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 momentís 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 US market.
The US 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. Molinaís 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 US 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
donít re-emerge until Sunday at 6 a.m.--a 22-hour shift!
Charles Kemaghan, 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.
"Itís 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
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. Bath room 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 wonít let them. The
youngsters would have to leave the plant too early to get to class
Judith Viera was part of an effort
to form a union at Mandarin Inter national, 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 wasnít
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 US tax dollars, have been a bonanza for US companies, but the human
toll they are taking is unconscionable.
Since 1980, the US 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