David Bacon Stories & Photographs

Peace and Justice

By David Bacon
Teamsters Union Report, April 2005

In November 2004,. Gilberto Soto, a Teamster organizer among port truckers in Elizabeth, New Jersey, went to Central America to investigate working conditions and union organizing efforts by Mærsk container drivers and port workers. Just days after his arrival, he was assassinated.

In March, an international trade union delegation assembled in El Salvador to continue the investigation Soto had intended to carry out. It included representatives from: the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT); the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA); the United Federation of Danish Workers (3F); and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), the international arm of the AFL-CIO.

The delegation traveled to El Salvador and Honduras where it interviewed dockers and drivers. In addition, in El Salvador it interviewed port workers from Corinto, in Nicaragua. The delegation traveled to the ports of Acajutla, El Salvador, and Puerto Cortez, Honduras, and observed conditions directly.

The group relied on the testimony of workers themselves - the actual experience of dock workers who load and unload Mærsk containers and truck drivers who haul thems.. That testimony was given freely and often at great length. Workers were very knowledgeable about their working conditions, their labor rights, and the attitude of the company towards their efforts to organize and win better conditions.

Some of these workers are directly employed by Mærsk’s wholly owned trucking subsidiary, Bridge International Transport (BIT). Some work for subcontractors or terminal operators. Mærsk is by no means the worst employer in the region’s trucking industry. It is, however, a major global corporation and one supposedly committed to standards of corporate social responsibility. The experience of workers often contradicts Mærsk’s stated policies concerning working conditions and labor relations, but it is the best source for understanding how those policies are, or are not, implemented in real life.

The delegation found that, like many giant corporations with global operations, A. P. Møller-Mærsk has a de facto double standard for its treatment of workers.

In Denmark, the company is well-known for treating its workforce fairly. It pays wages that allow workers to enjoy a good standard of living. When they decide to form unions and bargain, the company generally does not oppose them. European unions are able to bargain fair contracts and enjoy a cooperative relationship with the company.

In Central America, a completely different set of standards prevails. European employees of Mærsk would be shocked to witness the situation of Central American employees who perform jobs identical to those in Denmark or other European countries.

Central American workers who handle Mærsk containers in ports and on trucks have a very poor standard of living. They are usually subcontracted as owner-drivers or even illegally hired by third parties. They therefore lack adequate health care coverage, and often must pay for medical care from already inadequate family budgets. Those drivers do not receive any of the social benefits mandated by labor law, such as vacations or paid holidays.

Central American drivers are usually not paid at all for time spent waiting for cargo, although they have no choice but to do so if they hope to continue haul Mærsk containers. They are victims of corruption and treated in an abusive fashion by port dispatchers and security guards. They work under dangerous conditions, operating unsafe equipment and transporting overloaded containers.

Worst of all, when workers choose to organize to change those conditions, the company, in most cases has aggressively thwarted them. In El Salvador, the vicious union-busting campaign of 2001 which broke the truckers’ union continues to intimidate workers and prevent them from exercising their rights. In the Salvadoran port of Acajutla, the old union for dock workers was destroyed in the privatization of the port in 2003, and workers who tried to reorganize it were fired and blacklisted. And in Nicaragua, independent Mærsk contractors are engaging in attempts to intimidate drivers and frustrate their attempts to organize.

In the one brighter spot, Honduras, truck drivers have successfully organized and bargained industry-wide improvements in wages and conditions, although it took two strikes to win those gains.

El Salvador – Drivers Fired and Blacklisted when Organizing

In 2000, discontent built among Mærsk drivers in El Salvador because of changing conditions as a result of SeaLand’s purchase by Mærsk in 1999. SeaLand, for instance, had a history of paying 50 quetzales daily for the time drivers spent waiting to pick up a container in Guatemala, for the second leg of the round trip from El Salvador. Mærsk discontinued those payments. Mærsk then set up a subsidiary, BIT, which began to give out contracts for transporting containers, which drivers formerly received from Mærsk directly. “BIT itself had no trucks,” says Santiago Alas, a former driver, “but by acting as an intermediary between us and Mærsk, the company turned us into subcontractors.” BIT also charged drivers for the loads they received.

