Date: Mon, 26 Jan 1998 21:27:33 -0500
Reply-To: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: "P. K. Murphy" <bi008@FREENET.TORONTO.ON.CA>
Subject: On Independent Monitoring and Latin American Workers
On Independent Monitoring and Latin American Workers
By Lynda Yanz, 26 January 1998
Bob Jeffcott and I recently attended a meeting hosted by the Independent Monitoring Group in El Salvador (GIMES) to discuss their experience over the last year, since they signed a contract with the GAP to monitor conditions at Mandarin International. The conference was fascinating. Obviously, many groups in Central America see independent monitoring as an important strategy for dealing with conditions in the maquilas. Below find an article we wrote about the meeting, which will be published in the next Asian Monitor Resource Centre Labour Update.
We also learned more about an innovative campaign developed by the Central American Network of Women in Solidarity with Maquila Workers calling for a Women's Alternative Code of Ethics which they've been calling on maquila owners, associations and ministries of labour to sign on to. It is the first Code to outline demands related to abuses of women's health and reproductive rights. In Nicaragua, the response to the public campaign has been very positive. The Movement of Unemployed and Women's Workers Association, Maria Elena Cuadra has gathered over 30,000 signatures for presentation to the Ministry of Labour. We'll have more information on the campaign in an upcoming issues of the Maquila Network Update.
And one final thing ... Don't miss -- Sunday, Feb 1 at 10:30 p.m. Under Currents (CBC Sunday evening). Bob Jeffcott of the Maquila Solidarity
El Salvador Conference Debates Independent Monitoring
By Lynda Yanz and Bob Jeffcott
The December 1995 agreement by the US apparel retailer, the GAP, to accept independent monitoring of its code of conduct at the Mandarin International maquiladora factory in El Salvador has been heralded as a precedent-setting victory and model for how corporate codes of conduct can be made effective. The agreement was achieved after an intensive public campaign in the US, Canada and El Salvador.
What was unique about the agreement with the GAP and Salvadoran contractor Mandarin International was that it mandated truly independent, local human rights groups to monitor working conditions and labour rights violations in a contract factory producing for a major North American retailer. However, the GAP has so far not allowed independent monitoring to be implemented at any other of its contract factories in Central America or elsewhere. (The GAP has contract factories in over 50 countries.)
A little over two years after the agreement was signed, the Salvadoran Independent Monitoring Group held a public forum in San Salvador on January 13 and 14, 1998 to discuss their experience and that of other Central American groups. Participants in the forum included labour, religious, women's, human rights and solidarity groups from Central America, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Canada, the US and Germany.
Although members of the Independent Monitoring Group -- which includes the Human Rights Institute of the University of Central America, Tutela Legal (Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador), and the Labour Studies Centre (CENTRA) -- are reluctant to promote their experience as model that could be applied everywhere, they believe it does offer a concrete experience that others can learn from.
Have Conditions Improved?
According to Benjamin Cuellar, Director of the Human Rights Office of the Jesuit-run University of Central America, the monitoring group has regular access to the workers both inside and outside the factory, and more importantly they have the trust of the workers and have won the trust of the factory management.
According to Mark Anner, a former member of the monitoring group representing CENTRA, "Before monitoring, there wasn't proper drinking water. Locks were put on the bathroom doors, and women had to ask permission to go to the bathroom. Bathroom visits were timed, and women weren't allowed to go in groups. An ex-military colonel was in charge of personnel and he ran the factory like a military barracks. There were problems with forced overtime and poor ventilation. Women had to present a pregnancy test to get a job.
"Since the agreement," Anner continues, "the worst of those violations have been rectified. The colonel has been removed from the factory. The locks have been taken off the bathroom doors, and the women don't have to sign up to go to the bathroom. The company has put in proper water coolers. Women aren't required to present pregnancy tests, nor are they forced to work overtime."
Asked what monitoring has been unable to accomplish, Anner states, "Independent monitoring has not been able to touch in this one factory the logic of how the industry works, the intensity of the work which is linked to the production goals. Local factories producing under contract for big US retailers like the GAP or Eddie Bauer have set deadlines they have to meet to fulfill their orders. Profit margins are very low. For the maquiladora owners to survive under this system, they try to keep the pace of production up. They keep a small workforce and demand a lot of overtime when orders are heavy."
