December 28, 2001

Sewing is for China? Worker-Owned Sewing Companies in Sonora and Arizona

by Greg Bloom

If you have been following US-Mexico border news or sweatshop news for any period of time, you have read economists' statements that labor markets in Mexico are "maturing" and "becoming to expensive" for garment work. US$4 a day to sew? Outrageous! These jobs should naturally go to China and other nations where people work for a few cents an hour. The Mexicans? They are going to make products like cars and high-tech goods, the economists tell us.

SewNora

If garment work is on the decline in Mexico, what are a few women in Agua Prieta, Sonora doing setting up a sewing company? Haven't Zita Ruiz and Leticia Mendoza heard the prevailing wisdom that no one can make a decent profit in garment work?

Ruiz and Mendoza, two long-time, Agua Prieta garment workers, are setting up an employee-owned and run sewing business. Both women worked for years at a company called Sewgood. When the company closed, about two years ago, the women and other employees were supposed to have received—under Mexican law—three months pay, vacation pay, their Christmas bonus (agui-naldo), twelve days pay for every year they worked and more. But things didn't work out that way.

When Ruiz learned that she was not going to be fully compensated as per her rights, she and her coworkers decided to go after the sewing machines that the company had left in the factory. Legally, Ruiz had every right to do so as in Mexico, when a company closes and cannot pay out its workers in accordance with the law, workers can split up the company's machines and other assets.

Getting the goods was not easy or quick, however. Located across the border from Douglas, AZ, Agua Prieta hits summer temperatures of well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for months at a time and drops below freezing at night during the winter. To make sure that the sewing machines were not stolen or taken away by the former owners, Ruiz and a few coworkers began a round-the-clock sit in at the factory gates—for fifteen months—until they were awarded the equipment.

Once Ruiz and Mendoza received their sewing machines they decided that they would be better off using their equipment to make a living rather than selling it as some of their coworkers did. With help from the Quaker-associated Maquiladora Organizing Project, the women began setting up a good work space with a cement floor, bathroom and proper lighting. Now, with those projects finished, Ruiz and Mendoza have begun work and are looking for more contracts.

The work that Ruiz and Mendoza have done so far is deemed to be of excellent qualities by observers. They are currently making sets of crib pads, sheets, pillow cases, curtains and more for kids' and babies' rooms and have just finished some work for a Tucson boutique. The work for the Tucson shop, which is opposed to sweatshop labor, was exquisite. Ruiz and Mendoza took traditional-looking fabric from Chiapas and Oaxaca and sewed it into women's jackets with velvet and/or leather borders.

The diversity of Ruiz and Mendoza's work attests to their skill and the fact that they have already found some contracts attests to their business skill. However, the women (who are waiting to name their enterprise) are still looking for more work so that they can bring in other worker-owners. In the near future, the women are hopeful that they will begin producing shirts for US universities that are being pressured by students to abandon sweatshop labor around the globe.

AriSEWna

If garment work and sewing is generally too pricey for Mexico, and the garment industry is leaving low-wage US cities like El Paso, surely no one can make money sewing in the US. Well, don't believe it, especially after talking to AriSEWna, a Douglas-based, employee-owned sewing company.

Initiated two and a half years ago, AriSEWna originally wanted to bring back to work forty people with sewing skills. However, perhaps because AriSEWna needed an equity investment from its owner employees, only eleven people started off the company. Since then, AriSEWna has increased to 28 employees and expanded the types of work it does.

At its beginning, AriSEWna was sewing clothes for hospitals and correctional facilities—so called light work. Now the company has found its niche in medium and heavy sewing and in specialty work like silk. The medium and heavy work that AriSEWna does includes backpacks, tents and harnesses. Many of these products are also fire-rated and are destined for Forest Service fire fighters.

Mike Kolb, who is on the AriSEWna board of directors, said that AriSEWna's success and growth is due to the worker-owners' "professionalism, commitment to excellence and can-do attitude." Kolb said that many of AriSEWna's workers were unemployed before joining the company and he is glad to see that they are now able to purchase cars and homes. Wages are at between $7 and $10 an hour, Kolb said, which is a good wage along the border and in the garment industry.

Lynn Kartchner, a Douglas resident and former city engineer, is a very satisfied AriSEWna customer. He bought embroidered hats and shirts for his own political campaign and said that the quality of AriSEWna's work was great and that it was done at "prices better than those of national suppliers." Kartchner said that he did not find one reject among all the hats and shirts he ordered and has since sent a few more orders to the company because its quality is good and its prices are competitive.

Ana Paredes, age 31, an AriSEWna worker-owner, said that her experience at her company has been wonderful. Describing life prior to AriSEWna, Paredes said, "I depended on the government for support for myself and two kids." A widow, Paredes previously did seasonal work at a cannery and volunteer work. AriSEWna took her in without experience she said and she's grateful for that and the car she has been able to purchase since she began there.

While both AriSEWna and its unnamed Sonoran neighbor are hoping to get many future orders from US buyers that want to avoid sweatshop-produced goods, both groups are going against the prevailing forces of globalization, making sales, growing and earning a decent wage because they are employee-owned and doing good work.

Zita Ruiz may be reached at 011-52-631-331-1262 and Leticia Mendoza at 011-52-631-338-3181. AriSEWna may be reached at 520-805-0263 or through their website at www.arisewna.com. Both companies are now accepting orders.

Blomm is editor of Frontera NorteSur , and On-line news magazine covering the US-Mexico border http://frontera.nmsu.edu. FNS is an outreach program of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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