Sunday, December 12, 2004

Trapped By Zippers And Hoods

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December 12, 2004
By LISA CHEDEKEL, Courant Staff Writer

TORREON, Mexico -- The desert has nothing left to offer the mothers of Jaboncillo except dust and broomcorn, but on this Wednesday evening, in a twice-monthly ritual of resolve, they use the fruit of the land to defy the land: a broom brigade sweeping the village plaza.

It is a proud but largely futile effort.

By the time their daughters arrive home from work - phantoms in royal-blue aprons and dried sweat - the hot wind has picked up across the valley, and the concrete slab of the plaza is carpeted in dust again. The girls of the Liga Mayor factory, dazed and stooped after an 11-hour shift, have missed their mothers' small labor.

Nelly Tiscareno Mendoza, 34, has never had the gift of timing. She reached her 20s just as the life of this small farming town outside the city of Torreon was being choked off by drought and free-trade agreements. The third of five sisters, she is the only one not married, which in rural Mexico means she must provide for her parents.

"Chivo brincado, chivo quedado," the saying goes: The goat that gets jumped over is the one that stays behind.

Nelly has adapted, as so many other good children of Jaboncillo have. For seven years, she has been a seamstress at Liga Mayor, one of hundreds of assemble-and-export sweatshops that swamped the La Laguna region of north central Mexico after the 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which removed trade barriers with the U.S.

The factory, or maquila, is among more than 60 in Mexico, mostly American-owned, that produce licensed apparel for the University of Connecticut.

For five years straight, Nelly performed a single task - sewing the seam that attaches the hood to a sweat shirt - until she complained to a supervisor that her brain was rotting.

Now she is assigned to waistbands.Up against strict production quotas and prohibited from talking for most of the day, Nelly says it has never occurred to her to inquire about where the garments she makes end up. When she is told that one of those garments, a UConn sweat shirt celebrating the 2004 men's basketball championship, sells for about $38 in the States, her face folds into a frown.

"How can it be? That's a week of my pay," she says through a translator.

Then, self-conscious, she recovers her poise.

"Our work is expensive," she says.

And so it goes with the Liga Mayor workers, each responsible for stitching sleeves or bands or zippers on about 780 shirts a day. They work a 48-hour week, but often are forced to stay longer to meet strict production quotas.

At an hourly base rate of 10.4 pesos, or 91 cents, they earn about $43 a week - less than half of what labor groups say is the minimum needed to support a family. Many are single mothers; others support parents and siblings.

If they meet their weekly quota, some workers can earn up to 650 pesos, or $56. But when an assembly team falls short, as happens to even the most diligent, workers take home as little as $23.

At the local Super 8 discount store, a pound of hamburger sells for 21 pesos, or two hours' wages; a 35-ounce can of Nestle baby formula costs more than a day's pay.

Longtime Liga Mayor employees say their wages have increased only slightly in six years, even as the country's inflation has climbed 55 percent. That gap forces them to choose daily between food and electricity, diapers and bus fare. The thatched roofs of their cramped, adobe-block houses are left unfinished; sewage water stagnates in the ruts of dirt alleys.

If the maquila work alone does not sap their energy, the stark, grinding poverty will.And yet they rise each morning in the pre-dawn blackness and scramble to work down a dirt path that breaks through a line of trees, loyal soldiers of an economy fueled by U.S. universities and myriad commercial labels, such as Nike and Champion. Many are the children of campesinos, or peasant farmers, who abandoned their land because of drought and NAFTA, which brought a flood of imported corn and other crops into Mexico.

In recent years, Champion and the VF Corp., which produces the Lee Sport brand, have used Liga Mayor to manufacture UConn apparel. The factory produces clothing for more than 20 other universities, including Duke, Northwestern and Syracuse.

The workers are reluctant to complain about the terms of their employment, some of which appear to violate Mexican labor law and "codes of conduct" set by universities and the brands: forced overtime, paid at a fraction of the legal rate; withheld severance pay; the hiring of workers on temporary contracts; and terminations of those who agitate for better conditions.

They worry that too many American-owned garment maquilas are closing lately, moving production to China or Central America as La Laguna's edge in the cheap-labor market erodes in a changing global economy.

Mexico's labor conditions, once considered appalling by American standards, have become seemingly extravagant.

"If you don't work faster," the maquila managers warn the workers, "the business will go to Salvador."

Already, Liga Mayor's workforce has shrunk to below 200, from about 280, employees say.

"We're losing orders," says Evangelina Arellano Bonilla, a mother of two who works on sleeves.

"We're down to 11 lines - five for sweat shirts, six for T's. They hire people on short contracts and then just send them home. We are worried about what will happen from here."

Some workers in this village of 1,200, which is part of the town of Francisco I. Madero, have talked about getting jobs at better-paying factories in the area. They have heard that Sara Lee, which produces the Hanes clothing line, and Master Trim, which produces car-seat covers, are paying as much as $87 a week.

But the managers of Liga Mayor have told them not to bother applying, insisting that the two factories will not hire from Liga's depleted workforce. Some workers have scoffed at the warnings and tried anyway, though with little success.

It is, for many of these daughters of Jaboncillo, their first and only act of defiance.

Beyond Expectations

At first, they cannot see past the cuffs and hems and neckbands. Each of them inspects a different part of the UConn sweat shirts and T's that have been brought to them from the Storrs campus.The strange boomerang makes them uneasy. They have never seen their finished products, complete with logos and lettering, and could not afford to buy them in Mexico, where U.S. college apparel sells for more than it does in the States.

It is Perla Reyes, a Liga Mayor training supervisor, who makes the initial pronouncement, confirmed later by the factory's manager.

"Yes, this is ours," she says, after checking the tag on a gray hooded UConn championship sweat shirt, with a Champion brand label.

"This is our work."

There is both pride and embarrassment in the reclamation, a discomfort at being exposed at the bottom of a pyramid of subcontractors, manufacturers, marketers and retailers that has shielded them well. Perla, 25, soft-spoken and slender, got her first job in the maquilas 10 years ago, fresh out of ninth grade.

She is accustomed to being invisible.

For Nelly and the other assembly-line workers, no single sweat shirt stirs special recollections.

Making 80 garments an hour - they cannot get up from their chairs without permission, even to stretch their legs - the particulars are lost in a blur of stitching and stacking, fabric and motion.

For each $38 championship sweat shirt that was made at Liga Mayor, Nelly's 12-person production line earned 18 cents.

UConn made $2.28 in royalties.

Luis Bonilla, the manager of Liga Mayor - one of a cluster of factories outside Torreon that manufacture apparel for universities - boasts of its efficiencies. It has already defied the expectations of its owner, Mickey Dunn, a Georgia businessman who expanded his Major League Inc. sportswear company into Mexico in 1994.

At the time, Dunn predicted that the lower labor costs luring manufacturers south of the border wouldn't last.

"Mexico has a five-year window on it," he said in a 1994 interview with an apparel trade magazine.

"These people are not going to want to operate at 80 cents an hour forever. It's just not going to happen."

He did not know the people of Jaboncillo.

Ten years later, these farming families, hemmed in by the foothills of the Sierra Madres, suffer Liga Mayor and cling to it, torn over the hold it has on their lives. It has relieved their poverty - and imprisoned them in it. It has lifted them up - and diminished them. It has given them purpose - and taken away promise.

It has sent them praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, for Liga Mayor to stay open - and also for it to close.

"It is like a trap," says Sotera Ramirez Esparza, 63, who recalls a once-vibrant community of cotton, corn and tomato farmers.

"It is a job that you cannot live on."

Sometimes, Juana Sosa is gripped with worry that Liga Mayor will shut down and move production to China or Honduras, leaving her daughter and son unemployed. Mexico's textile maquilas have shed more than 80,000 jobs in the last four years, many of them in La Laguna.

Other times, Juana curses the day that the construction crews arrived in the arid field nearby and erected the huge aluminum box.

One recent evening, Juana watched her daughter, Aracely, straggle in at 6:30, too drained to engage in play with her own children. Two-year-old Brayan was whiny, his face swollen from mosquito bites; 2-month-old Gael Anuar lay statue-still on a bed, his eyes cloudy and vacant.

Aracely, 25, hugged Brayan gently and touched the baby's forehead, then turned away. After 11½ hours in the box - hot and poorly ventilated, workers say - all she wanted was a bath.

Her mother did not blame her.

"I wish she could get out of there," Juana says.

"She's a single mother with two children to feed. She works so hard for those kids, but she can't support them anyway."

