Date: Wed, 6 May 98 14:58:48 CDT
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'Workers Committees' Displace Unions
By Roberto Fonseca, IPS, 30 April 1998
MANAGUA, Apr 30 (IPS) - "Workers committees" are pushing aside and threatening the survival of traditional unions, mainly linked to the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), in Nicaragua's industrial free zones.
Eight unions, most of them advised by the FSLN-affiliated Sandinista Workers Central (CST) and created last year, are registered with the Labour Ministry in the free zones. Two are inactive, and the combined membership of the remaining six, around 500 workers, accounts for less than five percent of all workers in the free zones, which began operating in Nicaragua four years ago.
The workers committees, meanwhile, promoted by a local women's movement, represent around 4,500 women, advised by 500 promoters of women's and worker's rights.
Twenty-one companies from the United States, Taiwan and South Korea operate in the industrial free zones, with 12,000 employees, mainly women.
The workers committees are emerging "because the labour movement has been weakened and has lost negotiating and mediating capacity," the coordinator of the 'Maria Elena Cuadra' Movement of Working and Unemployed Women, Sandra Ramos, told IPS.
"We are not against the free zones...but against the violation of the rights of women workers," said Ramos, a former CST leader. "Our group does not seek confrontation, but works through negotiation and mediation."
As well as organising workers committees, the Maria Elena Cuadra movement has obtained Labour Ministry approval for a binding code of ethics - including a ban on hiring minors and measures designed to crack down on sexual harassment and physical abuse - to be applied in the free zones.
The code of ethics was signed by Labour Minister Wilfredo Navarro, and has the support of the management of the foreign companies operating in the free zones.
"The code was the result of five years of long, hard work, into which women workers in the free zones put their best," said Ramos, who has been branded as a "traitor" by the leaders of the CST-affiliated unions.
A dozen strikes have been held and workers affiliated with the CST have clashed with other groups in the four years since the free zones began to operate.
The latest violent incident occurred in the Chentex textile factory, a firm from Taiwan, which employs nearly 2,000 workers and exported 45 million dollars worth of goods in 1997.
The clash broke out after the company refused to accept a Sandinista union in Chentex. The Labour Ministry reprimanded the company, which in turn threatened to pull out of Nicaragua by July.
According to women workers in the free zones, the incident widened the distance between workers and the CST-affiliated unions.
"We don't want confrontations with our employers," said Olga Maria Pineda, the head of a workers committee who has promoted labour rights for the past five years. "We want them to set the necessary working conditions, and we will meet our obligations.
"I am not anti-union. I just think the era of confrontations and sit-downs has ended, and now it is up to us to show mutual respect to keep our jobs," she added.
But Jamileth Polanco, a worker in a U.S. factory and secretary- general of the CST-affiliated 'Juan Carlos Rivera' union, said her group was not seeking confrontation, but rather collaboration, with the companies.
"We have walked hand in hand with the administration, and although we have clashes, as is only natural, they respond to our requests. We have not had to resort to the Labour Ministry, because we have a calm relationship," she said.
"The company's human resources office listens to us and problems are worked out. The proof of that is that we obtained a permit to organise an administrative office, and we received support for credits towards folders and shoes from other companies," Polanco added.
Mercedes Sobalvarro, an employee of Fortex and an official of the CST-affiliated '16 de Agosto' union, also said that "we have no major problems to work out, except for the recognition of seniority by our employers and the indiscipline of a few workers."
A strike was held four years ago, but it only lasted one day, said Sobalvarro. "An accord was quickly reached," and today the union tries to work out conflicts by "speaking clearly and calmly," she added.
Ramos, meanwhile, said the workers committees were still working on several problems, which she said would probably be resolved. She mentioned enforcement of the code of ethics, training for administrative personnel designed to improve labour relations, and a review of payrolls to make sure companies are not paying less than the minimum salary.
But "we will do all this through the established channels," she stressed. "We've had enough confrontation, our women need jobs and job stability, as well as responsible organisations." (END/IPS/TRA-SO/RF/FF/SW/98)
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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