sew their jeans. Sun Apparel produces such labels as Arizona and Hunt Club for JC Penny’s, Polo for Ralph Lauren, Fila, Sasson, XXX, Faded Glory, Code Bleu, Real Pro, Todd Oldham and Ellememo, and contracts with several plants in Tehuacán.
Maria and Areceli (not their real names) live in a tiny, single-room shack that is home to nine people. The dirt floor is carefully damped down. Like the many shanty towns of migrant maquila workers that have mushroomed on the edges of the city, this colonia (neighborhood) has no electricity, running water or sewage system.
The description of their working conditions that Maria and Areceli give to local human-rights workers and a US delegation organized by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice and Highlander Center, adds up to a litany of violations of Mexican labor law. Each shift runs from 8.30am to 8.30pm, but employees must stay longer without pay if they do not finish set production goals. They work straight through Saturdays from 8.00am to 5.00pm without a lunch break. Pay runs from $30 to $50 a week. Girls as young as 12 and 13 work in the factories. Workers are searched when they leave for lunch and at the end of the day to check that they aren’t stealing materials. Women are given urine tests when hired and those found to be pregnant are promptly fired.
Recounting management’s abusive treatment, Maria suddenly blushes – rather than repeat the curse-words the foreman calls the workers. She says: ‘Even if you were dying, the company would never give you permission to leave work.’ A week earlier, a worker who had to take half a day off when he got sick had been docked a week’s pay. Arriving 15 minutes late costs three days’ work without pay.
Areceli is a fast stitcher who handles several-hundred pairs of pants a day. She complains about the back-wages owed to workers, and increased levels of stress from high production quotas. She describes the injuries women suffer from working with the heavy denim material, getting punctured by needles and pins, and adds: ‘We work without safety glasses and equipment and sometimes the needles break and fly up in our faces.’
When asked what they would do if they had the power to change their working conditions, Maria says wistfully: ‘I would work shorter hours.’ She would also like to be able just to do her work without being screamed at. Araceli says that she would like to study and wants her children to go to school: ‘We are producing high-quality exports, which demand a high skills level. We deserve more money.’ When asked what would happen if they requested improvements, Maria shudders: ‘They would get rid of you. They’d say: “If you don’t like it here, get out! Vete a la chingada! (Go fuck yourself!).”’
Many of Tehuacán’s maquila workers are members of the Nahautl, Mixteco, Mazateco and Popoloca indigenous peoples. Recruiters comb the rural regions of Puebla, Veracruz and Oaxaca for people seeking relief from hunger, drought and greedy landlords. The punitive measures that employers use to discipline workers are meant to mold Tehuacán’s new industrial workforce. Corporate behaviour reveals the historic racism used against indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Human-rights activist Alberta ‘Beti’ Carino Trujillo works with Omar Esparza Zarate teaching night school for women workers and their children. She says that in addition to exploitation at the workplace, women in the colonias suffer from toxic-waste dumping and water contamination by the maquilas, lack of childcare and educational opportunities for their children while they work, domestic and street violence, unwanted pregnancies and high stress levels, especially among single mothers. Beti’s own family migrated to Tehuacán from Oaxaca. She says that many of the indigenous people from her region have started to migrate to the US in search of work. She, her mother and siblings spent many years fending for themselves when her father labored as a migrant farmworker harvesting oranges in California.
Father Anastacio ‘Tacho’ Hidalgo Miramon focuses on the problems of indigenous migrant workers in Tehuacán, and participates in the new Congreso Nacional Indígena (Indigenous National Congress). He explains: ‘When people think about repression against indigenous people they only think about Chiapas. But there are over 56 indigenous peoples in Mexico that are being driven from the land, which served as the basis of the social fabric of our communities for centuries. What is happening in Chiapas is happening right here in the Sierra Negra, and in indigenous communities across Mexico.’ He warns: ‘The Government sees indigenous people as very dangerous. They see Chiapas everywhere. They are using every pretext to build their military bases and paramilitary white guards in our communities. In 1968 it was dangerous to be a student. Now it is dangerous to be an indigenous person.’
Indeed, when some of these human-rights workers visited maquilas a few days before our delegation, armed guards put guns to their heads. Workers were petrified their bosses would find out who had talked to us.
About ten years ago maquila workers organized an independent union which collapsed after one of the leaders was assassinated. But Beti remains hopeful. She says: ‘Although our people are exploited shamelessly, we have a lot of ganas (desire), corazon (heart), fuerza (strength) and esfuerzo (courage) to struggle. The maquilas treat us bad, but we are here to stay.’
The hip image promoted by the multi-billion-dollar jeans industry belies the treatment of these women. Restructuring and globalization bring injury and layoffs for one set of women workers, militaristic exploitation and the denial of basic human rights to another. But the situation is not hopeless. We know about the dirty underside of the jeans industry because of the courage of women who dare to speak out. They deserve smart shopping sense from consumers and solidarity with their struggle for social justice.
Miriam Ching Louie co-ordinates the Women’s Education in the Global Economy Project of the Women of Color Resource Center in Berkeley, California, and also media for Fuerza Unida.