Like other parents, Juana feels guilty for steering her children to the factory, which had once seemed a gift to this desert basin. Saul, her oldest boy, has been there for six years, closing the seams on sweat shirt hoods. Aracely, who followed Saul, is proficient with zippers.

Adolfo, the youngest, started work at the factory at 16, but was fired four years later because he stayed too long in the bathroom with a stomach flu, Juana says.

"They gave him back his first week of pay, but no severance," she recalls.

"It took a long time for him to find work, because they advised other maquilas not to hire him."

The workers themselves are a forgiving bunch, grateful for jobs close to home. Some of their peers have resorted to working in "ghost maquilas" in Francisco I. Madero or Torreon, makeshift sweatshops that take over empty buildings for a few months, paying workers as little as $10 a week, and then disappear.

Others have crossed illegally into Texas, 370 miles away, to mow grass on highway medians or work other odd jobs, in order to bring money home.

Rarely will the Liga Mayor workers complain when they are paid nothing for extra hours on weekdays, or 35 cents to 87 cents an hour for some Saturdays - far short of the double pay for overtime required by Mexican labor law.

They never know what to expect in their paychecks.

"I'll have to wait until next week to find out," Nelly says after working late one evening.

"You can argue for an hour if they don't pay you, but it does no good."

Similarly, over the years, veteran workers who recall undergoing pregnancy tests as a condition of hiring say they have learned to stay quiet when factory managers, reluctant to pay the generous maternity benefits required by law, have forced expectant mothers to resign.

"Very few workers are pregnant lately," Aracely says with a shrug.

"There used to be more."

Most Liga Mayor employees prefer to boast of small blessings. Perla, the training manager, is thankful to have been promoted, after two years of sewing cuffs. Nelly is relieved to be freed from hoods. Aracely considers herself lucky to have retained her job.

As for what might have been, if the times had been different, the daughters of Jaboncillo do not dwell on that.

Invisible people resist introspection.

"I would have liked to have had at least a short career," Nelly says, after some prompting.

"I took a first aid course once, and I think I might have liked medicine."

But there was never the chance to go to study. I understood that. For me, the choice was the factory."

Learning The LessonEva Padilla has seen flashes of their spirit from time to time, traces of their birthright.

Before the maquilas came, the La Laguna region was known as a hotbed of labor activism, where peasant farmers had laid claim to sprawling haciendas in the aftermath of the 1910 revolution led by Francisco I. Madero and Pancho Villa.

But today, Eva treads carefully as she tries to educate a wary workforce about its labor rights.

As an outreach worker for SEDEPAC, a nonprofit group, she is the only advocate for maquila workers in the Torreon area.After five years, Eva is confident navigating the maze of blue-jean and T-shirt factories that begins in her hardscrabble Nueva Provincia neighborhood in Torreon.

But gaining the confidence of the workers is arduous, in an industry where union sympathizers and other critics are routinely fired and blacklisted.

"A lot of women are not interested in getting involved in this struggle. They're afraid they will lose their jobs," says Eva, a former maquila worker who lost her own job assembling televisions after she spoke out for better conditions.

"It's very difficult to organize them. The way they move from maquila to maquila, you cannot get a solid group of even 12 or 15 to work with."

Eva has reached out to workers at several garment factories, including Liga Mayor and Woo Chang Mexico, another supplier to UConn and 30 other universities, among them Cornell and Georgetown. She is not surprised to learn that employees of both maquilas have been shortchanged on overtime or fired without cause or severance pay.

Mexican labor laws offer strong protections for workers, but they are rarely enforced in the sweatshops, Eva and other advocates say. Despite a provision guaranteeing workers the freedom of association, only one maquila of the several thousand in Mexico has been successful in forming an independent union.

"Mexican labor law is quite good on paper. But it is another thing in practice," says Bob Jeffcott of the Maquila Solidarity Network, a Canadian group that lobbies for workers' rights.

Managers of Liga Mayor and the Korean-owned Woo Chang dispute some of the conditions described by employees and insist that they obey labor laws. Dunn, the owner of Liga Mayor, could not be reached.

Many maquilas in La Laguna, including Liga Mayor and Woo Chang, do not allow workers to get up from their seats more than three times a day, in addition to lunch. Talking is a punishable offense. Workers complain of dizzy spells brought on by the sweltering heat, and of respiratory problems caused by inhaling lint.