“The problem of the waiting time got worse,” Alas remembers. “I once had to wait in Puerto Cortez, in Honduras, for 16 days to get a return load. They didn’t pay me anything for the time or for what it cost me to eat while waiting.”

The anger of the drivers came to a head when Mærsk and BIT imposed two additional requirements on drivers. First, the companies insisted that drivers take lie detector tests to maintain their employment status, and pay 300 cordobas for the privilege. “The questions had nothing to do with our jobs,” Alas says. “I was asked, by a woman examiner, how many time I’d slept with a man. My temperature went up and I became very nervous. They asked if I belonged to a union or was a union leader.”

Drivers were asked how they would react to seeing an eight-year-old girl with no clothes on or if they’d ever had any conversations with drug dealers about carrying drugs. They were asked if they’d robbed more than 100 colones from their employer.

Mærsk and BIT also began putting security guards, employed by the Wackenhut Corporation (a security firm with a long anti-labor record in the U.S.) in the cabs to accompany drivers. “They guards wouldn’t let us eat on the job, or even stop the truck to go to the bathroom,” recalls Rafael Hernandez. Guards were armed with shotguns, and would ride in the passenger seat pointing it at drivers, or sticking out of the window, frightening the drivers in other vehicles.

As drivers began talking about the conditions, in their first efforts to organize themselves, Alas was fired along with a number of others. The company gave as a reason that they’d failed the lie detector test, although the test had been administered at least 12 months earlier.

Nevertheless, drivers continued to organize. One of their leaders, Raul Lopez, made contact with a local union that agreed to give them assistance, the Sindicato Nacional de los Trabajadores de la Industria de Transporte y Conexos (the National Union for Workers in the Transport and Connected Industries). Alas announced the beginning of the organizing drive over the radio that drivers carried in their truck cabs.

The union began collecting signatures of drivers joining the nascent union and quickly gained the support of 300 of the 450 drivers then hauling Mærsk cargo.

“On January 9, 2001, we tried to present our demands to Ned Brantley, Mærsk’s Managing Director,” recounts Raul Lopez. “He met with us on January 17 and asked me what we wanted. I told him we wanted a fair distribution of work for us all, and at least four trips a month, enough to support our families. We were only getting two and using up all the money we were paid in expenses. We told him that in order to pay our bills our trips should last a maximum of three days. At the time, we were spending up to 12 and 15 days in port waiting for a load and getting the same pay. We wanted the dispatchers, who they employed, to stop taking bribes to give drivers trips. He said this didn’t interest him and that we weren’t working for Mærsk. But I told him that we were hauling Mærsk’s cargo through BIT.”

Mærsk made no agreement with the drivers and instead began a campaign against the union. Dispatchers began warning drivers not to join, and even tried to discourage them from speaking with workers like Alas, who was no longer offered work assignments after the beginning of 2001. Finally, the union decided to stop work in order to get the company’s attention.

On August 8, 2001, drivers stopped their vehicles. The focus of the stoppage was at border crossings, where workers refused to get back into their trucks and continue hauling their loads. Over the radio, dispatchers warned that anyone participating in the stoppage would be fired and that the owners of the vehicles would be banned from receiving future work.

“The company immediately began to try to find ways to disarticulate our movement,” Lopez said. “The company began contracting with a number of other transport businesses, dispersed over a wide area, to make it difficult for the drivers to get organized.”

“Drivers weren’t fired directly,” said Gilberto Garcia, a staff member at the Centro de Estudios y Apoyo Laboral (Center for Labor Study and Support, or CEAL), which provided support for the drivers. “Instead, the company announced a restructuring, in which they were effectively pushed out. Mærsk introduced a new company which had its own trucks. This company got all the loads, leaving the drivers who had tried to organize with no work. They were told that there wasn’t any work available for them. After a month in which they weren’t given a single load, the effect was the same as firing them.”

