Date: Thu, 31 Oct 1996 14:08:11 -0600
> S * IN ACTIV-L
Trade Unions and the Maquila Sector
Peace Brigades International - Guatemala Special Report, September 1996
One of the most complex industries in Guatemala, in terms of understanding its functioning and the application of labor rights, is the industry related to maquilas: unregulated sweatshops which produce textiles. In this article, we draw from our experience accompanying a number of trade unions involved in this industry and aim to reflect points of view and experiences of Guatemalans working in the industry, most of whom are women.
The Growth of an Industry
The Guatemalan government is determined to push the maquila industry and duplicate, by the end of the decade, the boom in textile factories which the country saw as the 90's began. The Minister of Labor and Social Welfare announced that by 1999, with the help of foreign investors, 100,000 new jobs would be created in this controversial industry, tripling the 54,000 jobs in textile factories which now exist. For big business and the government, the main arguments in favor of maquilas are the creation of jobs, the attraction of foreign investors and the integration of Guatemala into the world market.
It's very difficult to estimate the true dimensions of the maquila sector in Guatemala. The Guatemalan Workers' Union (UNSITRAGUA) declared that, in the capital, the 240 existing maquilas employ between 200 and 3,000 workers each, and many factories give work to an unknown quantity of smaller enterprises. In the interior of the country, statistics are unknown regarding the number of factories and workers.
According to UNSITRAGUA, of some 70,000 textile industry workers, 80% are young women _ with a high percentage of single mothers, heads of households, and widows. The union contends that 'businesses prefer to employ [women] because they are docile and fear repression, so they do not organize; besides which, they are very well suited to manual labor and in addition, they do not need a great deal of knowledge to develop these skills.'
Just who the owners of Guatemalan maquilas are is a question which it is difficult to answer very clearly. UNSITRAGUA maintains that a little more than 50% have Guatemalan owners, 25% are owned by United States citizens and 25% are Korean owned. But Inforpress recently reported that, out of 219 known textile factories in 1994, 95 were owned by Guatemalans, 95 by Koreans, 20 by United States citizens, and four by Taiwanese. Five were bought with capital from other countries.
More than 90% of the factories are textile producers; most of the rest are involved in the production of chemicals and electronics, while 1% make agricultural products. The products of the maquila industry make up Guatemala's third largest export, following coffee and sugar (Bank of Guatemala, August 1995). This means that maquila products are exported even more than bananas, chemical products, and cardamom.
Problems associated with textile factories, especially maquilas, are known worldwide. Recently, in a meeting in Geneva, the International Confederation of Free Unions (CISL) compared Central American maquilas to concentration camps and outlined a series of human rights violations in these work centers, such as beatings, sexual abuse and the distribution of amphetamines to make workers endure the long working hours and arduous working conditions.
UNSITRAGUA, a federation very involved in the maquila sector, maintains that Guatemalan workers have seen similar cases and have experienced a number of other human and labor rights violations which add to the negative image of maquilas. In many factories there is little air or light. There is almost never any ventilation or filtration systems for the dust and bits of fabric which circulate. There is no protection from harmful chemicals used in textile production. The majority of the washrooms are catastrophic, and _ when available at all _ dining rooms are also unsanitary. Often, workers are not given breaks and 15-30 minutes to eat lunch is a luxury. Talking with co-workers while working is prohibited and every minute of work that a worker misses is deducted from her or his pay.
In many maquilas, workers are not paid the social security quota dictated by the Guatemala Social Security Institute (IGSS) and the factory provides no other form of social security. Workdays vary and are dictated by norms established by the management, depending on consumer demand of various products, which means workers are given little notice of long or short workdays. On average, maquila workers will work between 10 and 12 hours, but are often obliged to work extra hours until very late at night, without pay. Salaries on average, are between 8.6 and 11.6 quetzales per day (between US$1.40 and $1.90), which is much lower than the legal daily minimum wage of 17 quetzales (US$2.83).
Equally precarious to the labor and salary conditions of maquilas is the state of labor unions: UNISTRAGUA, at the beginning of the 1990s, had 13 unions affiliated with the maquila sector; now only 3 remain. The other unions were disbanded or the factories where workers were organized had been closed. This is why maquilas in Guatemala are referred to as "swallow industries" _ when problems or complications arise, factories are moved to other areas (or countries) which offer more favorable business environments (cheaper labor, less rigid labor laws, etc.).
Repression against union leaders in the maquilas comes in many forms, ranging from isolation in the workplace and denial of work or incentives, to intimidations and browbeating, and to dismissal of 'troublemakers'. Union leaders are regularly the targets of death threats. Kidnapping, torture and assassination are still part of the repertoire of methods used to violate human rights in the labor sector in Guatemala.
In a study carried out by UNSITRAGUA, only 1% of maquila workers were affiliated with unions, of which only six have survived in the country. In the last month union leaders in the maquila sector have attempted to organize on a Central American level, to work together to find solutions to their situations.