Still, there is enough variation in conditions to stir disillusionment and turnover.

At Woo Chang, which has produced shirts for Nike and other labels, workers chafe at having to pay for protective face masks. Those who arrive at work more than five minutes late are sent home for the day and receive what workers call "punish pay" for the week - half their salary, or about $33. Those who spend too long in the bathroom are chased out by security guards posted inside.

Some female workers have confided fears that Woo Chang is monitoring their pregnancy status by making them purchase sanitary napkins from the factory nurse.

"When a woman stops asking for a sanitary napkin, if they suspect she's pregnant, they let her go," Eva says.

"They don't say it is for pregnancy - they just get rid of her. It is not uncommon."

Worker rights' advocates say the incidence of maquilas screening workers for pregnancy, or dismissing them because of it, has declined since the late 1990s, when the Human Rights Watch exposed those practices as widespread.

For the three Campos Flores sisters, who have drifted among the garment maquilas, there are always trade-offs to consider. They took jobs at Woo Chang last year because it paid slightly more than other factories, such as Liga Mayor. But the quota is higher, about 1,000 shirts a day.

"It is difficult. That's why, much of the time, we don't meet the goal," says Marie Cruz, 25, the outspoken middle sister.

"If you don't reach it, even for missing only four pieces, you will not earn close to the full pay. You will earn only 480 pesos," or $42.

Workers say the factory recently cut their full pay by more than 20 percent, to $61 a week.

They also were not awarded a compulsory profit bonus last spring, and received only a portion of the Christmas bonus required by law, they said. Hundreds of workers have been laid off or fired lately, as orders have fallen off.

Managers have found innovative ways to explain the situation.

"They told us the salaries were down because we don't work hard enough and our work is very poor quality," Marie Cruz says.

"They say we're capable of doing much more." She pauses.

"I don't know how."

Marie Cruz and her older sister, Magdalena, 29, have talked about applying to other maquilas, including Master Trim and Wrangler, which they believe treat workers better.

It is not only about money.

"They say the chairs are better in Wrangler - not just metal, like ours," Marie Cruz says.

Magdalena, the realist of the trio, rolls her eyes.

"We hear gossip around that this maquila is better than the others," she says, "but in the end, they are the same."

Workers at Woo Chang and Liga Mayor say they would not dream of trying to organize independent unions.

A year ago in November, 110 Woo Chang workers were fired after striking over the factory's failure to compensate them for overtime or disburse profit and Christmas bonuses, local news reports said. The workers also complained that managers were verbally abusive and increased their quotas while reducing their pay.

In 1998, about a dozen Liga Mayor workers were fired after staging a work stoppage to demand higher wages, veteran employees recalled.More recently, some U.S. apparel firms, including the Sara Lee Corp., have shut down maquilas where workers had been organizing to improve conditions.

"Everyone is scared," Nelly says.

"When the managers see someone trying to lead the workers, they will fire them. ... We have learned the lesson."

Even Eva Padilla, who takes pride in La Laguna's legacy of activism, does not talk much about unions lately. She worries that support from U.S. labor groups is waning and that workers who speak out will suffer the same fate that she did.

She hopes that history will forgive her.

Another BetrayalNo one leaves town with a bottle of Coke.Tonight, as the old women in black veils wail for redemption in the Iglesia Evangelica Cristiana Espiritual church next door, Perla takes her place behind the cooler in the front room of her house to sell sodas in thick green glass to a trickling of her neighbors.

Usually, the Cokes are consumed on the spot and the bottles handed back, so that they can be redeemed at the distributor.

But when a customer intends to leave town with the soda, Perla pulls her mother aside for a hushed consultation. If the bottle cannot be returned later, she apologizes, the Coke will have to be poured into a plastic bag.

That is the way things work in Jaboncillo.

Everyone scrapes by. Aracely waters down the baby formula. Nelly lives on "poor food" - gorditas and dispensas of rice and beans. Some Liga Mayor workers wear decade-old designer clothes, recycled from wealthy families for whom their mothers once worked as maids.

Despite Mexico's lower cost of living, it takes a Liga Mayor worker three hours' wages to buy a gallon of milk or a box of Raisin Bran cereal, compared with the 24 minutes it takes a garment worker in the U.S. earning today's average pay of $9.86 an hour.

"I don't buy myself anything unless I have some small savings, the change in my pocket that I put aside," Nelly says matter-of-factly.

"Then I will get something special to eat, or a book."

Love stories are her favorite.

If Liga Mayor were to double the workers' pay and benefits - an increase from 20 to 40 pesos an hour - the cost of the $38 sweat shirt would increase by about 26 cents. At the higher rate, the workers would barely make what advocates consider an adequate living wage.

But no one is leaning that way. John Joerger, director of global human rights for GEAR for Sports, marketer of Champion's collegiate apparel, said Mexico's industry standards dictate Liga Mayor's wage levels.

"You can look at any country outside the U.S. and say the wages are low. And hey, you know what, I wish I got paid more, as well," Joerger said.

"It's more a question of, are they getting paid wages that are respective of that country's standard? To characterize them as too low, that's a subjective judgment."

Liga Mayor's sister factory, in a rural town closer to the border, also produces shirts for UConn and pays wages similar to those in Jaboncillo, according to Julia Quinonez, who leads the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras, a workers' advocacy group.

Meanwhile, Mexico's President Vicente Fox has shown little interest in improving conditions in the maquilas. The average wage in the garment plants - about 650 pesos a week - has not budged since 2000, while the purchasing power of maquila workers is lower now than it was in 1993, according to studies by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and other groups.

And so the people of La Laguna brace for another betrayal, after NAFTA forced an estimated 1.3 million peasant farmers off their land - and into the maquilas.

In just 10 years, they have watched American clothing companies migrate through Mexico, moving from border towns to southern states, where wages are lower and law enforcement more lax, molding rural communities into an industrial force as they go.

Now, they watch in disbelief as the companies leave altogether. The value of Mexico's apparel exports to the U.S. already has fallen 24 percent since 2000 and is expected to drop further in 2005, when rules limiting China's share of the market are lifted.

Rodrigo Mora Lopez, the mayor of Jaboncillo, does not concern himself with global economies. But he worries that his village will come apart if the garment maquilas shut down.

"Without enough money to raise up the children, people get frustrated. Security becomes a concern," he says.

"Bad as it is now, at least there are jobs."

Perla's mother, Maria Magdalena Campirano, can see the trouble ahead. She has been encouraging Perla to leave Jaboncillo and pursue her interest in computers in the U.S.Perla's decade in the sweatshops has not dulled her keen intellect. She is articulate and thoughtful - a bookworm, church missionary and talented soccer player - everything an American university might look for in a candidate.

But Liga Mayor gets in the way.

"I tell her to cut back her hours to do the paperwork, but it's hard," says her mother, who works part time in a tortilla factory to help her daughter pay the bills.

"They need her, and off she goes."On The LineThere is an area northwest of La Laguna called the Zona del Silencio, a swath of desert where some say a mysterious magnetic disturbance is responsible for silencing radio transmissions and stymieing other forms of communication.

When they made the UConn championship sweat shirt, Aracely and Nelly sat four seats away from each other on a production line. They could not speak, but they communicated perfectly:

Make the quota.

Aracely was pregnant with her second child; Nelly was losing hope of finding a husband. But the pressures, the regrets, the bad timing - they were lost in a manmade zone of silence, where it is impossible to retain a single thought too long without losing the pace.

Take a garment from the pile, smooth out the fabric, guide it through the machine, fold and stack it for the next worker. On the line, there are no extraneous motions. Front and back seams first, then waistband, sleeves, cuffs and hood. Eighty every hour, one every 45 seconds.

Make the quota. Nothing else matters. They are just nimble hands now, in neat rows, no longer burdened by the chaos of history.

Liga Mayor traps them.

Liga Mayor consumes them.

And Liga Mayor sets them free.

As Colleges Profit, Sweatshops Worsen
(Part 1)

The above came from the Hartford Courant website.

Fair use of copyrighted material

* * * *

Telling your Attorney to go fuck himself- PRICELESS

A Justice System really has to be corrupt and out of hand for something to actually change

* * * *

Can cops rape, rob, beat, and murder with immunity?

Are their unnamed factions in the US, similar to the KKK?

With rogue judges and their minions, police officers, do we really live in a Democracy? (post)

This blogger's email: stevengerickson@yahoo.com

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