Lopez estimates that 200 drivers lost their jobs at Mærsk following the strike. “The company began to fire us and we weren’t able to get a single container no matter what,” Hernandez recalls. “On August 24, I myself was fired because I belonged to the union. I was told this directly by Juan Ayala, a traffic coordinator for BIT.” Hernandez was informed of his firing as he was picking up a load in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. When he took his load to customs, the armed guard in his truck told him to take it to the company yard instead. Hernandez refused, saying the shipment’s documents required him to deliver it to customs instead. After doing so, he had a seizure and was taken to the hospital. He was unable to work for eight months afterwards and still suffers its effects today.

In public statements, Brantley called the drivers criminals and said he’d never sit down and talk with them. A deputy in the national Legislative Assembly showed drivers a letter written by Brantley, calling them “terrorists.” He used the same phrase in communicating with members of the U.S. Congress, telling them he was being threatened physically, that he feared he’d be kidnapped and had sent his wife out of the country. Brantley referred to Lopez as a “criminal terrorist.”

During El Salvador’s civil war from 1978 to 1989, this was the phrase used by the military to describe people involved in popular social movements. “This was used to delegitimize any form of social struggle,” Garcia explains. “The consequences that often followed were the disappearance or assassination of the people labeled in this way.” Even after the war was over, social activists continued to be imprisoned after being called “criminal terrorists,” with no actual evidence of illegal activity.

“When a powerful person in this country calls someone a ‘terrorist,’” Garcia explains, “this is the same as threatening them with acts of violent repression. The situation in El Salvador is very well-known among political leaders in the United States. I have no doubt that Brantley knew the serious implications of this phrase.”

Eventually, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy conducted an official investigation of the CEAL activities supporting the drivers, and its relationship with the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, an international labor support apparatus organized by the AFL-CIO. Former U.S. Ambassador Robert White went to El Salvador to investigate Brantley’s allegations and found no evidence of any misconduct on the part of the drivers or CEAL.

“The purpose was to create a scandal, to pretend that he was the victim, not the drivers who had been fired,” Garcia said.

Following the work stoppage, the pro-union drivers found they couldn’t get work from other motor carrier or shipping companies either. “I’ve been unemployed for four years, since the strike, because I’m known as an active union supporter,” Alas said. Hernandez has had the same experience. “I haven’t been able to get work for any other company since then because I supported the union. There’s a blacklist,” he said.

Bad Conditions Persist

As a consequence of the lost strike and union-building effort in 2001, drivers today say conditions and wages remain very poor. About 60 drivers work directly for BIT on the San Salvador-Puerto Cortez run, and about 100 owner-operators. The owner-operators are paid $120 for a round trip. Once in Puerto Cortez, however, they have to wait for days to pick up another load. According to owner-operators in the waiting area outside the port, a seven-day wait is normal for them. As was the case before the strike, they are not paid for the time they spend waiting.

There is no running water in the waiting yard and the bathrooms are so filthy that drivers say they can’t use them. In the port itself, while loading and unloading, drivers say they aren’t permitted to use the bathrooms there.

In an impromptu meeting in the yard, many in a group of 30 drivers said they remembered the fate of the old union in 2001. One asked, “If we try to do anything about our problems, how do we know that the same thing won’t happen to us that happened to drivers in 2001?” They worried that if they tried to organize again, they would also lose their jobs.

These drivers were unaware of any commitment by Mærsk, BIT or any other shipping company or transporter that their labor rights would be respected. Drivers additionally feared that the Salvadoran government would be hostile to any such efforts, given the fate of the union for dockworkers. “We know the government in El Salvador doesn’t want unions,” another driver said. “It’s very hard to organize unions here. We accept a terrible system because there’s no alternative.” He explained that owner-operators felt themselves in a precarious position because “some contractors are now trying to monopolize all the transport.” Neither driver even wanted to give his name,

Dock Workers Denied Union Rights in the Salvadoran Port of Acajutla

In El Salvador’s principal port, Acajutla, approximately 1,200 workers are employed, including 480 longshoremen. Dockworkers are currently employed by seven private companies who operate terminals in the port. They are: OPSSA, COPESE, OyM, Neparsa, Remarsa, SYCSA and ServiPacific.