The main market for maquila products is an integral part of the problem. 99% of clothing produced by Guatemalan factories is exported to the United States. Customs and duties practices, specifically the General System of Preferences (SGP-Preferred Nation Status) make this kind of trade very attractive. Secretary of International Affairs for UNSITRAGUA, Julio Coj, indicated that 'the four labor associations confronting the problem do not want to shut the doors to foreign investment, but at the same time we are trying to look for mechanisms which will bring human and labor rights violations to an end in the maquilas. We want Guatemala to stay in the SGP, what we need is a better system of vigilance.'
Union leaders are working on a proposal for an agreement between the Guatemalan government and the Association of Non-Traditional Export Producers (GEXPRONT), in which GEXPRONT would have to make a commitment to ending abuses which violate the right of unions to organize. According to Julio Coj, 'the difficult part is that normally the government controls all aspects of negotiations [with the foreign companies] and does not listen to unions, leaving us with very little power to [apply] pressure.'
The Guatemalan government asserts, according to Economic Minister Mauricio Wurmser, that <i>'in October, Guatemala will be eliminated from the list of countries now under revision to receive the benefits promised by the SGP....'</i> Convinced that <i>'the advances [of labor rights in the state] have been significant, in October this revision will be lifted,'</i> and Guatemala will be given preferred status by the U.S.. On the other hand, the unions continue demanding the internationalization and strengthening of control over labor rights through the International Labor Organization (OIT), and call for international pressure on Guatemala to push for legislation throughout Central America that will end the impunity with which maquilas are functioning. In this sense, Julio Coj added that 'the central and most important point is the government, responsible for the gravity of the situation. Signing agreements between governments should not only emphasize process around customs, etc. but should demand that businesses respect the labor rights of workers in Guatemala. Pressure needs to be applied to governments and international finance organizations.'
Peace Brigades International and Maquila Workers
Peace Brigades International (PBI, http://www.igc.apc.org/pbi/index.html) has received a number of requests for international protective accompaniment coming from the maquila sector, from maquila worker's unions as well as from labor federations which bring together various unions. One case in which we have been present as international observers and accompaniers is that of the maquila INEXPORT.
The INEXPORT Textile Factory Worker's Union
INEXPORT was opened in 1985 in Guatemala City by United States citizen Henry Robbins Cohen and was one of the first maquilas in Guatemala. At the beginning there were 700 women and men working in the factory, producing pants for export. Problems arose when the factory augmented the number of finished goods which had to come out of the production line, increasing production without increasing salaries. In response to the situation, the INEXPORT Textile Factory Worker's Union (SITRAINTEXSA) was created.
SITRAINTEXSA is the only maquila union in Guatemala which has managed to negotiate a collective agreement with the company, though it hasn't been fully respected. After the signing of this agreement, 210 workers were let go. This incident provoked the first labor conflict at INEXPORT, between 1989 and 1992, after which a number of the laid-off workers were reinstated.
The Present Conflict
The second and present conflict started in May of 1995 when the factory union presented part II of the collective agreement, which was rejected by the company, arguing that it didn't have money to comply with the agreement since its production had decreased. But, at the same time, the company was giving a certain production quota to another maquila. By September 1995, 300 workers were laid off or forced to take vacations. The workers who remained in the factory decided to continue working, although it was foreseen that their salaries would be delayed 2 weeks. After 3 months they still had not received their salaries, nor vacation pay, nor their Christmas 'bonus' (UNSITRAGUA bulletin, June 1996).
On February 12, 1996, as a response to their demand to receive the back pay, the workers arrived to find the factory closed without warning. Since that day, the workers have been camping out 24 hours a day, in front of the INEXPORT factory and demanding their reinstallation and the payment of what is owed to them. On various occasions, the camped out workers have been intimidated and threatened.
The company declared it was bankrupt and unable to pay the pending salaries. In negotiations between the union and company representatives, it was agreed that there would be an appraisal and evaluation of the worth of the machinery inside the factory to see if the value could compensate for the debts owed to the workers. Before the financial evaluation was carried out, the company tried to remove some of the machinery from the workplace.
In July of 1996, the Minister of Labor revoked INEXPORT's operating license in Guatemala after attesting to the violations of labor rights committed by the company (Prensa Libre, 19-June-96). Though these steps may seem like a step forward, an UNSITRAGUA representative states that this does not prevent the company from opening another maquila in Guatemala under another name.
The Guatemala Labor Education Project, a United States organization, reported in its May newsletter that Henry Cohen owes a great deal not only to other businesses and workers but also to the Guatemalan government. Nevertheless, the valuation of the machinery at INEXPORT has been carried out and the workers await the report thereof in order to continue negotiations with the company.
The former employees of INEXPORT had some financial support initially, but this is diminishing with time. The majority of these workers are single mothers and have had to look for work in other factories, maquilas or the informal sector to survive. Their economic situation is precarious, but many continue to camp outside the factory awaiting a resolution to the conflict.
Peace Brigades International (PBI)
The above text may freely be reproduced, copied, or translated, in whole or in part, and without prior consent, as long as the source is stated as: Peace Brigades International.
This article was posted to Usenet via the Posting Service at Deja News: