Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: For background on sweatshops, see "Santa's Little Sweatshop" in a previous edition of the Monitor.]

El Salvador Becoming Giant Sweatshop, Group Charges

by Farhan Haq

(IPS) NEW YORK -- When hundreds of women working at the GABO garment factory in El Salvador asked for increased pay and improved conditions at their plant, management responded in an increasingly typical manner -- it closed up shop and laid off 400 workers.

Now, worker organizer Ana Maria Romero is taking the union's battle to the United States, which helped develop the San Marcos free-trade zone, home of the GABO 'maquila' (assembly plant).

"Many people know about sweatshops, but they don't know about the reality," Romero said. "We are forced to work from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, and sometimes until midnight. (The supervisors) scream at us the whole day, they mistreat us, and we don't have freedom of organization."

"President (Armando) Calderon Sol's greatest interest is to convert El Salvador into a giant sweatshop"
According to the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a U.S. advocacy group which has sponsored Romero's current four-week tour of the United States, the average wage of the mostly young, female workforce in the maquilas is only 57 cents an hour, and the women are allowed only two bathroom breaks each day.

Romero said that at GABO, which manufactured apparel for the U.S. retailer Sears Roebuck, wages were only 4.50 dollars for workdays that often stretched past 12 hours. The company also failed to pay Christmas bonuses, which are required by Salvadoran law, she added.

Worse, she said, under the plants' adverse working conditions, many pregnant women lost their babies, while others were refused medical attention.

Any organising among the more than 50,000 workers in the free- trade zones, however, is met with harassment and firings, ensuring a docile workforce, Romero contended.

And the trend in El Salvador is toward more sweatshops, argues Wilmer Erroa Argueta, national and international secretary for the Salvadoran Association of Telecommunication Workers (ASTTEL).

The Salvadoran government, he said, is forcing more workers to rely on maquila employment by cutting the public workforce and privatising such large state-run companies as the ANTEL telephone company. The ANTEL privatization, which is being underwritten by the U.S.-based Citibank, could lead to the elimination of about half of the firm's 6,000 workers, he warned.

"President (Armando) Calderon Sol's greatest interest is to convert El Salvador into a giant sweatshop," Erroa said. "But maquilas have not brought about social or technical development in any country in the world."

Romero complained that laws establishing minimal labour conditions are never enforced, while subcontractors -- mainly Japanese, Taiwanese and South Korean firms, she said -- follow their own, widely varying guidelines for working conditions.

"The managers are above the law," she said. "The Koreans treat the women as inhuman," but all foreign firms are generally able to treat the workers however they see fit, she added.

But Romero cautioned that, for all the abuses, Salvadorans do not want the companies to leave the country and take much-needed jobs with them.

"We as workers don't demand that these businesses pull out of El Salvador, nor have we at any time asked that people not buy products made in El Salvador," Romero argued. "We only demand that we are given respect as human beings and a more just salary."

Human rights group would harm companies, Salvadoran president says
The rightist Salvadoran government, however, has lashed out at Romero and Argueta, as well as CISPES, following testimony this week by the two workers before a U.S. Congress subcommittee about the poor labor conditions at places like GABO.

"I can only call them inhuman traitors, who strike against the Salvadoran family," President Calderon Sol said in a statement cited Thursday by the Salvadoran daily 'El Diario'. He accused CISPES of seeking to harm Salvadoran companies and workers by sponsoring such testimony.

"We have confirmed that CISPES...has initiated a boycott against products manufactured in El Salvador," Edgardo Zelaya, a deputy in the ruling far-right National Republican Alliance (ARENA), told El Diario.

"Nowhere do we call for people to boycott products," CISPES spokesman Geoff Herzog countered. "These accusations by Calderon Sol show that the government is being pushed (by the publicity). It would much rather blame CISPES and the (opposition) Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) for destabilizing El Salvador than to enforce its own labor laws."

Poor labor conditions in El Salvador have already met a consumer backlash in the United States, most notably last year when reports of child labor in the Mandarin factory, which produced clothes for the U.S. retailer The Gap, prompted a brief consumer boycott. The Gap responded by agreeing to independent monitoring of labor conditions and human rights at Mandarin last December.

But one year later, Romero said, the only independent monitoring of labor conditions in the maquilas is at the Mandarin plant itself.

Charges that U.S. encouraged the growth of the maquilas by threatening to withhold aid
Meanwhile, most of the commitments to improve working conditions -- including those set in 1992 peace accords between the FMLN and Salvadoran government -- have yet to be implemented, Erroa says.

"Most of the laws dealing with the benefits of the workers have been thrown to the garbage," he argued. He notes that the tripartite commission of government officials, private sector leaders and workers established under the peace accords has failed to achieve anything in four years because the government has refused to participate.

Ultimately, he contended, the U.S. government and international financial institutions like the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have encouraged the growth of the maquilas.

"The pressure put forward by the U.S. government is stronger all the time," Erroa said. "It says, through the World Bank, 'If you don't sell these businesses to our corporations, you're not going to get more loans for social development'."

The United States also encourages the free-trade zones directly, Herzog noted. Most recently, he said, Washington contributed funds to set up an "industrial park" in Jiquilisco, which lacks the tax advantages of the free-trade zones, but boasts the same cheap labor and lack of unionization.

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Albion Monitor January 26, 1997 (

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