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Salvadoran Maquila Workers Producing for the GAP Under Attack

May 18, 1995  |  Share

May 18, 1995


Mandarin factory, El Salvador


Women Maquiladora Workers under Attack in El Salvador at Plant Producing for J.C. Penney, The GAP, Eddie Bauer and Dayton-Hudson

At Mandarin International, a Taiwanese-owned plant in El Salvador where goods are being assembled for export to the U.S. under contract with major U.S. companies, 850 mostly-women maquiladora workers are under attack.

Mandarin is located in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone, which is owned by former Salvadoran Army Colonel Mario Guerrero. Colonol Guerrero recently explained to foreign visitors that during the Bush Administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided the money to build this zone.

In late January 1995, the women at Mandarin organized a union—the first union ever established in a free trade zone in El Salvador. At the time, the Salvadoran government and the Maquiladora Association pointed to Mandarin as living proof that workers' rights and unions are respected in El Salvador. Reality proved otherwise.

Mandarin International immediately lashed out at the new union, at first locking out the workers and then illegally firing over 150 union members. The company hired two dozen ex-military plain-clothed, armed "security guards." The women workers were told their union will have to disappear one way or another, or "blood will flow."

Groups of five workers at a time are now being brought before their supervisors and told to renounce the union or be fired. Union leaders are followed around the plant by company security guards. At work, the women are forbidden to speak to one another. Colonel Guerrero himself has told workers at the San Marcos zone, "I have no problem, but perhaps you do; either the union will behave, leave, or people may die."

These women want their union and they are struggling to keep it alive, but they are afraid. Along with the threats, the company is now systematically firing—a few each week—every union member and sympathizer. They cannot hold out much longer. They are appealing for solidarity.

The Salvadoran Ministry of Labor, which could be fining Mandarin $5,700 a day for violating the Labor Code, has done nothing to reinstate the fired workers or demilitarize the plant.

Mandarin produces clothing for J.C. PenneyGAPEddie Bauer and Dayton-Hudson. These companies have codes of conduct, which are supposed to govern their offshore operations, but the workers at Mandarin had never heard of or seen any of these codes. No codes of conduct are posted in the San Marcos free trade zone.

Conditions at Mandarin / Why the workers are struggling for a union:

For eight hours of work at Mandarin, an employee earns $4.51 for the day, or 56 cents an hour. This comes to $24.79 for the regular 44-hour work week. However, overtime at Mandarin is obligatory, and if you do not stay for extra shifts whenever they demand it, even if it is at the last minute, you are fired the next day. A typical week includes at least eight hours of obligatory overtime.

Conveniently for itself, Mandarin pays the workers in cash in envelopes which do not list regular hours worked or overtime hours, or at what premium it was paid. This makes it almost impossible for the young workers to keep track of whether they are receiving proper pay.

The Mandarin plant is hot and the workers complain of constant respiratory problems caused by dust and lint. There is no purified drinking water, and what comes out of the tap is contaminated and has caused illnesses. The bathrooms are locked and you have to ask permission to use them—limited to twice a day—or you are "written up" and fired after three such sanctions.

Talking is prohibited during working hours. The women say the piece-rate quota for the day is very high, making the work pace relentless. The supervisors scream at the workers to go faster. The women told us of being hit, pushed, shoved or having had the garment they were working on thrown in their face by angry supervisors.

The workers say that if you are sick, the company still refuses to grant permission for you to visit the Social Security health clinic during working hours. Nor does Mandarin pay sick days. There is no child care center, which is a critical issue for the women, most of whom are mothers.

Working under these conditions you earn $107.45 a month, $1,397 for the entire year, if you are paid your Christmas bonus. These wages provide only 18.1 percent of the cost of living for the average family of four.

The women say that even by scrimping and eating very cheaply just to stay alive, meaning going without meat, fish and often milk, food for a small family of two or three people still costs over 1,000 colones a month, or $114.29, which is more than they earn. Rent for three small basic rooms costs around $57 a month, which they cannot afford. There are other basic expenses as well. Round-trip bus transportation to and from work can cost over $6.00 a week. Tuition for primary school costs $8.00 a month. For a maquiladora worker to eat a simple breakfast and lunch at work costs approximately $2.50 a day. The wages of the maquila workers cannot possibly meet their expenses. Many of the Mandarin workers are forced to live in tin shacks, without water and often lacking electricity in marginal communities on vacant land, along roadsides or polluted river banks. Asked if they had a TV, a radio, or a refrigerator, the workers laughed. They could not afford those things, we were told. All the Mandarin workers can afford to purchase is used clothes shipped in from the U.S.

It is a myth on the part of the multinationals and their maquiladora contractors that the cost of living in El Salvador is so much less than in the United States, that 56 cents an hour is really not a bad wage. In El Salvador, a "Whirlpool" washer costs $422.26, which is equal to 17 weeks worth of wages. A queen-sized bed costs $177.85 on sale, or more than seven weeks of wages. A maquiladora worker would have to work three and a quarter hours to afford a quarter-pound cheeseburger, which costs $1.82. A two pound box of Pillsbury pancake mix costs $2.67, or nearly five hours of wages.

We asked mothers, now that they are working in the maquiladoras, if their children were better off. They told us no, that with their wages they simply could not afford the right food for their children. In Honduras and the Dominican Republic there is growing evidence that malnutrition is rising among the children of maquiladora workers.

How the Maquiladora System Works:

Mandarin sews women's ¾ sleeve t-shirts for the GAP, which had $3.6 billion in sales last year and made over $300 million in profits. The GAP t-shirts made at Mandarin sell for $20 each in the U.S.

A production line of 40 workers at Mandarin produces 1,500 GAP t-shirts a day. These t-shirts sell for $30,000 in the U.S. ($20 x 1,500). The 40 Mandarin workers who make these t-shirts earn, collectively, $180.23 for the day (40 x $4.50/day wages). This means that the Mandarin workers earn 0.6 percent or just a little more than one-half of one percent of the sales price of the GAP shirt they make. What happens to the other 99.4 percent?

Under the U.S. government's Caribbean Basin Initiative trade and aid benefits, maquiladora exports from El Salvador to the U.S. grew by an amazing 3,800 percent between 1985 and 1994, increasing from $10.2 million to $398 million. The number of maquiladora workers producing for the U.S. market increased 14-fold, from 3,500 to 50,000. At the same time, the real wages of the maquiladora workers were slashed 53 percent—to the current 56 cents an hour or $4.50 a day, which provides only 18 percent of a family's basic needs.

This is what trade benefits look like from the perspective of the maquiladora worker on the ground. This is what happens when worker rights are divorced from trade and denied in reality. From the perspective of the GAP however, it means the system is working fine.

Mandarin and its Young Workers:

What kind of a company is Mandarin? Child labor came into focus as an issue toward the end of 1994, following the release of a U.S. Labor Department study and a Senate Hearing, where the National Labor Committee showed a short film documenting child labor in Honduras maquiladoras producing for the U.S. In February 1995, afraid it might get caught, Mandarin summarily fired at least 100 minors between 14 and 17 years old who had been illegally hired. In El Salvador, minors can work only with special authorization from the Labor Ministry, and even then they cannot work more than seven hours a day. Mandarin, of course, worked the minors like everyone else, including forced overtime. Given that the average work week was 52 hours at Mandarin, this means that the minors were illegally forced to work 17 hours a week more than they should have by law. (7 hours x 5 days = 35; 52 — 35 = 17).

Mandarin, J.C. Penney, the GAP, Eddie Bauer and Dayton-Hudson have the responsibility to pay these fired minors back wages in the form of overtime payments to compensate them for the 17 hours a week they were forced to work illegally.

It is also interesting to note the absence of the Salvadoran Labor Ministry here as well. Even when it comes to monitoring and protecting child labor, the Ministry is nowhere to be found. It would be worthwhile to ask to see the Ministry's records on Mandarin.

There are No Labor Rights in El Salvador:

Any attempt to organize in the booming maquiladora sector in El Salvador must be clandestine. The mere mention of a union, even the suspicion of interest, will get you fired.

Between 1992 and 1994, maquiladora exports from El Salvador to the U.S. leapt nearly 2.5-fold, growing from $166 million to $398 million. The number of maquiladora plants soared 73 percent from 120 in April 1992, employing 30,000, to 208 assembly companies by December 1994, employing 50,000. The most recent figures show that the surge is continuing. A comparison of January and February 1994 with the same two months of this year shows maquiladora exports from El Salvador to the U.S. increasing 60 percent—a growth rate faster than any other country in the region.

During this same boom period over the last three years, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 1,000 workers have been illegally fired in El Salvador for trying to organize in the maquilas. In a devastating report on El Salvador released at the end of April 1995, the ILO concludes: ""to speak of union freedoms and the right of unionization in the maquiladora enterprises is impossible, quite simply because such rights do not exist"." This comes on top of an April 6 ILO condemnation of El Salvador for permitting systematic and grave abuses of worker rights, including assassinations, beatings, arrests, and illegal firings for union activity.

