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Saturday, December 9, 2023
MEXICO CITY, Nov 26 2009 (IPS) - A group of workers in Honduras managed to prevent the closure of an assembly plant manufacturing sportswear for the U.S.-based sports apparel maker Russell Athletic, thereby saving 1,200 jobs.
But workers at the Vaqueros Navarra firm in the southern Mexican state of Puebla, which produces garments for several U.S. labels, were not so lucky: the owners decided to close the factory when the employees tried to form an independent union.
These cases represent the warp and weft of the textile sector in Mexico and Central America, which has been hit hard by the economic recession in the United States, the source of its largest orders for clothing. The frontline victims here, however, are women workers.
“Disregard for labour rights has worsened in the economic crisis. The companies take advantage of young people, by taking them on without contracts and without social security for an initial trial period, and when that time is up they fire them,” Rosa Galicia, of the Guatemalan Association of Employed and Unemployed Women United against Violence, told IPS.
Galicia and a group of other women from Mexico and Central America participated in the “Women, Labour Rights and Democracy in a Time of Crisis” workshop this week in Mexico City, organised by the Maquila Solidarity Network, the Mexican Society for Women’s Rights and the Central American Women’s Fund, to share their experiences and strengthen contacts between the NGO.
Some 590,000 women work in garment-making maquiladoras in Mexico, and another 400,000 in Central America. Maquiladoras are tax-exempt factories with subsidised water and electricity that assemble goods for the export market.
Honduras was the worst hit, with 36,000 jobs lost in 2008-2009, followed by Nicaragua which has lost 30,000 jobs since 2006.
“Because of the crisis, some factories have temporarily suspended production, put personnel on part-time work, or fired people unfairly,” Beatriz Luján, a leader of the Mexican Authentic Labour Front, an independent federation of unions, cooperatives and community organisations, reported at the workshop.
Enormous growth in textile maquiladoras took place in northern Mexico in the 1970s, encouraged by plentiful cheap labour and the proximity of the United States, the principal market. But as labour shortages began to bite and costs to rise, the industry moved south to states like Puebla, Chiapas and Yucatán, with links to southern U.S. ports in Texas and Florida.
The garment industry perked up again when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, the trade pact between Mexico, the United States and Canada) came into force in 1994.
But after 2000, dozens of maquiladoras closed down, moved to Central America, or relocated half a world away in countries like China, attracted by even lower costs, efficient logistics and secure markets.
As the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States came into effect in different countries from 2006 on, maquiladoras in Central America received the same tariff exemptions as their Mexican counterparts.
DR-CAFTA member countries can import cloth and thread from North America, tariff-free, to manufacture garments that are then exported back to the country of origin of the materials.
Mexican textile exports to the U.S. market contracted by nearly 19 percent between September 2008 and the same month in 2009, according to the Office of Textiles and Apparel at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Central American exports shrank by 21 percent, while those of its main competitor, China, decreased by only four percent.
“The government is in total denial about what is happening. All it has done is finance trade unions that are aligned with it,” said Carla López of Nicaragua, head of the Central American Women’s Fund, about the textile sector in her country.
In Mexico, maquiladoras pay a daily wage of at least eight dollars, nearly twice the official minimum wage. In Central America, monthly pay may reach between 118 and 400 dollars, for example at a Costa Rican electronics assembly factory for the U.S. microprocessor maker Intel.
Mexico and Central American countries are the object of several investigations by the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA), but only one of these is related to the textile sector.
In May 2003, the “Heroes and Martyrs” National Federation of Trade Unions of the Textile, Clothing, Leather and Footwear Industry (FNSHM) in Nicaragua filed a complaint with the CFA against a maquiladora, alleging management had excluded an independent union from collective bargaining, a basic union right.
In Honduras, the labour rights situation appears to have deteriorated since the Jun. 28 coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya.
“We haven’t got concrete details yet, but we have received complaints from women who have been made to work weekends to make up for days they arrived late for work because of the mass protests,” the head of the Honduran Women’s Rights Centre (CDM), Yadira Minero, told IPS.
“This crisis will pass, and unless we insist now on retraining the workforce for technology-based jobs, the maquiladoras will be back,” said Sandra Ramos, head of the Nicaraguan “María Elena Cuadra” Working and Unemployed Women’s Movement, which has fought for women’s labour rights for 20 years.
Alternatives to the exploitative practices of the maquiladoras have sprung up, like the Dignidad y Justicia (Dignity and Justice) factory in Piedras Negras, in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. This cooperative was founded in 2004 by a group of women who had been fired from maquiladoras in the area.
The business is jointly owned by its workers, the non-governmental Border Committee of Women Workers, and the U.S. distribution company North Country Fair Trade, which takes orders and handles sales in the United States.
Meanwhile, the Nueva Vida International Women’s Sewing Cooperative has been operating in Nicaragua since 1999. It is managed by the Fair Trade Zone company, with support from the Jubilee House Community, a U.S. non-profit organisation.
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