As Anner admits, "we can only achieve so much in one isolated factory. The next great challenge is to see to it that all the companies are feeling the same pressure to improve conditions." If the GAP begins to source from other maquilas in El Salvador, the monitoring groups hopes to be able to negotiate the right to monitor conditions in those factories.
A Substitute for Unions?
A major issue of debate at the San Salvador conference was the relationship between the role of unions and monitoring groups. While the Independent Monitoring Group insists that it is not a substitute for a union, and that it has been instrumental in facilitating the return to work of fired union executive members and 75 fired union supporters, it admits to going beyond its monitoring role to act as a conciliator between the workers and management.
Yet the labour situation at Mandarin remains complicated. There are now two unions in the factory, SETMI and ATEMISA, and both are recognized by the Ministry of Labour. ATEMISA was formed with the support of company after hundreds of SETMI supporters were fired during the 1985 dispute, and ATEMISA is now the larger of the two unions.
Independent Monitoring in Hondursa
While groups in Nicaragua and Guatemala are discussing the possibility of establishing independent monitoring groups, the only other factory in Central America where Independent Monitoring has been negotiated is at the Kimi Factory in Honduras.
The monitoring agreement signed in June 1997 followed a bitter battle which erupted when workers attempted to organize a union. As a result, several workers were fired, an international campaign was launched, and contracting companies such as Macy and JC Penny threatened to pull out of Honduras, putting at risk the employment of the 500 workers at the factory.
The Independent Monitoring Team in Honduras includes CODE (Committee for the Defence of Human Rights), the Jesuits, CODEMUH (Women's Collective of Honduras) and Caritas Diocesana. Each organization has a long history of monitoring of conditions in Honduras' maquilas.
The Honduran team is the first one to include a women's group. Given the high percentage of women in the maquilas, and the lack of a gender perspective of many of the unions operating in Central America, this would seem an important advance.
The agreement between KIWI and the Independent Monitoring Team describes independent monitoring as "permanent supervision of the workplace by representatives of groups with recognized independence and moral authority concerning workers' human and labour rights ... as contained in national legislation and international conventions," including the US Presidential Taskforce Accord.
The KIWI agreement provides for regular and unannounced visits by the monitoring team and monthly meetings to include representatives from management and worker organizations. The agreement set out the following short-term priorities for the Independent Monitoring Team: the treatment of pregnant women workers; accusations of abusive treatment on the part of the factory's management, freedom of union association, and the situation of workers fired for attempting to organize a union.
At the Salvador conference, the Honduran monitoring team reported that they'd been able to facilitate advances in each of these areas. They reported that as a result of their work and the public discussion that has surrounded it, the Honduran Maquiladora Association is interested in developing a Code of Conduct for the industry, which the team believes will be an important step forward.
Despite these advances, the Honduran team came to El Salvador with many questions about the challenges and future of independent monitoring. They spoke of the mistrust that still exists between unions and monitoring groups, and the importance of continuing to pressure ministries of labour to play an effective role in monitoring and enforcing labour legislation. This confusion between union and monitoring roles was echoed by the Salvadorean monitoring group members.
Significantly, both the Salvadoran and Honduran monitoring groups put more emphasis on monitoring compliance with local labour legislation than corporate codes of conduct, and neither group saw independent monitoring as a privatized alternative to state enforcement of national labour laws.
As groups in North America and Europe are pressing ahead with attempts to negotiate multi-company or industry-wide codes of conduct and systems of independent monitoring, another major unresolved issue raised by a number of conference participants was how the concerns and demands of maquila workers will be represented in Northern negotiations, and what role Southern groups will be able to play in any new global systems of monitoring.
Lynda Yanz and Bob Jeffcott are active members of the Maquila Solidarity Network and the Labour Behind the Label Coalition in Toronto, Canada.
Maquila Solidarity Network/Labour Behind the Label Coalition