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First-Ever Attempt to Organize Maquiladora Workers

by Maricel Sequeira

Sexual harassment, abuse, and disregard of labor laws
(IPS) SAN JOSE -- Thousands of women who have suffered abuses and labor-rights violations in Central America's free trade zones but remained silent in order to keep their jobs, now have a chance to organize themselves to improve their situation.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), with funds from the Dutch government, is launching a campaign to promote labor rights and counsel for the women working in factories -- usually assembly plants -- known as the "maquiladoras" so that they can organize and negotiate better working conditions.

Over the past two decades, cases of sexual harassment, other forms of abuse and disregard of labor laws have earned the industries operating in the sub-region's free zones a negative reputation, especially factories financed by Asian capital.

According to Ian Chambers, ILO director for Central America, the problem is not exclusive to the sub-region, as similar situations have been reported throughout the developing world and sometimes the culprits have been the companies from the industrialized North.

90 percent of maquiladora workers are women
In Central America, some cases that came to light and forced governments to take measures to protect workers but, even so, the situation remains difficult, according to the surveys the ILO conducted among unions in the sub-region.

The maquiladoras are an important sector in Central America, providing approximately 250,000 jobs, 90 percent of which are held by women. Unions said the workers are faced with permanent job insecurity, which prevents them from developing any long-term life plans, and that their right to organize is not respected. Working conditions are deplorable in many of the assembly plants. Salaries are below the minimum wage, contracts are temporary, and working hours exceed the legal maximum. Moreover, workers are subjected to sexual harassment.

The worker turnover in the maquiladora sector in Central America and the Dominican Republic is approximately 15 percent per month, according to the ILO report.

In Honduras, unions said 20 percent of the workers taken on by the maquiladoras remain on the job for less than two months, and 60 percent for less that a year. In Guatemala, 60 percent of the maquiladoras consider the staff turnover to be high, in some cases up to 30 percent a month.

This instability is attributed to several factors, including the firing of employees for not fulfilling production quotas or for wasting time. In other cases, workers decide to move to jobs with better conditions, such as working hours that do not exceed the legal norm.

Maquiladoras often force their employees to work overtime -- in extreme cases by locking them in -- so as to meet daily production goals. In most cases, the working day extends beyond 12 hours, and minors are kept working overtime, and many firms do not pay for overtime work.

The most serious violations have been registered in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and have been perpetrated by Asian firms, which have a strong presence in those countries. In Guatemala, 46 percent of the maquiladora factories are financed by South Korean capital. In Nicaragua, 66 percent are Taiwanese and 22 percent are South Korean.

In El Salvador and Honduras, there is a better balance of investors' nationalities: U.S. and other Asian firms.

In Costa Rica, the situation is reversed: sixty percent of the firms in the industrial free zones are financed by U.S. capital, 21 percent are local and only six percent are Asian.

The ILO study stated that there was no country in Central America that had not had labor problems with Asian firms, whereas the U.S. firms have standards which take into account the need to maintain a policy of sustainable labor relations over the long- term.

Union leaders feel the most urgent task the sub-region needs to take on is the constant inspection and monitoring of respect for labor legislation. In their opinion, there must be guarantees that orders and instructions inside the firms be issued in Spanish and that the temporary collective suspension of labor contracts be authorized by the Ministry of Labor.

The ILO also sounded out the maquiladora owners who, judging from their responses, have very diverse opinions on the issue of unionization. Some said they accepted the creation of unions as something normal, but others saw it as a reason for withdrawing their investment. According to the study, the entrepreneurs wanted political stability and were concerned about the level of unionization and aggressiveness of the unions.

Businesses blame human rights groups
Although there is a general tendency towards improvement in the dialogue between management and workers in the maquiladoras, businesses in the free zones of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras feel the problem is worsening due to a combination of union and human rights activities. The private sector contends that human rights groups, both local and foreign, are too involved in labor issues.

The ILO, too, feels that the intervention of human rights organizations in problems that are clearly labor-related could obstruct any sort of agreement between workers and management.

Despite these problems, there is little chance for the maquiladoras to pull out of Central America, since wages are far lower than in the home countries of the maquiladora owners.

According to the ILO, labor costs in the United States are almost five times higher than in Costa Rica, and more than 10 times higher than in other Central American countries.

In Costa Rica, workers are paid $2.4 an hour, while in Panama, they receive $1.80. Hourly wages in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are $0.90 to $0.95 an hour, as against $9.30 in the United States, $11.60 in Japan, $3.80 in South Korea and $4.20 in Taiwan.

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Albion Monitor July 27, 1998 (

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