Until September 2001, Acajutla port workers were employed by the state port authority, CEPA, which owned the port property and administered terminal operations. The union for port workers, the Sindicato de la Industria Portuaria de El Salvador (the Union of the Port Industry of El Salvador), was 50 years old. “During the civil war we worked 12-hour shifts, unloading bombs and ammunition in very dangerous conditions, and the government never complained about our willingness or ability to do the work,” says Carlos David Marroquin, Secretary-Treasurer of the old longshore union, and a former warehouse worker.

Nevertheless, on September 11, 2001, the Salvadoran military occupied the port and the airport. Both were militarized (placed under military authority) for the first time in Salvadoran history. Francisco Flores, then-president of El Salvador, called the union members “terrorists” and “guerrilleros.”

At the time of the militarization, 38 port guards were immediately terminated. The following January, 600-700 workers were fired. By May the last 240 workers were also terminated. On January 23, the union was officially dissolved by the government, and thrown out of its office in the port. Union members haven’t been let back into the building since then.

The operation of the terminals was privatized. One terminal operator, OPSSA, is owned by the family of Francisco Flores.

The Salvadoran government told workers they could reapply for their old jobs, but with the new private operators. “The told people they’d be liquidated, but they’d get jobs with the private operators,” Marroquin says. “But they didn’t say how much they’d be paid.”

When longshoremen were employed by CEPA they had a union contract with a set wage for every job. Working two shifts a day, four days a week, dockers could make $125 per day or $25,000 a year. “The sons and daughters of people who couldn’t themselves read or write, humble people, were able to go to the university,” he said.

The new wage was $12 per day--cutting the daily income of longshoremen by more than 90 percent.

Since January 2002, the union has made three attempts to reorganize.

On May 7, 2002, leaders of the old union called a meeting of all former members working in the port. Salvadoran labor law stipulates that had 25 percent of the former members attended, the union would have regained its legal status. But members were threatened that if they went to the meeting, they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the port area, and would therefore lose their jobs. These threats were made by CEPA officials, according to leaders of the former union. They were believable to the workers because, since disbanding the former union the port authority has still refused to permit 25 of its former leaders to enter the port area, including Marroquin and Eduardo Fuentes Ordoñez, former chief grievance officer and dock worker.

The next reorganization attempt was made in September 2003. During the election campaign that year, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), El Salvador’s leftwing electoral party, and former guerilla movement, made a public commitment to demilitarize the port and recognize the union. FMLN deputies tried to get these changes adopted by the National Assembly, and publicly denounced the violations of labor rights in the port. But their proposal was only supported by the party’s own delegates who were not a majority. After the election, no further effort was made to introduce legislation reinstating the union and its members.

“That’s when we decided to organize a new union,” Ordoñez explains.

On December 6, 2004, 41 workers, all employed at the time by the terminal operators, signed a notarized document stating that they were constituting a new union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Portuaria de El Salvador (the Union of the Workers in the Port Industry of El Salvador). They had a meeting to officially form the union. Under Salvadoran labor law, if 35 workers in the same industry sign such a statement, the union has the right to legal status.

On December 7, the workers presented the documents to the Ministry of Labor. On December 13, the Ministry notified the terminal operators that the legally-required number of employees had signed documents forming a union.

On December 14 the employers responded that the workers who had signed the petition were not employed by them. That morning, when those workers had presented themselves as usual, they had been denied work. The companies told them this was because they’d formed a union.

On February 14, the Ministry of Labor denied legal status to the union, saying that the workers who signed the documents were not employed by the terminal operators. Since December, 36 of those workers have been blacklisted and been unable to work for the terminal operators.

According to both current and former port workers, conditions have deteriorated, along with wages. In the course of eight hours, a crew of workers will unload 120 boxes, with a crew of four longshoremen, two lashers and one crane driver, who uses the crane on the ship. They say they don’t receive overtime pay, despite a law requiring an overtime premium after seven hours. There’s no fixed payday, and workers get paid 20-30 days after they work. Dock workers are told they can’t eat during the work day, despite the fact that employers are required to provide a half-hour meal break. They sometimes have to work three straight shifts without eating, if the operator is in a hurry to unload and load a ship.

