Date: Sat, 22 May 1999 23:56:24 -0500 (CDT)
From: email@example.com (Rich Winkel)
Subject: LABOUR: Rights Set Back 100 Years in Duty-Free Zones
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Rights Set Back 100 Years in Duty-Free Zones
Mario Osava, IPS, 20 May 1999
RIO DE JANEIRO, May 20 (IPS) - Labour rights have been set back more than 100 years in duty-free zones for the assembly of exports in Central America and the Caribbean, where even the most basic rights are trampled on, according to trade unionists.
Gains of the past century, such as the eight-hour workday and the right to organise, are non-existent in what is known as the maquiladora industry installed in duty-free zones, said Amanda Villatoro, secretary of Union Policy and Education in the Inter- American Regional Workers Organisation.
The maquiladoras, mainly textile plants, are a major source of jobs, but "disregard the laws of the countries" where they operate and impose their own rules, Villatoro said at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions' (ICFTU) seventh global conference on women in Rio de Janeiro.
The maquiladoras operating in Central America and the Caribbean provide around 500,000 jobs, 180,000 of them in the Dominican Republic. The expansion of the sector over the past decade was largely due to the region's proximity to the United States and preferences offered by that country to the Caribbean basin.
Between 60 and 80 percent of maquiladora employees are female. "The companies mainly hire young women between the ages of 16 and 35, who are strong and able to work fast," and who accept the "denigrating working conditions because they are the only jobs available," Villatoro explained.
Since workers are paid on a piecework basis, the minimum salaries set by the national laws of each country are not applicable. Many employees must work 12 or 14 hour days just to earn a subsistence-level income.
"To go to the bathroom you need tokens, limited to one in the morning and one in the afternoon," and you can only stay there a few minutes - a situation that puts one in mind of slavery conditions of the past, the trade unionist pointed out.
This is "one face of globalisation that does not take account of the social dimension," she added.
Others aspects are the rise in child labour, the expansion of the informal economy and the continued concentration of land in just a few hands, said Villatoro, who began her career as a trade unionist in peasant organisations in her home country, El Salvador.
The mushrooming of duty-free export assembly zones is one of the main concerns raised at the conference that has drawn some 320 women trade unionists from 120 countries to Brazil from Tuesday through Friday.
Ten years ago there were only a few duty-free zones, but "today there are more than 850," she explained. From Central America and southeast Asia, where they first emerged, they spread to nearly all regions, especially Africa and central and eastern Europe, according to the International Labour Organisation.
That tendency has been accentuated by the phenomenon of globalisation, which has forced businesses to cut their operating costs regardless of national laws and human and labour rights, and by the financial crises that expand poverty, hitting women and children the hardest.
The government of Paraguay is attempting to set up a maquiladora sector along the border with Brazil to help shore up the economy of Ciudad del Este, up to now based on a heavy flow of smuggling and contraband which has supplied street vendors and others involved in informal commerce in neighbouring countries.
Not only is the right to organise violated in duty-free zones. Guatemala's Association of Maquiladora Companies added to its "black list" 37 women employees of the South Korean company Shin Kwan, who were dismissed for defending a co-worker physically attacked by her boss in August.
The women are now unable to find new jobs, and live under pressure for daring to turn to the courts, according to Guatemala's 'Union Sindical de Trabajadores', which accused the maquiladoras of seeking to destroy "what remains of the unions."
And in some countries, especially in Asia, women are forced to take a pregnancy test when hired, and at regular intervals while employed, and are dismissed without any right to severance pay or indemnification if found to be pregnant.
In its fight against such violations, the labour movement has been accused of standing in the way of development and the generation of employment, said Villatoro. But she added "let them go ahead and install the maquiladoras. What we are demanding is respect for national laws and international conventions."
One effective solution would be for global and regional free trade agreements and treaties to include social clauses, rejecting exports produced by companies that fail to comply with the labour and social rights that have long been recognised and given legal status worldwide, she maintained.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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