David Bacon Stories & Photographs

Latin America

By David Bacon


SAN FRANCISCO (8/13/95) — According to the Code of Conduct which The Gap says it enforces in its overseas factories, seamstresses are treated with respect and dignity. All the required legal protections for workers in each country are scrupulously observed. The code itself, reflecting The Gap's environmentally-friendly image, is printed with soy-based inks on treeless paper. The company's lobbyists and PR flacks show it off proudly to politicians and reporters.

There's only one problem.

No one who works in the factories has ever heard of it. To workers who actually make the t-shirts on the racks in Gap stores, it doesn't exist.

The Gap is not the only company which has a code of conduct for its overseas contractors. Most big U.S. clothing companies have similar ones. Like the Gap, they also make the bulk of their clothing in factories located in Central America, the Caribbean, and south and east Asia.

But the true working conditions described by maquiladora workers themselves are a world away from the ones described in the codes. They are reminescent of conditions as they existed over a century ago in the first clothing factories in the U.S., before they were changed by a hundred years of strikes, union battles, and labor legislation.

The production of clothing by the biggest labels in the world has fled to these offshore sweatshops, looking for cheap labor, as the companies which own the labels have closed factories in the U.S. And this work has fled with the help, and often at the instigation, of the U.S. government. U.S. Agency for International Development financing built the industrial parks to which this work has been relocated.

To help U.S. companies keep labor costs down, USAID has studied the only workforce the companies will hire there — young women. It has systematized their exploitation. To keep these young women in the workforce through their most productive years, USAID teaches the companies how to keep them from getting pregnant. It has even discussed the need to increase the entry into the workforce of girls as young as 10 to 14 years old.

The corporate codes of conduct of large garment companies are written to divert attention from this hidden reality, and to provide political cover for efforts to win even greater government subsidies.


Judith Viera worked for three years in the Mandarin factory in El Salvador, sewing Gap t-shirts which sell for $20 in the U.S. Viera received, on the average, about 16¢ for each one. "No one ever told us about a code of conduct," she says. Viera, like most of her coworkers, went to work at Mandarin while she was a teenager. After three years of hard labor, she's still only 18 years old today.

"Our workday started at 7am, and went to 9pm, Monday to Thursday," she recalls. "On Friday we went from 7am to 5pm, and then started again at 7pm, and worked until 3 on Saturday morning. We then went to sleep in the dirt on the floor of the plant, and woke up to start working again at 7am, and worked until 5pm Saturday evening. Working like this, the most I was ever able to earn was 750 colones for two weeks [about 43 dollars per week]."

The workweek Viera describes is 80 hours. That makes her pay 54¢ an hour. She sewed t-shirts for The Gap, JC Penney and Eddie Bauer.

Viera says the company routinely cheated workers on their overtime hours. "If you tried to claim the additional hours, they would suspend you," she says. "The supervisors would scream at the women, and hit us with the shirts, shouting at us to work faster. Although we were working 14 hours a day, they would only let us go to the bathroom twice. We would have to get a ticket from them to go, and we could only go for five minutes." Supervisors would punish workers who stayed in the bathroom too long by making them sweep all day outside the factory in the broiling sun.

In the development of the export-processing zones (EPZs) in El Salvador, government cooperation was won by including army officers in the ownership and management of the plants. One of the owners at Mandarin is an ex-army colonel, and another ex-colonel heads the personnel department. Viera says that she and her coworkers were often sexually harassed by them. "The colonel who is chief of personnel asked me to go out with him many times," she remembers. "He would follow me in his car when I left the factory. I was very afraid, and I would go home with my two sisters."

Last year Mandarin workers organized a union in order to change the most abusive practices, and to win better wages. The company fired over 350 workers, including the illegal termination of pregnant women, union leaders, and underage workers. In early July workers organized a work stoppage because of the firings. Company managers called the police, who pulled the organizers out of the plant. Police kidnapped the the general secretary of the union, threatening and beating him. According to Viera, "they told him to turn over the names of the members of the union's executive board, and that if he didn't, they would kill his family."

While the situation at Mandarin drew international attention because of the company's attempt to destroy its union, the conditions there are eerily similar to those in other Central American countries. Another young maquiladora worker, Claudia Molina, gives almost the same description of her worklife at Orion Apparel in Honduras, where she sewed shirts for Gitano [the house brand of Fruit of the Loom], and for Manhattan Shirts, J. Riggins, and S. Hook.

"Our work day is from 7:30am to 8:30pm," Molina says, "sometimes until 10:30, from Monday to Friday. On Saturday we start at 7:30am. We get an hour for lunch, and work until 6:30pm. We take a half hour again to eat, and then we work from 7pm until midnight. We take another half hour rest, and then go until 6 on Sunday morning. Working like this I earned 270 lempiras per week [about $30]." Molina describes a workweek between 88 and 98 hours.

Since such long hours are almost more than the human body can endure, the company began to pass out stimulant pills, especially during the 23-hour turnaround. They only stopped handing out pills when women began fainting during the middle of the night. Molina describes managers shouting at workers to work faster, and hitting them in the face with the shirts.

Both in Honduras and El Salvador, the companies tell young women that they can't go to school and work as well. "They say the o;vertime is mandatory, and yell at us, 'School or work!' If you go to school, they fire you." Molina recalls. Mandatory overtime is illegal under Honduran labor law. "I went to school up to the fifth grade, and I wanted to continue, but I couldn't."

Like the Mandarin plant, Orion used terror to beat back efforts by its workers to change conditions. On June 10, a company security guard shot a worker three times in the head, who had gone into the plant without an ID card to collect his paycheck. Workers stopped work the following Monday. "We demanded that the company give the worker's family the pay they owed him, and that they recognize our union," Molina says. Instead, over 600 people were fired.


Another striking similarity between the plants in Honduras and El Salvador is the intense preoccupation by the companies over the sexual lives of young women workers. Many of the maquiladoras have a company doctor, but even according to USAID, their main function is to see that workers don't qualify for disability treatment or payments. Instead, at both Mandarin and Orion, they hand out contraceptives. "When we complain that we're sick, he gives us contraceptive pills," Viera says. When the doctor's pills made one woman on Viera's line feel ill, she went to the public social security clinic. "At the clinic they told her that she was pregnant, which she hadn't known, and that the pills she had been given were to produce an abortion."

The wholesale administration of contraceptives is described in two studies made by Price Waterhouse, under a U.S. government contract to evaluate USAID programs, and identify problems hindering the growth of offshore plants, in the export processing zones in Honduras. These studies, in October 1992 and May 1993, identified the main problem faced by maquiladora employers as a potential labor shortage. Not only would a shortage restrict growing production, Price Waterhouse said, but it would exert an upward pressure on wages.

In the Honduran EPZs, 50 factories had been set up and were in operation in March 1992, employing 22,342 workers. Price Waterhouse estimated that by the end of 1993, 287 factories would be in operation, employing 105,000 people. Consequently, the report concluded, "EPZ's labor demands could not be met by natural population growth." The most important way to solve the labor needs of the factories, it said, was through "an increase in the labor participation rates of young women," that is, by drawing more young women into the workforce.

Women already make up 84% of the workforce in Honduran maquiladoras. In almost every country where U.S.-owned garment and assembly plants have been set up, this same proportion holds true. Over 95% of the women in the Honduran plants are younger than 30, and half are younger than 20. As might be expected, many of the young women in the factories are at the point in their lives where they want to begin their own families. But Price Waterhouse noted with disapproval that "the pregnancy rate among women of childbearing age was 4% in June 1992, up from 2.5% six months earlier. This is regarded as too high (3% would be the maximum acceptable)."