The employer is required to make payments to the Social Security health care system, including money deducted from workers’ wages. According to dockers, however, when they get sick and go to the Social Security hospital, they discover that the employer hasn’t paid for them, and instead has pocketed the payments. Workers injured on the job have discovered they don’t have health insurance even for emergency, work-related injuries, and have to cover the doctor bills themselves.

The wharves are a high-risk environment, but dock workers labor without gloves, hardhats, masks, safety belts, nets or even ladders. When they have to climb a stack of containers, they have to climb up the containers themselves or a spreader hoists them up. They have to work in this dangerous way even when it’s raining.

According to the blacklisted workers, one man, Manuel Manzilla, broke his leg on the Sunday morning before the delegation’s visit. He wasn’t taken to the Social Security hospital, because the companies try to hide the people who get injured.

Labor Rights Violated for Nicaragua Port Truckers

In Nicaragua’s port of Corinto, Mærsk is the largest shipper, handling the overwhelming majority of the containers coming in and out of the harbor. Mærsk uses many contracting companies to haul containers, and about 200 independent drivers. One of the contractors is Transamerica, a company with 20 trucks. Another company working for Mærsk is TMM, Transportación Maritima Mexicana, with 10 trucks.

The Nicaraguan union for port truckers, Sindicato Guillermo Rosalas Filipili de Transporte Terrestre, is six months old and has organized the Transamerica drivers. Drivers cite low wages and the lack of safety equipment as their chief reasons for organizing a union. Workers get a monthly salary, although the company wants to change this to pay per trip. Right now the wages are about $220 per month, plus benefits. The company cut workers’ pay $50 per month last year, which was one reason why they started to organize the union.

Transamerica opposed the union effort. When managers became aware of it the entire executive board of the union was called to San Jose, Costa Rica, where the company has its main office. There they were told to resign from the union. The managers said they’d never had unions in another country, and that they followed the Costa Rican idea of “solidarismo.” Solidarismo is a paternalistic Costa Rican system that combines paternalism with a concerted intimidating campaign to prevent workers from organizing unions.

The board members came back, and explained the company’s proposal. The workers accused the board members of betraying them, and then began the legal process for starting collective bargaining. “We’ve had four sessions of negotiations with this company and the Labor Minister so far,” said Cristobal Garcia, “and so far we have not been able to reach an agreement. The company said it wasn’t in good shape, so we asked for an audit. So far we haven’t seen one.”

The union alleges that one of its leaders, Rafael Correa, was fired after being accused of being stopped by the police. Union leaders believe this was a pretext, since other workers with similar problems haven’t been fired, and that the real reason for termination was his union activity.

Union members say that hostile attitude by Transamerica has discouraged other workers from organizing. Drivers for TMM, for instance, “are all afraid to join the union,” Cristobal said. At another company, Transporte Hernandez, a motor carrier with 200 trucks, workers tried to organize a union in 2004. All seven people on the union executive board were fired. The union is continuing to organize workers there, “but under the table,” Garcia said.

Owner operators working for Mærsk are paid by distance. For driving from Corinto to Managua and back, loaded each way, a distance of 154 kilometers, a driver is paid 4500 cordobas (15 Cordoba per U.S. dollar). The trip takes three and a half to five hours. Owner-operators have to pay a shipping agent 4-5 percent of the value of the contract to get a load. They do 3-4 trips a week, depending on distance.

The chassis belong to the contracting companies in the case of salaried drivers, and to Mærsk in the case of owner-operators. Drivers complain about maintenance problems with Mærsk trailers. Often the brakes on them are defective.

Drivers also say Mærsk fills containers that should have only 13-14 tons with as much as 22 tons. This causes problems for drivers, since their trucks have to be adjusted, and sometimes the excess weight causes their tires to go out, brakes are more likely to fail, the trucks are difficult to control in emergency maneuvers and on winding mountain roads. Drivers are instructed to drive at night, which is more dangerous, to avoid the weigh stations, since the law puts a maximum of 20 tons per container. If a driver protests, he won’t get another job. But if they catch him at the weigh station, he can lose his license or have it suspended. Drivers have to pay bribes to avoid this. About three-quarters of the containers are overweight.

Owner-operators say they won’t get work if the company knows they’re in the union. There is no written policy that states this, but workers believe it to be true.

