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pins and needles: Women of Central America organize in the Maquilas
Maria Esperanza is a fast learner. Seven years ago, she left her semi-rural town of Choloma to become a student in San Pedro Sula -- the second largest city in Honduras. She took a job in a maquila, one of the hundreds of garment factories that are quickly marking her Central American nation as the epicenter for cheap labor in the new economic world order.
Maquilas are not a new phenomenon; they have been around for about 70 years. But maquilas took on a renewed significance in Central America in the late 1980s when governments like Honduras' began to eliminate business taxes.
At the age of 23, Esperanza needed work to pay for school, so she left home, moved into a rented room, and started commuting by factory bus at 7 am and 5:30 pm. But her pay, she explained, "barely covered rent and food -- nothing more."
She made men's underwear in the maquila for three years, but was dismissed after she engaged in conversations with fellow employees about improving working conditions.
Esperanza is now married and her husband is a truck driver. Last year, she and her sister-in-law returned to a maquila and she explained the process of applying for work.
"This time, in order to get a job, I was put through a battery of tests," she said, to examine her dexterity and quickness. Applicants for work are frequently given pregnancy tests and not hired if they are pregnant. The company will also not hire a mother who is nursing because the law decrees that nursing mothers can arrive for work an hour late.
Esperanza was hired for a two-month probation period at the lowest level of production and pay. She earned minimum wage, as required by Honduran law, but that is only 450 lempiras a week -- or $120 a month.
The women worked in a group of 25 women on 25 machines under one supervisor who oversaw their production level and work quality. Esperanza's job was to repeatedly sew a single, six-inch shoulder section on a shirt. She was expected to complete four dozen an hour. If her group of seamstresses failed to meet their target, the whole group worked into the night.
"In order to meet production levels, you limit yourself and take no rest or bathroom breaks," she said. "They are constantly circling around your machine and making you work faster and faster. If you make a mistake, they bring back corrections that you have to do."
Women are quickly expected to move into higher and faster production levels or they are dismissed.
The working conditions are also unhealthy. Many maquilas pump in loud music to quicken the pace of work and it is common for women to seek sedatives in order to cope with the tension.
"They give you a simple mask to cover your nose and mouth, but there is no protection for your eyes," Esperanza said. "The lint is flying all around and covers everything. There are ventilators that move the air, but whatever color you are working with -- red, yellow, white -- that's the color you are at the end of the day."
"I only made it a couple of months," Esperanza said. "What I found was that the maquila was not a solution."
Esperanza's sister-in-law continues in the maquila. Near the end of the year, she was required to work overtime -- until 8:30 p.m., seven days a week--because of the Christmas sales of new clothes in the U.S. She was paid for her overtime work: ten lempiras an hour, which is 75 cents.
Esperanza explained why so many women -- between 60,000-90,000 in Honduras alone -- find their way into maquila sweatshops.
"They don't have their little cows," she explained in her native vernacular. "Most people don't have land or animals so they have no other way. Many come to the city because they need to survive and they have no alternative but to work in the maquila."
The social consequences of maquila labor are also destabilizing for Honduras. Many young, single mothers are leaving their children as well as their rural social structure for false promises. Although women can generally earn more at a maquila than as a domestic worker, the scale of the migration of women off the land is unprecedented.
Esperanza didn't want her real name used in this story since she may have to go back to the maquilas in the future. It may not be an issue, however. The maquila veteran turned 30 last year and the factories don't hire women that old.
Red Centroamericana de Mujeres
There is hope for the workers in maquilas. A network called Red Centroamericana de Mujeres en Solidaridad con las Trabajadoras de las Maquilas (The Central America Network of Women in Solidarity with the [women] Workers of the Maquilas) is attempting to organize women and to improve working conditions in the factories.
Many of the region's member groups have their roots in the popular revolutionary movements of the past two decades, but are charting a new course and concentrating on building a women's movement. The groups eschew traditional labor unions for the same reasons they broke from other male-dominated alliances.
"Many left the revolutionary movement over gender discrimination," said Jennifer Atlee, a regional staff member with the American Friends Service Committee (Quaker International Affairs Representatives Program) in Central America. "They define themselves as women wanting to work with women on gender issues." Within that objective, they are focusing on the maquilas "where there are tons of women, but they aren't organized." The groups are also addressing issues of domestic violence, health care, and education.
Maria Luisa Regalado of the Colectiva de Mujeres Hondureñas (CODEMUH) hosted a meeting of the Network on November 30 in San Pedro Sula and explained that the women's organizations strive to work with all sectors of the society in order to improve working conditions in the maquilas. The Minister of Labor in Honduras, who is a woman, sent a representative to the San Pedro Sula meeting.
"We want to work with and strengthen our ties with business and government," said Marina Rios of the Movimiento de Mujeres Melida Anaya Montes in El Salvador. "The Caribbean Basin Initiative increased the number of jobs, but it isn't enough to have jobs. They must be jobs with dignity."
Rios said that the Network is comparing laws across regional borders and trying to confront the weakening of labor laws, as is occurring in her own country.
"We want to work with the Ministries of Labor because that is where the issues end up," said Sandra Ramos, whose women's group in Nicaragua left the Sandinista movement seven years ago. She explained that many of the international accords on labor, which have been signed by the governments of each country, outline good laws. "A lot of the work is getting people to know what the laws are."
Ramos said that the Network is working with lawyers to enforce regulations on the books, but without a history of enforcement, litigation is presently a dead-end. She said that the Network principally want to persuade employers that healthy workers will be better workers.
"We also need to sensitize inspectors to issues and provide better training for inspectors," Ramos added. Retail companies are still not required to put their labels on garments within the factories -- thus obscuring any reasonable process of corporate accountability. Honest international verification is still critically important.
There is a significant impediment to the fledging solidarity of the women in Central America. While the Caribbean Basin Initiative will bring more jobs to the region, which the women's groups support, the new economic agreements end a quota system that previously outlined how much production the United States companies would absorb from each country. With pressure on each country -- indeed, in each maquila -- to scramble to the coast with finished goods, the result will pit each country against its neighbor and each over-worked maquiladora against the slowest woman on the factory floor.
The leaders of the Network face a sizable challenge: Building a movement of marginally literate women in the face of an international economic system that can shift the manual labor to Asia at the drop of a hat.
Even Maria Esperanza, who never did complete the education she sought nearly a decade ago, understands the impact of the changes in this new economic order.
"While it will bring more jobs, it will push down the labor standards [in each country]," she observed. "We need the jobs, but it is not a solution if they do not pay just wages."
Herb Gunn is editor of The Record, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. A longtime Central America justice activist, he recently travelled to Honduras, where he made this report. The photos that accompany this story are his.