BY LESLIE WIRPSA
It was the perfect assignment to cure the chilled-bone doldrums of mid-January in the Midwest: a two-week sweep through Central America. As the temperature dipped again into the teens in Kansas City, I kept thinking about the climate that lay ahead of me - the sometimes balmy, sometimes crisp breezes of the Guatemalan highlands, the pleasant warmth of San Salvador, the muggy heat of Managua.
I needed T-shirts. After living for 10 years in the rainy Andes of Bogota, my summer-weight clothing was in short supply. So I headed off to the Eddie Bauer store on Kansas Cites upscale Country Club Plaza and got n fairly reasonable deal - two T- shirts, one white, one forest green, 100 percent soft cotton, for $12 each.
I hardly suspected that shopping trip would help me eventually understand the connections between U.S. consumers, women workers in Central America and the corporations that tie our lives together. Packing my bags, I glanced at the laundry tags on the shirts and gasped at the coincidence: "Made in El Salvador," they said.
I folded the shirts and stuffed them into my suitcase, remembering a song by the African American women's group Sweet Honey in the Rock, which traces the making of garments from the Central American cotton fields, through fabric mills in the United States, back to maquila factories in Latin America and finally into the consumer's hand at U.S. stores.
Agustin, 47, told me she has been working in garment assembly plants - known as "maquilas" - Guatemala City for ten years. She is the mother of three and her salary has supported her family since her husband was injured in a motorcycle accident seven years ago.
A vivacious, fearless woman, Agustin was willing to go on the record, describing the working conditions of tens of thousands of women who stitch apparel in Guatemalan sweatshops for export to the United States. The big companies hire subcontractors who ship huge quantities of U.S. cloth already cut into pre-designed pattern pieces to Central America for "assembly" in factories located in so called free-trade zones.
Some of the Central American factories now have cutting stations but most of the pieces are cut in sweatshops, which, according to a 3/12/95 story in the New York Times, are mushrooming again in the United States.
Many of the foreign contracting investors and managers, she said, are Korean and Taiwanese entrepreneurs, but some are from the United States.
Some of the managers "hit us and shout at us whenever they want production speeded up. "To hurry. To get out ship,'" she said, imitating their broken Spanish. Teenage girls often work overtime with no pay.
Together, we calculated how much women are collectively paid for the assembly of one garment. Each woman works monotonously on one "operation" - sewing maybe 900 trouser inseams, stitching 1,800 belt loops, assembling 600 waistbands - in a day.
Agustin estimated the total cost paid to all the women who contribute to the assembly of one pair of Sag Harbor men's short at about 18 cents. Not each - 18 cents distributed among 10 or 15 women. "Think about it!" Agustin raid. "That pittance for all the production they haul out of here! And whenever we complain, they threaten to move to Honduras or Mexico. They tell us we [the union organizers] are going to make Guatemala lose this important source of employment."
Agustin said women are lucky if they earn 150 quetzales in a six-day week, about $27. But a pound of beans costs 5 quetzales. Some women pay 4 quetzales a day for bus fare. By the middle of the week, single-mother heads of households don't have any money left."
"When we organize, they say we are guerrillas, that the guerrilla is behind all this." Thus, the women are reluctant to join the unions because so many people have been killed as a result of the civil war.
Guatemala is also one of the poorest nations in Latin America, with 78 percent of the population living in poverty. According to the Nutrition Institute for Central America and Panama, in 1990, half of the Guatemalan population received an annual income of less than S44.
Most humiliating for the women working in the undergarment factory were the searches.
"They line us up and make us pull down our pants or pull up our skirts before we leave to make sure we haven't put on an extra pair of panties," a Salvadoran worker explained.
That week, Orientacion, the San Salvador archdiocesan weekly newspaper published a front-page account of the violation of workers' rights in the maquila factories. A cover photograph showed a woman worker with a bloody nose - she had been hit during a strike at one of the maquilas. The accompanying text included an excerpt from the Feb. 12 Sunday homily of Gregorio Rosa Chavez, El Salvador's senior prelate, which begged for respect for the "dignity of the person" of the women workers.
She rummaged in her handbag, and along with other popular brands, she pulled out a big, broad, cardboard label from Eddie Bauer. "Each piece is a signed original," it said.
One woman said she works at a factory that assembles pajamas for Kmart; another said she sews bras and panties for Avon Export, Flamingo and Kiss Me another said she works on Miss Dee turtlenecks: yet another said she stitches children's clothing for North Isles.
The women had a lot in common with Guatemala's Agustin. They shared deplorable work conditions miserable salaries, interminable pressure to increase production, zero job security, even lock-ins when huge shipments must be completed.
Stephen Coats of the Chicago-based U.S.-Guatemala Labor Education Project has been asking these questions for years. His operation traces allegations of abuse in Guatemalan maquilas and brings them to the attention of the major U.S. companies.
"Consumers have a critical role," he said. "If consumers are concerned, they should contact their favorite department stores and find out if they have codes of conduct for suppliers and contractors. Consumers should make sure stores that the codes are strong that they are enforced.
"The existing codes have not been adopted out of the goodness of the corporate heart," he added. "But we bave seen tremendous breakthroughs in corporate responsibility. Many now believe having codes is good for business.
Major difficulties, he said, persist on the enforcement end. Governments in assembly countries are often negligent when it comes to enforcing laws and codes providing dignified conditions for workers.
"It's not adequate (for companies) to say, "The government isn't enforcing the laws, so we don't need to," Coats said.
If company suppliers are breaking the laws or not providing minimum wages, the companies should put pressure on their own contractors.
Increasingly, this is occurring, Coats said. More and more, "companies believe they can and should be held responsible for working conditions at work sites abroad, even sites they don't own."
Karen Peck, Eddie Bauer's public relations manager, told me her company does everything it can to maintain "really stringent standards" in supplying factories. Before Eddie Bauer signs a contract, she said, it does a profile on the subcontracting company to see "how it matches up to our standards."
It is to Eddie Bauer's best interest she said, to look into allegations of abuse. She said after receiving a letter from Coats, Eddie Bauer put the factories where abuses were allegedly occurring on its internal inspection list. "Should these standards not be lived up to, we would demand they would or we would pull our business," Peck said.
Peck said she could not provide a written copy of Eddie Bauer's code of standards, however; but she said they indude fair compensation at prevailing wages provisions against forced and child labor demands for healthy working conditions and just hourly schedules, safety standards and the like.
Eddie Bauer does not, however, meddle with the union question, Peck said. "We are customers. We cannot exactly tell them how to run their business. We are not really involved in support or in detraction of organizing attempts," Peck said. "We have to leave political involvement to those who know it best."
"Protecting rights is not just for the sake of workers there, but for workers here, too," Coats said.
The long-term solution, he added, is not to boycott companies. "That is not helpful unless it is part of a strategy," he said. "The workers want their jobs. They just want decent jobs."
Coats cited a recent breakthrough with Starbuck Coffee Co. as an example of the impact of consumer activism and awareness Starbuck, tne largest gounnet coffee company in the United States, a prominent importer from Guatemala and the largest corporate contributor to CARE, the American world relief organization, had literally declined to pursue the adoption of supplier and contracting codes.
On Feb. 11, four days before Starbuck's board of directors met to discuss the issue, coffee drinkers at 75 Starbuck stores in 25 U.S. and Canadian cities passed out leaflets, urging consumers to pressure for adoption. On Feb. 15, Starbuck voted yes to the codes - the first of their kind adopted in the U.S. agricultural commodities import sector.
"This is an example of consumer activism holding companies accountable and of companies listening," Coats said.
April 14, 1995
National Catholic Reporter