Honduras – Significant Improvements, but Serious Problems Remain

Honduran port drivers have conditions that are significantly better than those of either El Salvador or Nicaragua. This is primarily the result of the successful organization of a union that represents them, and willingness by Mærsk and its BIT subsidiary to recognize the union and consult with it. One of the showpieces of this improved relationship is a shaded waiting area with a paved floor, picnic benches and flush toilets. Unfortunately, however, Mærsk has not seen fit to provide similar improvements for the Salvadoran drivers who park and wait for days at a time in a dusty lot with no flush toilets just down the road, closer to Puerto Cortez.

BIT has five trucks, and employs drivers to drive them, in Puerto Cortez and San Pedro Sula. Another 300 owner-operators, or drivers employed by contractors, move containers for Mærsk. The company sometimes uses BIT to assign loads to independent drivers, and also assigns some loads on its own. The dispatching of drivers takes place at the company yard on the highway from San Pedro Sula to Puerto Cortez, and a Mærsk employee gives out the tickets.

Drivers are required to work only for BIT and Mærsk. If they haul containers for another contractor or shipper, they say, they will be denied any further work. Roberto Contreras, ITF representative in Puerto Cortez, confirms that “Mærsk gives its drivers a code, and says they can only work for Mærsk. If they drive for another company, they’ll lose their work for Mærsk.” For drivers, that’s a significant threat. “Mærsk is the biggest shipping company by far,” he says. “Its ships are bigger, and they bring in as many as two to five per week.” The company moves about 4,000 containers a month.

According to owner-operator Benjamin Serrano, “Mærsk forces us to work only with them. A couple of years ago we could contact a client and transport a container directly for them. Now the shipping company says the container has to be unpacked at their yard. If it’s delivered to the client, that can only be done by them. We’re losing a lot of work because the shipping lines are trying to take over all the work. There are independent brokers, but you have to pay them to get a load, and they don’t work for the big shipping lines.”

There are significant differences between the situation of drivers who move containers from the ship to the yard and back, and those who make the runs to San Pedro Sula, and from San Pedro Sula to the port of Acajutla in El Salvador.

For taking containers to and from its yard in Puerto Cortez and other points within Honduras, the company pays for each movement. It pays 300 lempiras for short runs. For longer runs, it now pays 13.45 lempiras per kilometer, depending on the price of diesel. If a driver has to go empty in one direction, the company pays for the trip, but normally requires drivers to wait for a return load.

This schedule is the result of two strikes, which took place in 2000. The first lasted four days and three nights, and was then suspended for 18 days. The second strike just involved drivers in Puerto Cortez, and lasted two days. At the end, an agreement, called the Acta de Areglo, was signed by the union, Sindicato Nacional de Motoristas de Epuipo Pesado de Honduras (SINAMEQUIPH) the Honduran Chamber of Cargo Transport, Honduran Association of Shipping Agents, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Chamber of Commerce of Puerto Cortez, and the Ministries of Transport and Labor.

As a result of the strike, the rates paid to owner-operators went up from eight to 10 lempiras per kilometer. The parties also agreed that when the price of fuel goes up, Mærsk would add a certain amount of money to the rate. The union is currently negotiating over pay for waiting time.

Some drivers say that their conditions were better when they could work directly for Mærsk, before BIT became an intermediary. “If we went from Puerto Cortez to Guatemala and back, the return trip had a price,” says Hector Vasquez. “We’d get a 50 percent incentive pay if we came back full. A trip to Guatemala would pay 12,895, and we’d get 18,000 if we came back with another container. Now BIT is the middleman, and we’re paid 16,000 lempiras to go both ways. We get no pay for waiting. Sometimes we have to wait in Acajutla for 15 days, for which we’re paid nothing. Before BIT came on the scene, we could come back empty. Now we can’t.”

