Labor Rights, Free Trade Zones & The Chentex Struggle in Nicaragua
mid-September I traveled to Nicaragua as part of a delegation organized by the
National Labor Committee (NLC), an organization that fights sweatshops and
supports labor rights around the world. Charles Kernaghan and Barbara Briggs of
the NLC were returning with a mission: a few months earlier, visiting fired
workers at the Chentex and Mil Colores factories in the Las Mercedes Free Trade
Zone, the NLC group had caused quite a stir and been told they were being
deported from Nicaragua. Now we were going back to investigate the ongoing labor
struggles in the free trade zone.
San Salvador, we boarded a commuter flight for the 45 minute trip to Managua. A
few minutes prior to takeoff, the pilot entered the cabin, asked Charlie for his
passport, and informed him that immigration in Managua had prohibited him from
entering the country. Charlie refused to leave the plane. Five burly men then
boarded; finally, after thirty minutes or so, they escorted Charlie off. By
chance, a man from the human rights ombudsman's office in Managua was on the
plane with us. He explained to the passengers that Charlie was thrown off not
because he was a criminal, but because of his support for labor rights. He said
that the Ministry of the Interior had banned Charlie because the government
believed human rights were a communist plot. Everyone on the place clapped for
arriving in Managua our delegation was met by a huge throng of supporters,
including union members, human rights advocates and Sandinista members of the
National Assembly. TV, radio and newspaper reporters were there as well, to
report on the banning of Charlie, who'd been labeled a "terrorist" and
a "subversive" by the government. We gave an hour?long press
conference, and for the next three days the press was everywhere. Much of the
coverage was sympathetic to the workers: it appeared that banning Charlie had
badly backfired against the government.
Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone is located near the airport, a few miles from
downtown Managua. There are about twenty maquilas , or factories, in this zone,
making apparel for U.S. stores such as Kohl's, J.C. Penney's, Kmart and WalMart.
The entire area is surrounded by a high barbed wire fence; between six and seven
each morning, 20,000 workers stream through a guarded, narrow gate. The workers
are mostly young women; maquila jobs are all they can get in a country where
unemployment is as high as 50%.
Chentex factory is probably typical of maquilas in the zone, except it is
bigger; 1,850 workers make 20,000 to 25,000 pairs of blue jeans a day for stores
in the United States. Chentex, like many other Nicaraguan maquilas, is owned by
Taiwanese citizens. Over the last decade, Taiwan has amassed tremendous
influence and clout with the Nicaraguan government: not only do Taiwanese
factories provide jobs in Nicaragua, but Taiwan has built the foreign ministry
and refurbished the presidential palace and the National Assembly building.
Taiwanese businessmen assert that if labor rights are enforced in Nicaragua,
they will refuse to build a new, $100 million free trade zone in Leon, and will
move their existing maquilas to another country,
stood outside the gate to Las Mercedes for an hour or so; one woman who
acknowledged our presence was fired later that day, on the assumption that she
must be a union member. We were not allowed go into the factories; neither was
the head of the human rights committee of the National Assembly. There is simply
no independent monitoring of conditions inside. We do know, however, that the
current struggle in the free trade zone began when the Chentex union, a
Sandinista union, asked for a increase in the piece rate. The minimum wage paid
by the factory is 800 cordobas a month, a little over 60 dollars. Even with
forced overtime and a work day of 12 hours, workers can't earn the estimated
2500 cordobas it costs to live on for a month.
Chentex company responded to the union's request by saying that there would not
be a wage increase, and refusing to allow mediation. The workers called a
one?hour work stoppage on April 27, and Chetex responded harshly, firing nine
union leaders, bringing in armed National Police and thugs to terrorize workers,
putting up barbed wire and surveillance cameras around the plant, and filing
lawsuits against union members. Chentex then formed a company union, and told
the workers that as far as Chentex was concerned, "the union is dead."
was at this point that the NLC got involved, sending delegations to Nicaragua
and launching a campaign to make Kohl's and other U.S. department stores insist
that the factories they buy jeans from respect labor rights. The United States
government also became involved, sending representatives to Nicaragua and
telling the government that there must be a place in the free trade zone for
unions. Of course, the United States was not doing this out of love for the
Sandinista unions, or for labor rights in general. But the U.S. government
understood that, as of October 1, Nicaragua and other Caribbean Basin countries
were to fall under a new trade law granting them equal benefits with those
provided to Mexico under NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement.) The
new law is an attempt to equalize the playing field between countries such as
Nicaragua and Honduras that are not part of NAFTA, and Mexico, which has, since
the passage of NAFTA, substantially increased textile production at the expense
of the Caribbean countries. However, the new law requires that benefits can only
be received if a country is protecting certain fundamental labor rights,
including the right to association, the right to unionize, and the right to
organize and bargain collectively. The actions of Chentex, and
the Nicaraguan government's failure to enforce union rights in the free trade
zone, could have jeopardized Nicaragua's designation under the trade laws. So
U.S. officials were dispatched to straighten things out. There efforts, to the
extent they were sincere, did not succeed. Our own meetings with various
Nicaraguan officials, including the Minister of Labor, were a failure: the
Nicaraguans insisted there was nothing they could do to support union rights.
Negotiations had been scheduled for both Chentex and Mil Colores, though, and we
hoped for some improvement.
the Mil Colores plant, where the owner is an American, and more subject to U.S.
pressure than Taiwanese businessmen are, the negotiations did go better.
However, the negotiations with Chentex were a charade. The company refused to
consider reinstating the fired unionists, which is equivalent to non?recognition
of the union.
this utterly dismal record of recognizing labor rights, President Clinton went
ahead and designated Nicaragua as a country that could receive trade benefits
under the new laws. This demonstrates the almost complete worthlessness of
legislation that supposedly mandates adherence to labor rights as a condition of
beneficial trade laws. To date, only twice under similar statutes have countries
lost trade benefits: once in the case of the unrecognized government of Mynamar
, and once during the period of the Sandanista government in Nicaragua.
remains for public pressure to change the situation for workers in the Las
Mercedes free trade zone. The battle for recognition of the Chentex union is
critical for the future of the Nicaraguan labor movement, and is seen by people
in Nicaragua and in the region as a turning point in their struggle to defend
worker and human rights and democracy in Nicaragua and Caribbean countries.
saw for myself the commitment of the workers when I went to visit a fired union
leader at his home. He lived with five people in a tiny one-room lean-to built
out of scrap wood and plastic sheeting, with no bathroom or running water. Until
he got his job back, he explained, he was getting food from relatives. But he
was planting a garden, and had hope for the future: “We will fight until we
win; we want the jobs, but we also want to be treated with dignity,” he said.
workers of Chentex and other maquilas believe the struggle for union rights in
Nicaragua's free trade zone can be won. In the early weeks of October,
demonstrations in support of them will be taking place at Kohl's department
stores throughout the United States. To learn more, contact the National Labor