Latin America and the Caribbean

26 July 1995

By Bob Herbert

The next time you pick up a safari jacket at Banana Republic, or a pair of jeans at the Gap, or an Eddie Bauer T-shirt, give a moment's thought to girls like Claudia Molina and Judith Viera, teen-agers who have had to work under extremely cruel conditions to produce much of that clothing.

Until recently, Ms. Molina and Ms. Viera were maquiladora workers - young people employed by the hundreds of thousands in free-trade-zone factories in Central America and the Caribbean to make goods for the U.S. market.

The U.S. companies that benefit from the near-enslavement of these workers pretend not to know about the abuses in the factories, which are independently owned.

Ms. Molina's last employer was Orion Apparel, a Korean-owned plant in Honduras that produces, among other items, shirts for Gitano, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom. Ms. Molina was paid 38 cents an hour in a sweatshop that employed girls as young as 14.

The work schedule at Orion could have been fashioned in the Dark Ages. When business is especially good--that is, when the big orders from the U.S. companies roll in--the Monday-through-Friday schedule is 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., a 15-hour shift. Saturday is the long day. The workers go in at 7:30 a.m. and don't re-emerge until Sunday at 6 a.m.--a 22-hour shift!

Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee in New York, which is fighting the exploitation of maquiladora workers, said there was nothing unusual about the work schedule at Orion.

``It's a race to the bottom,'' he said. ``The idea is to find those workers who will accept the lowest wages, the fewest benefits and the most miserable working conditions.''

The vast majority of the maquiladora workers are poverty-stricken girls and young women. (Ms. Molina, for example, lives with four relatives in a one-room shack with no running water.)

The companies make no secret of their preference for young females. A common explanation is that girls at about the age of 16 are at their peak of hand and eye coordination, perfect for the factories. A more persuasive explanation is that young girls are the most docile of all workers, less likely to object to abuse or to fight for any rights.

Because so many of the workers are so young, the scene outside the factories each morning can resemble a schoolyard. Some of the workers are actually driven to the plants in traditional yellow school buses.

Once inside, the youngsters are worked like demons. Talking is forbidden. Bathroom visits are limited to two a day. Requests for medical attention are discouraged.

Many of the workers would like to go to school in the evenings, but the bosses won't let them. The youngsters would have to leave the plant too early to get to class on time.

Judith Viera was part of an effort to form a union at Mandarin International, a Taiwanese-owned plant in El Salvador that makes clothing for the Gap, Eddie Bauer and others.

Back in February Ms. Viera and her co-workers succeeded in establishing the first union ever to be legally recognized in a free-trade zone in El Salvador. It wasn't much of a triumph.

The union is now all but broken. Ms. Viera and her two sisters were among some 350 union members who were illegally fired by Mandarin. She was making 56 cents an hour when she lost her job.

The free-trade zones, promoted by the Reagan and Bush administrations and financed to a great extent by U.S. tax dollars, have been a bonanza for U.S. companies, but the human toll they are taking is unconscionable.

Since 1980, the U.S. has lost more than half a million textile and apparel jobs. Meanwhile, the wages paid to the maquiladora workers are so low they will not even cover the food necessary to satisfy minimal nutrition requirements.

Claudia Molina and Judith Viera have been brought to the United States by the National Labor Committee to tell their story. How long can we, like the big apparel companies, refuse to hear them?

All that is joyful in life is being wrung from the youngsters who are fed into the wretched, soulless system of the maquiladora assembly plants.

Is a Gap shirt worth it?


Copyright 1995 The New York Times

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