May 17, 2002

Commentary

In Our Pursuit of Free Trade, Let’s Ensure Humane Workplace Conditions

By Laura Podolsky and Maria Mejia

President Bush is expected to promote free trade in Latin America in the next few weeks. While he’s there, he might want to talk to Sonia Gonzalez, who lives in Guatemala.

When Gonzalez went to work on July 18, 2001, at the Cimatextiles garment factory in Villa Nueva, Guatemala, she knew that management has threatened other leaders of the union forming there. She didn’t know, however, that management had threatened the nonunion workers, as well. If you don’t get rid of the union, they made clear, we will close this factory and you will lose your jobs.

Later that day, Gonzalez and more than 20 fellow union leaders were surrounded by other workers, dragged outside and pelted with rocks, bottles and food waste. As management looked on, the mobs shouted at the unionists that if they did not quit the factory, they would by lynched. The ordeal lasted four hours.

There are close to 300 garment factories, or maquilas, in Guatemala, employing an estimated 100,000 people. The majority are foreign-owned and produce for U.S. markets. About 80 percent of maquila workers are women, and many, like Gonzalez, are single mothers.

Conditions at these factories are oppressive: They work 14-hour days in extreme heat, and sexual harassment and verbal abuse are prevalent, according to a recently released Human Rights Watch report.

Gonzalez and her fellow unionists are trying to change that.

Even after being attacked again the next day, Gonzalez and the other leaders continue to claim their right to organize and to improve workplace conditions.

“We want to work,” Gonzalez said. “We also want to be treated like human beings.”

In eight months since the July attacks, the unionists have made some gains. Workers now have the right to use the bathroom when needed, instead of waiting hours between the previously allotted two breaks a day.

The majority of Cimatextiles’ workers live near the factory in asentamientos, or squatter settlements, surrounding Villa Nueva. An estimated 70,000 people live in this area, making it one of the largest squatter settlements in Central America. From the factory, one can see the lines of shacks stretching up and across the hillsides like rows of broken teeth.

Bush’s free-trade policy does not include enforceable guarantees of basic labor rights. In fact, it has fewer protections than President Clinton’s.

That’s bad news for Gonzalez and her fellow unionists. They favor a different kind of globalization -- one that could not only make a little piece of Guatemala better, but also prove that another world is possible.

Maria Mejia worked in maquila factories in Guatemala for several years before she was fired for trying to organize a union. She currently works as an organizer with the FESTRAS union federation in Guatemala City. Laura Podolsky is the central America staff member for STITCH, a U.S.-based network of women activists that support women’s leadership development in Central American and U.S. labor movements (http://www.afgj.org/stitch/index.html). They can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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