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From clr@igc.apc.org Tue May 30 10:34:41 2000
Date: Fri, 5 May 2000 23:57:37 -0500 (CDT)
From: Campaign for Labor Rights <clr@igc.apc.org>
Subject: Nicaragua crisis deepens
Article: 95472
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Nicaragua crisis deepens

Labor Alerts, 5 May 2000

Unions in Nicaragua's Las Mercedes free trade zone are facing an escalation of attacks from factory owners. Nicaragua has the smallest free trade zone sector in Central America, but with the highest percentage of unionized export factories. It would be a setback for the entire region if these union-busting attacks were to succeed.

[The following report (slightly edited) was sent on May 4 by the Witness for Peace team in Nicaragua. Contact the Washington, DC offices of Witness for Peace at (202) 588-1471, <sdebolt@witnessforpeace.org>. See action request later in this alert.]

Hundreds of Chentex union members have been on strike since Tuesday after their attempts to negotiate for a salary increase failed and management announced plans to fire the union leadership (9 workers) and close at least one production line. The Ministry of Labor has not yet ruled the strike legal or illegal and has not yet approved the firing of the 9 union leaders.

Workers stopped work for one hour on May 2. Approximately 30 workers, including the 9 union leaders, spent that night in the factory. The company called in police to monitor the situation. Other workers arrived at the factory the following morning, but the work stoppage continued. Throughout the day on May 3, more than 500 workers supported the union leaders in the strike. "If we let them fire the union leaders, we won't have any protection. We will be next," said a supporter.

The protest stems from eight months of attempted negotiations for a salary increase. Chentex is part of a Taiwanese consortium of maquilas in the free trade zone, all of which received a salary increase in March. However, Chentex workers said that their increase was insubstantial. One worker pointed out that her salary increase amounted to only $0.32 a week. Union representatives say they tried multiple times to negotiate with the management, asking for mediation from the Ministry of Labor, but were unsuccessful. Management claims that financial difficulties make another salary increase impossible.

Workers and management met during the week of April 24 at the Nicaraguan Ministry of Labor, where workers again asked for a salary increase. They stated that they warned the Ministry of Labor and management of their plans to strike if they did not receive a response by May 2. Management responded by threatening to close an entire production line. Management then applied to the Ministry of Labor for permission to fire the 9 union officers for the CST union. This proposed action has not yet been approved. After being notified on May 3 that their union leadership may be fired, the workers went on strike.

In an interview, Lucas Wong, representative for the consortium, defended the decision to fire the union leadership. "We have to do something, because if we don't the union just thinks we can't touch them. There's no discipline." Wong said the management is "tired of this problem" and claimed that the union "is not a normal union." [CLR note: Perhaps he means that it is not like company-controlled unions, which also have a presence in the free trade zone.]

Maria del Carmen Pena, Inspector for the Labor Department of the Ministry of Labor, Industrial Sector, said she plans to investigate the conflict this week and will decide late next week whether to approve the firings. She also is investigating the legality of the work stoppage. Both sides, management and workers, will have four days to present their cases.

Chentex employs approximately 1,800 workers in Managua's free trade zone. It produces clothing under the Arizona and Bugle Boy labels for JC Penney and Kmart. The union formed in 1998 and has a collective bargaining agreement with management. It has traditionally been one of the strongest, most active unions in the free trade zone. This attempt to dismantle it represents a serious threat to organizing in Nicaragua's maquila sector.

Chentex workers went to the Ministry of Labor on May 4 to denounce the company's attempt to fire the union leadership. The Ministry has not yet ruled on the firings or the strike, but is expected to do so very soon. The workers have asked for international solidarity in pressuring the Ministry of Labor not to approve the firings, to declare the strike legal and to direct Chentex management to negotiate with workers.

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