The history of worker rights violations at Mandarin fits the above to a "t."

A History of Repression at Mandarin:

In November 1993, the maquiladora workers at Mandarin formed a local union. The minute the company was notified that the Ministry of Labor had granted legal status to a union at its plant, management illegally fired 100 workers, including the entire leadership of the new union. When the workers fought this, the Ministry of Labor said it could not help, and that they would have to turn to the courts (where such a case would drag out for at least two years). Mandarin then told the fired workers point blank to accept the firings, take your severance pay and clear out, or else you will be blacklisted and never again work in the maquila.

This fits in with what we were told in August 1992, during a National Labor Committee / 60 Minutes investigation in El Salvador. Posing as potential investors, we met with John Sullivan, who directed USAID's private sector program in El Salvador during the Bush Administration. Sullivan told us we would not have to worry about unions in the free trade zones, since zone management used a computerized blacklist to prevent the unions from penetrating the zones.

Sullivan also told us that we could make a lot of money in El Salvador, where there were world class wages, about 40 cents an hour. If we put our workers on piece-rate and raised the production quota we could make even more money. Further, Sullivan encouraged us to fire our workers every year—keeping them on a year to year contract—rather than allow severance benefits to build up. Lastly, the USAID official suggested we form a Solidarista Association—a phony company union—which would help increase our security from disturbances. As we shall see, Mandarin did all these things.

Repression at Mandarin Worsens:

Facing such repression, it was not until January 1995 that the workers at Mandarin were able to reorganize their union—the Union of Workers of the Mandarin International Company (SETMI). The union was organized by the Democratic Workers Central (CTD), which maintains fraternal relations with the AFL-CIO. When the Ministry of Labor granted SETMI legal status, it became the first union ever recognized in a free trade zone in El Salvador.

The Minister of Labor told union leaders that he would see to it that the union was accepted without delay by the Mandarin company. This was a time of considerable pressure on labor ministries across Central America and the Caribbean to demonstrate concrete advances in the respect for worker rights. In October 1994, the National Labor Committee was able to delay U.S. Congressional approval of $160 million a year in increased tariff benefits to maquila companies across the region until worker rights conditions improved.

However, despite promises from the Labor Minister, when the company was notified on February 7 that a legal union had been established at Mandarin, it responded by locking out all 850 workers the next day.

Mandarin representatives said that they would rather fire all of the workers than accept a union. The workers refused to leave the industrial park and spent that day and night camped out in front of the factory. On the following morning, February 9, one of the San Marcos zone administrators, Ernesto Aguilar, and several security guards attacked and beat a number of the women. Aguilar punched one woman in the face several times until she was bleeding badly.

An emergency commission was formed to mediate a resolution to the crisis, made up of National Assembly deputies, United Nations delegates, representatives of the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office, several Labor Ministry officials—including Inspector General Doctor Guillermo Palma Duran—as well as union officials and Mandarin management. At 6:00 p.m., February 9, an agreement was reached, and signed, by all of the participants.

Mandarin committed itself in writing to end the lock-out, to strictly comply with the Salvadoran Labor Code from this point forward, to recognize the union, and to continue negotiations to reach a collective contract. The company also stated that there would be no reprisals against union members.

Between the day Mandarin signed the agreement, along with officials from the Labor Ministry, and today, Mandarin has illegally fired over 150 union members, in a systematic campaign to destroy the union and spread fear among the workers. The agreement Mandarin signed was not worth the paper it was written on.

The Ministry of Labor could be fining Mandarin $5,700 a day for violating the country's labor code, but for lack of power or will, nothing has been done.

Colonel Guerrero has responded to the workers' attempt to organize to defend their basic rights by "militarizing" his San Marcos Free Trade Zone. Colonel Guerrero hired ex-military people both as zone administrators and armed security guards. One of his administrators, Colonel Amaya, told the women at Mandarin that every single union affiliate at the plant will be fired until the union disappears, which is exactly what is happening. As has already been pointed out, over 150 union members have already been illegally fired, including the entire union leadership—something which is clearly prohibited by the Salvadoran Labor Code.

Five at a time, workers are being brought into management's offices and told to renounce the union or be fired.

Mandarin has brought in nearly two dozen ex-military to act either as plain-clothed, armed security guards, or to pose as mechanics so that they can spy on the workers. Armed guards are posted at all four Mandarin entrances. Whenever union leaders must move about the plant, armed company security guards follow them. If workers are seen speaking to a union leader, the guards immediately intervene. During working hours, the workers are not allowed to speak to each other.

