David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Bring in Teenagers, and Give Them Birth Control Pills
The U.S. Government Plans Life for Women in Central American Garment Plants
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (10/15/95) - Since June this year, two young women, 17 and 18 years old, have travelled from city to city throughout the U.S., recounting their experiences as workers in some of the world's worst sweatshops. They've received extensive media coverage - their riveting, eyewitness accounts describe conditions so primitive they hearken back to ones which 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.

Although ostensibly employed by independent contractors, in reality these two women worked for the giants of the garment industry - The Gap, Gitano [Fruit of the Loom], JC Penney, Eddie Bauer, and Manhattan Shirts. Encouraged by US government policy, under both Republicans and Democrats, production of clothing by big labels like these has fled to offshore sweatshops, looking for cheap labor, as the companies which own the labels close factories at home.

The story of Judith Viera from El Salvador, and Claudia Molina from Honduras, is the story of the underside of the global economy, and its free trade agreements like GATT, NAFTA, and the Caribbean Basin Initiative. The negotiation of these agreements, and the creation of a favorable investment climate for U.S. companies in countries around the world, has been the bedrock of U.S. trade and foreign policy for over a century. The testimony of these two women illustrates the price workers are paying for these policies, whether in lost jobs in the U.S., or in grimly systematized exploitation offshore.

Documents made public recently reveal that U.S. companies have moved production and systematized that exploitation with the help, and often at the instigation, of the U.S. government. Financing from the U.S. Agency for International Development 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 - young women. 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 large garment companies involved all have corporate codes of conduct written to divert attention from this hidden reality, and to provide political cover for efforts to win even greater government subsidies. The Gap, for instance, prints its code with soy-based inks on treeless paper. It says seamstresses in its overseas factories are treated with respect, and that all legal protections for workers are scrupulously observed. The company's lobbyists and PR flacks show the code off proudly to politicians and reporters. There's only one problem. No one who works in the Central American factories has ever heard of it. To workers who actually make the t-shirts on the racks in Gap stores, it doesn't exist.

Viera and Molina were brought to the U.S. to expose the reality of their sweatshop conditions, and to provide evidence linking those conditions to U.S. government complicity, by the National Labor Committee Education Fund in Support of Worker and Human Rights in Central America. The committee was set up in the early 1980s by progressive union presidents in the AFL-CIO, who challenged Reagan administration intervention policies in Central America, and official AFL-CIO support for them.

Through more than a decade of work, the committee and its staff have investigated the economic relations responsible for the military adventures it originally set out to oppose. Much of these relations are based on the construction of export processing zones in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and others throughout the Caribbean, Central America and the Pacific Rim. EPZs are basically large industrial parks built from scratch in rural areas or small towns. Financing from USAID pays for road construction, sewers, buildings, transportation, and the basic infrastructure for manufacturing. U.S. companies are then wooed to either directly invest in plant construction, or guarantee work to contractors who operate factories for them.

Charles Kernaghan, director of the committee, explains that in El Salvador, the U.S. government insisted on the construction of the export processing zones where Judith Viera worked, even over the opposition of rightwing military figures. As an incentive, the Salvadoran government, he charges, was given large loans in dollars, which it was allowed to repay in local currency. Since Salvadoran currency inflates at a high rate, in just a few years loans could be repaid at a small fraction of its original value.

A few years ago, Kernaghan and his assistant Barbara Briggs disguised themselves as U.S. manufacturers interested in finding an offshore location to move production of cloth bags. He says they went to San Salvador, where he was met by U.S. embassy personnel. They offered him assistance in finding an appropriate location, and even advice on how to evade Salvadoran labor laws.

Since 1985, U.S. apparel imports from El Salvador by U.S. garment companies has surged from $10 million to almost $398 million. In the same decade, Salvadoran wages, adjusted for inflation, fell from 382 colones per month to 180 colones, according to the National Labor Committee, which quotes from USAID and business sources.

The U.S. government promotes EPZ construction in the interests of providing low-cost labor to U.S. corporations, and in promoting economic development policies in poor countries which tie their economies to U.S. corporate investment. Since these countries have little capital and expertise in export-oriented industrial development, the U.S. provides it. This assistance ranges from the construction of the infrastructure for manufacturing to the supply of labor itself.

Not only do factories have to be built in the countryside, but a whole new workforce of thousands must become quickly available. In countries where workers in the cities often have a militant labor tradition, maquiladora workers are almost always young women, drawn into the zones from farms and small villages. With U.S. expertise paving the way, it's not coincidental that the industrial parks look the same, that the demographics of their workforce are virtually identical, and that the working conditions in the factories are carbon copies of each other.

Many listeners to the testimony of Viera and Molina were struck by the similarity of many of the most abusive of the conditions which they described. "Our workday started at 7am, and went to 9pm, Monday to Thursday," Viera recalled. "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 per week]." The workweek Viera describes is 80 hours. That makes her pay 54 an hour.

Molina's description of the organization of the workshifts in her plant sounds hauntingly familiar. "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.

Both the Mandarin factory, where Viera worked, and the Orion factory which employed Molina, were violently anti-union. Viera herself was fired in the course of union organizing efforts. 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 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."

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.

But even more strikingly similar, however, are accounts of the intense preoccupation by the companies, both in El Salvador and Honduras, over the sexual lives of young women workers. Many of the maquiladoras have a company doctor, whose main function is to see to it 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 her 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 there 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...and MAINTA (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 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."

The studies looked at every aspect of workers' lives which could affect an adequate and stable labor supply, 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.

Since the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, they have proposed government assistance for overseas production which goes even beyond current USAID programs. Earlier this year, Congressman Phillip Crane (R-Ill.) introduced H.R. 553, the Caribbean Basin Trade Security Act. Giving exports under the Caribbean Basin Initiative NAFTA-style benefits, Crane's bill provides garment manufacturers with a $240 million reduction on tariffs they now have to pay on garments assembled in the offshore plants. The bill demands that countries of Central America and the Caribbean accept foreign investment and protect investors, but it strips current provisions in U.S. trade laws which require those same countries to respect workers' rights.

"Linking environmental and labor issues to trade..." Crane says, "is something which from our perspective is impermissible."

Three days before the House Ways and Means' Trade Subcommittee, which Crane heads, held hearings on the bill, the Chicago-based Fruit of the Loom made a $100,000 contribution to the Republican National Committee. The Gap contributed $60,000 to the RNC, and Warnaco $65,000. Corporate contributions to the RNC are considered "soft money," and aren't restricted like contributions to individual politicians. Nevertheless, Crane has received major contributions from Dayton-Hudson, which owns Marshall Fields and Sears Roebuck. All these companies would benefit from HR 553.

Viera doesn't ask that these companies which profit from the factories in her countries close them down - just that they respect her life as a worker and human being. "We want our jobs," she says. "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."

Top of Page


photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

website by DigIt Designs © 1999