Therefore, to keep women from getting pregnant, and leaving the factory to have children [and paid maternity leave is compulsory in Honduras], USAID funded the Honduran Association for Family Planning. Following the example of a similar association set up earlier by USAID in the Mexican maquiladoras, the family planning association established "contraceptive distribution posts staffed by nurses in three EPZ factories: Monty and Hanes...andMAINTA (Osh Kosh B'Gosh)." The report notes that the Mexican program "claims spectacular results in higher productivity, lower staff turnover and training costs, reduced absenteeism and reduced costs for maternity leave...and medical care."

The report concludes that "USAID officers would favor the establishment of distribution posts for pills and condoms in every EPZ factory."

The studies didn't just concentrate on preventing pregnancy. They studied every aspect of workers' lives, from the number of stoves and bicycles per household and the size of families, to the amount of each family's budget spent on food and transport. And all from the point of view of maintaining an adequate and stable labor supply to the factories.

But the most startling compilation of statistics is that which examines the age of the workforce. As the companies run out of girls in their late teenage years, younger and younger girls are being drawn into the plants. The 1993 study explains that the percentage of women under 21 has risen from a third to half the workforce. One table shows the employment rates of workers age 10 and over, and another shows that children between the ages of 10 and 14 make up 16% of the women either employed or seeking jobs. A footnote claims that "the legal minimum working age in Honduras is 15, but in the rural economy it is normal to work from ten onwards."

U.S. government support for the garment plants, even under these horrifying conditions, is not surprising. Fruit of the Loom has just given a donation of $100,000 to the Republican National Committee, which is not restricted from accepting corporate donations as candidates for office are. Donald Fisher, chief executive officer of The Gap, gave the committee $60,000 last year. Similar contributions were made by K-Mart and Dayton-Hudson, owners of Target, who use the Orion plant.

In return for these donations, they not only get the help of USAID and Price Waterhouse. Congressman Phillip Crane this year introduced H.R. 553, the Caribbean Basin Trade Security Act. This bill would strip all current workers' rights protections from U.S. trade laws, and provide garment manufacturers with a $240 million reduction on tariffs they now have to pay on garments assembled in the offshore plants.


This summer Viera and Molina were brought to the U.S. by the National Labor Committee Education Fund in Support of Worker and Human Rights in Central America. The committee was established in the early 1980s by progressive union presidents in the AFL-CIO, who wanted to challenge Reagan administration policies in Central America, and official AFL-CIO support for them. Since the end of the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the committee has gone on to build ties between unions and workers in Central America and the U.S.

In late July and early August, Viera and Molina arrived in San Francisco. There they led a march and rally, in which 500 members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE — the new union combining the old International Ladies' Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers) converged on The Gap's luxurious corporate offices on the City's waterfront.

Acknowledging their arrival, Gap CEO Donald Fisher published a letter in the San Francisco Chronicle in which he claimed that he was unable to verify the abusive conditions described by Judith Viera. "This spring," he said, "when the allegations first came to our attention, we sent a senior executive to El Salvador to investigate. He met with workers and with managers at the plant, as well as with Salvadoran and U.S. government officials...The Gap's investigations thus far have failed to uncover violations of our sourcing guidelines." He went on to say, however that The Gap was cutting off orders to the Mandarin plant.

After the San Francisco rally, however, Viera, Molina, National Labor Committee staff members Charles Kernaghan and Barbara Briggs, and San Francisco UNITE leader Katie Quan, met with a Gap vice-president. He told the delegation that The Gap's code of conduct was being translated into Spanish for the first time even as they were meeting. He went on to admit that the investigation at Mandarin consisted of a U.S. manager talking to company managers and workers on the plant floor, a situation guaranteed to terrify the workers involved.

Kernaghan rejected The Gap's withdrawal of work from the plant, and demanded that the company agree to an investigation by the independent Honduran human rights commission. "It's not acceptable to us," he says, "that after exploiting these workers for years, the company just walks away. If companies pull work out and workers lose their jobs every time they complain, this will punish the wrong people, and the conditions won't change."

"We want our jobs," Viera adds. "We want to continue working, but not under these conditions. No one would want to work in these conditions. It's not fair that they pay us so little, and sell the product we make for so much money. We will never even be able to buy one of these shirts that we make ourselves."


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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