Colonel Amaya, along with the security guards, have told the women workers that "blood will run" if the union does not leave Mandarin and the San Marcos Zone.

The union leaders fear that even their homes are at times under surveillance. On April 25, Mandarin's Chief of Production, Liou Shean Jyh, along with his bodyguard and two other company staff, went to the home of union leader Alonso Gil Moreno. When he refused to let them enter his home, they pushed the door open. Their message was simple: renounce the union. They also offered him a bribe.

Mandarin was worried that despite the systematic repression and threats, the union continued to grow. Even under these conditions, 300 workers had signed up to affiliate to the union. I was clear, that if it were not for the fear of losing one's job, the overwhelming majority of the 850 workers would side with the union. The union was asking for a secret ballot to determine support for their union.

Mandarin's response has been to step up the pace of the firings, and to demand that workers join Mandarin's Solidarista Association, or lose their job.

The union was about to be destroyed.

The Workers Fight Back:

The U.S. State Department's latest "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994" (released February 1995) observes that in El Salvador's maquiladora sector there are both documented cases of the illegal firing of union organizers and of physical abuse being used in the maquiladoras. In the face of these abuses, the State Department concludes: "[Salvadoran] Government actions against violations have been ineffective, in part because of an inefficient legal system and in part because of fear of losing the factories to other countries." Nor can the workers turn to the Ministry of Labor for protection. According to the State Department report: "The Ministry [of Labor] has very limited powers to enforce compliance, and has suffered cutbacks in resources to carry out certification and inspection duties, which curb its effectiveness."

The ILO report, mentioned earlier, found the Labor Ministry to be so underfunded and its staff so poorly paid that, "this precarious situation in terms of human and financial resources is the best guarantee that not even legally recognized labor rights in the area of union freedom are applied in the companies."

Indeed, the National Labor Committee has obtained a U.S. government study which concludes that labor ministries, the systems of labor inspectors and labor courts across Central America and the Caribbean are so underfunded, poorly equipped, inadequately trained and with such poorly paid staff that these structures cannot possibly protect or uphold the fundamental worker rights of their people.

The report notes that across the region, "with high rates of unemployment, labor inspection all but absent and without unions to protest in-plant infractions, other workers' rights dealing with maximum hours, health and safety and women—and child labor, etc. have little or no chance of effective enforcement and"are in fact being widely violated."

The multinational corporations and their maquiladora partners say that El Salvador's new Labor Code is sufficient to protect the maquiladora workers. They use this as an argument against the need for attaching worker rights provisions to trade agreements.

The U.S. government study takes a more realistic view, concluding, "viewed against this back-drop of minimal enforcement of labor laws, the question of labor codes in the region"is almost moot."

As of Monday, May 15, Mandarin had fired around 100 union members. Every day more unionists were being systematically dismissed. Mandarin was picking up the pace in its campaign to wipe out the shrinking union.

On Monday, May 15, at 9:30 a.m., the union called a work stoppage to protest the mass of illegal firings. As the union leaders stood up to announce to work stoppage, company goons moved in and attacked the union leaders. At one point seven company guards were punching and kicking Dolores Ochoa. They broke her leg. Marta Rivas and Esmeralda Hernandez were also beaten. Elisio Castro Perez, General Secretary of the SETMI union, was beaten and detained for several hours by company security guards.

Once again, Mandarin responded by locking out all 850 employees and firing 50 more union members, including the union's entire leadership. Another commission was formed and another agreement was reached with the company. At 8:00 Monday evening, Mandarin committed itself to reopen the plant the next morning and to reinstate all of the fired workers.

As in the past, this agreement turned out to be worthless. When the fired workers showed up on Tuesday morning, May 16, the armed guards refused to let them enter the plant. When the union protested, the guards again roughed up the women.

At this moment, the union workers and their supporters—a majority of workers—have stopped working and left the plant to stand in solidarity with their fired sisters and brothers.

The workers are desperate and they are asking for our solidarity.

The Workers' Demands:

The fired workers want their jobs back and they want their union and they want their security guaranteed. They specifically seek:

  1. The immediate reinstatement, with back pay, of all fired workers
  2. The demilitarization of the Mandarin plant and the San Marcos Free Trade Zone, which means removing the armed security guards
  3. End completely the firings, the repression, the threats being directed against union affiliates and their supporters
  4. Mandarin's strict compliance with the Labor Code, including the union's right to organize free of company reprisals
  5. That Mandarin negotiate in good faith a collective contract with the SETMI union


Real wages falling



hourly wage rates






1995 GAP Campaign Page

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