Owner-operators are affected by the changing exchange rate, which has gone from 12 to 19 lempiras to the dollar. Fuel price increases also put growing pressure on owner-operators, in spite of the negotiated formula for increasing rates that was intended to take it into account. A year ago, fuel cost 25 lempiras a gallon; this year it costs 49. “It takes 200 gallons to get to Guatemala, which costs 10,000 lempiras,” Vasquez explains. “That’s 55 percent of what we make.” High interest rates also put pressure on operators. Vasquez bought a 1985 International tractor in 2001 for 216,000 lempiras -- 60,000 down payment, with a loan at 32 percent interest. Although the interest rate was later reduced to 25 percent, he still needed to make payments of 9,072 lempiras a month on the loan. Late payment for loads sharpens the pressure too. “It takes three weeks to get paid for a trip, so we’re always living on credit,” Serrano said.

Certain times of the year, such as the melon harvest, attract a large number of drivers and trucks. When the season is over, however, the large number of drivers results in each truck getting fewer loads, and their income drops correspondingly.

Francisco Palencia Espinoza, interviewed outside the gate of Acajutla port in El Salvador, said he’d arrived from San Pedro Sula eight days before. “I arrived on Saturday, and had to wait until Monday to discharge my container,” he explained. “Since then I’ve been waiting for six days, sleeping in the cab of my truck, waiting for another container to take back. They say they don’t have any cargo for us now.”

Palencia has been driving for another Mærsk contractor, Tranycop, for two and a half years. Tranycop had a contract with SeaLand, which Mærsk cancelled when it bought SeaLand. Then Tranycop sued for $4 million, and settled for $800,000 and a percentage of the loads. That settlement has run out, and Tranycop is now losing work. While Palencia and other Tranycop drivers were waiting for loads, other drivers for BIT were discharging loads and picking up new ones.

“I get 735 lempiras to go both ways, loaded,” he said. “I get another 900 lempiras to cover my expenses, which are about 100 lempiras per day. In addition, I get 135 gallons of diesel fuel. But when my truck is loaded heavy, that’s not enough to make it both ways. In that case, I have to pay for extra fuel. Even if I get a container tomorrow, I’ll have to wait until the following day to leave, so that I don’t get to the border when it’s late. That’s when there’s a big chance of being robbed. I’ll arrive in San Pedro Sula the same day I leave here, but then I’ll have to wait another three to four days to get another load. They don’t pay me for any days I have to wait to unload, or to get another load.”

A meal at the outdoor food stand set up by local women to serve the waiting drivers costs about $1.75 (30-35 lempiras).

Drivers also complained about the “19-hour problem.” Customs gives drivers a set number of hours to get to the border. If something happens, and they can’t get there in time, they have to get the police to sign a document explaining the delay, and drivers have to pay them for the signature. For taking bananas from Chinandega, in Nicaragua, a common run, drivers are given 19 hours. According to union president Erasmo Flores, “if you get delayed at all, you get fined. So drivers rush to make it within the allotted time, and don’t take any breaks. And if they get another load to take back, they turn around without resting, and drive straight back. They’re so exhausted that sometimes they crash, and a number of drivers have been killed due to this problem.”

Other problems listed by drivers include long working hours, no vacation pay (for those working for wages), no paid holidays, no health benefits, no retirement benefits, and overweight loads. “Mærsk does run overweight containers,” Flores said. “Honduran law says the maximum container weight is 440 quintales (100 pounds per quintal), or 22 tons. Sometimes they’re loaded with as much as 700 quintales (35 tons). This has even caused deaths.” Honduras no longer operates fixed sites for weighing trucks, only temporary ones.

“The containers are supposed to be fastened to the trailers with a pin lock, but sometimes they just use chains [called the “rastra”]. A few years ago, one container like this came loose, and crushed a family when the trailer overturned.”

Some independent truck owners also employ drivers more often than not in illegal conditions. The income of these drivers is significantly less that that of the owner-operators. One driver, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of retaliation, has worked for one truck owner for three years. “Really, I work for Mærsk,” he said. “I go from Puerto Cortez to San Pedro Sula, from the port to the client, and then to the yard. There I have to wait a day in line to get a load back. In one week, I’ll make six trips, all to San Pedro Sula. I get paid 70 lempiras each way, and paid at the end of the week.” This driver says he gets no vacation or health insurance. “When someone in my family gets sick we have to go to the private hospital, and I pay the bill myself,” he says. For a recent childbirth, he had to pay 300 lempiras.

The wife of this driver furnished the following prices for common items a family needs to purchase: a chicken costs 70 lempiras, a liter of milk costs 12, and a pound of rice 6. The family’s rent for a two-room house is 1,000 lempiras per month; the electricity bill is 100 and the water bill 125 (for an outdoor spigot). School costs 3,000 lempiras a month for four children, including clothes and books. The driver makes 900 lempiras a week, and his wife and sister both work as domestics in people’s homes, earning 500 lempiras a week.

There are about 150 drivers for Mærsk who have no truck of their own. There are about 300 owner-operators, and about 80 percent drive their own trucks. “We’re afraid to speak up because the owner will get mad,” he said.

For drivers within the port area itself, who are not represented by the union, the economic situation is worse. Jorge Guillen, interviewed in the port, described his work situation. “When a ship gets in, I’ll get a call,” he explained. “That happens about three to four times a week. When I’m working, I’ll get 35-40 loads a day [working a double shift of 16 hours]. Mærsk pays its own workers 25 lempiras per load, and 35 if it rains. That’s OK for me, since I’m not married, but it’s not enough to support a family.” If a port worker, employed by the port authority, drives the same load, they get paid 100 lempiras.

Truck tractors observed in the port area were in much worse condition than those operated outside. One, for instance, had tires so worn that the steel belt had frayed apart, exposing a deep groove in the rubber beneath. Some drivers appeared to be very young, in their early teens.

Despite the existence of a written agreement between the union and the employer association, workers say they still fear retaliation for union activity. “BIT says they don’t want unions,” Vasquez said. “That was what one of their managers, Marcotulio Cordoba, told us. One day the anger exploded, in November last year. They were favoring the big owners with 200 trucks, like Tranycop, Hispano and TMM. BIT wanted to give work to them instead of us. We fought it. I was leading the workers in November, December and January, and the company cut the number of trips they gave me. I was accused of being a troublemaker. Cordoba was the one who cut my trips. ‘You’re not coming in here,’ he told me. In November, my truck was motionless for 18 days.”

According to Serrano, “the company has fired people for complaining. The dispatchers treat us in a very ugly way. If we come with a complaint, they just shut their window on us. We’re afraid to make demands, because if we do, we’ll be fired. Max Licona, chief dispatcher, gets mad and says ‘if you don’t want to work, get out of here.’”

The Delegation’s Recommendations

Mærsk is the largest, the wealthiest, the most profitable and the dominant ocean carrier in international shipping. The corporation reports a record profit of more than $4 billion (U.S.) for 2004, adding to years of increasing profits. Mærsk’s dominance is true in world trade and it is true in the shipment of containers in and out of Central America. Mærsk is number one.

Unfortunately, Mærsk has not been number one in promoting labor and human rights in the region. In most cases, the delegation has found serious violations of the labor rights of the truck drivers and the dock workers who serve the crucial role of loading and unloading their ships, and driving their containers on the inland portion of their journey.

The situation is not all bleak, however. Following the two strikes, the Mærsk manager in Honduras established a cooperative relationship with the Honduran trucking and dock workers’ unions, resulting in significant improvements in wages and working conditions. This is an important break in the pattern of intimidation that permeates the company’s operations elsewhere in Central America.

The delegation’s report, issued on April 18 in Copenhagen by IBT Vice-President Chuck Mack, at the time of the company’s shareholders meeting, therefore made three recommendaions:

That Mærsk should formally commit itself to a set of principles of corporate social responsibility, which adhere to international labor standards, including recognition of the right of employees to be represented by a union, and the right to collective bargaining. This should include a clear commitment to neutrality by the company and its subsidiaries when workers organize.

That these principles should also apply to all Maersk subcontractors, and

That these principles be incorporated into an International Framework Agreement agreed between Mærsk and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), with procedures for ensuring their implementation.

In response, Chuck O'Connor, vice president and general counsel at Maersk, said the company was unable to implement ILO standards, according to the Journal of Commerce. Noting that Maersk subsidiary APM Terminals employs US longshore workers, including ILWU members, he said the US is not a signatory to ILO conventions.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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