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Nicaragua's Trade Zone: Battleground for Unions

New York Times  |  September 16, 2000  |  Share  |  Source article

MANAGUA, Nicaragua- The five years that Inez Perez spent sewing jeans at a Taiwanese-owned clothing factory here helped her raise five children on her own. But after going to a party also attended by the leaders of her union, she was abruptly dismissed.

''I was told they were canceling my contract because they didn't want me there,'' Mrs. Perez said of the Chentex factory. ''I worked all week. I used to work all day on Saturday, Sunday. I was a good worker. But it did not matter, because I belonged to a union.''

Mrs. Perez was among the first to join the Union of Chentex Workers, which has since withered under what its leaders described as the company's efforts to force people to choose between union and job. More than 150 union members among the factory's 1,800 workers were fired after brief strikes over higher wages. Some of the workers were at the party, and it was that fact that apparently prompted Mrs. Perez's dismissal.

Her fate represents something more than than another attempt by management to break up a union. In a world that is eliminating barriers to trade and foreign investment, Mrs. Perez's call for higher pay and a union is viewed here as a threat to the country's economic prosperity.

Taiwan companies like her former employer are the biggest investors in the free-trade zone here. Taiwan's government also built the offices of President Arnoldo Aleman and is financing the Foreign Ministry building. As it has with other Central American nations that support its readmission to the United Nations, Taiwan has given hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Nicaragua.

Local and international union rights groups see the labor-management conflict here as a vital test for labor rights in the foreign-owned factories that operate in free-trade zones in the developing world.

Their fears that desperately poor countries will tolerate low wages, unsafe workplaces and union busting in the name of free trade and foreign investment sparked angry confrontations last year at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization and are quite likely to resurface this month at the International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague.

''This is the human face to globalization,'' said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, a group that led a group of religious leaders to meet the Chentex workers in August. ''If this union goes under, it's curtains for a lot of other places.''

But Carlos Yin, an administrator at Chentex, which is owned by a consortium called the Nien Hsing Textile Company, denied that the company had broken any laws or underpaid its workers. He said that it had granted a 25 percent wage increase this year and that anyone who had left the union had done so voluntarily, while many others who had left the company had done so to earn severance pay.

Chentex workers and labor advocates scoffed at that, saying Nicaraguans want to work, considering the poverty and unemployment visible on every street corner, scenes where men who sell candy compete with children who wash windshields.

Mr. Kernaghan's group is known for calling attention to the sweatshop conditions in a Honduran factory that made clothing for the Kathie Lee Gifford label. He said the Chentex workers, who are paid according to a table that sets the cost of each step in sewing a pair of jeans, make $65 to $124 a month.

Using documents that workers took out of the factory, as well as shipping information, Mr. Kernaghan determined that 50 cents' worth of labor went into sewing a pair of jeans that sells for $22 in the United States. The increase sought by the workers, he said, would add 8 cents to the cost of each pair.

''Everybody assumes the labor is cheap,'' he said. ''When you put 8 cents to it, people start to go nuts. I think most American people are decent. I never met anybody who would put up with conditions like this.''

Those conditions are reflected in the rickety house where Cristina Downs lives with her husband, Christian Cinco, and their 2-year-old, Christy. It is windowless, a sort of toolshed of plywood, zinc panels and plastic sheets, with a dirt floor and no room to move around. Ms. Downs said she was discharged from Chentex for not producing enough.

Her husband works, often seven days a week, at another factory owned by the same company, a situation that allows the couple to splurge on Sundays and share a pound of chicken for dinner, she said.

''The only thing is work,'' Ms. Downs said. ''But all we make goes to pay for food. All you get is mistreatment.''

Former and current workers said the Taiwanese managers routinely shouted at workers, sometimes hitting them on the head or throwing flawed garments in their faces. Many workers said the only way to eke out survival wages was to work overtime, which in any case was often forced on them, sometimes in 24-hour shifts.

''Nicaragua is being colonized again,'' Roberto Manzanares, a fired union leader, said. ''Here we have 60 percent unemployment, and the companies take advantage of that to do whatever they want. They can fill the vacuum of workers, because so many more are waiting outside.''

When the union formed two years ago, it affiliated with the Sandinista Workers Confederation. Although workplace conditions improved, union leaders said, the company refused to negotiate a raise or attend arbitration sessions at the Labor Ministry. Instead, the company negotiated with another union, one affiliated with the Confederation of Nicaraguan Workers, a group widely believed to be under company control.

Mr. Yin, the administrator, described the Sandinista union leadership as politically motivated.

''They have all the Sandinistas in here,'' Mr. Yin said. ''You know Sandinistas? It's like Communism. If they work or not, they want the same salary. We come from a free country. People work hard, they earn more. People work less, they earn less.''

Although Mr. Yin suggested to a reporter that he visit the factory, the invitation was later withdrawn.

In April, the union held a one-hour work stoppage and later a two-day strike. Soon, workers said, the company dismissed the union leaders and began pressing others to leave the group. The leaders appealed the dismissals. But company and labor officials said they were fair, because the leaders had called the strike without consulting the employees and had engaged in sabotage against the factory.

The inspector general of the Labor Ministry, Emilio Noguera, said conditions at Chentex and the other factory, in Las Mercedes, were generally not as bad as critics contended. Mr. Noguera defended the union leaders' dismissals, saying outside groups were paying them. Labor groups, he added, were motivated by wanting to protect American manufacturers who cannot compete with Nicaragua's cheaper labor costs.

''The companies here have a fear of unions, not because they represent the rights of workers, but because they are forming organizations that are more about doing business than defending the rights of workers,'' Mr. Noguera said. ''It is logical that if I am being paid to complain, it's better to do that than to find a solution to the conflict.''

Mr. Kernaghan said his goal was fair wages and good working conditions, not forcing consumers to buy American clothes or chasing the factories out of Nicaragua. He acknowledged that the latest attack on the union could affect Nicaragua's eligibility for the Clinton administration's Caribbean Basin Initiative.

Mr. Kernaghan has pledged to continue pressuring the Nicaraguan government, although he may have to do so from a distance. After his trip in August, he and other members of the delegation, including a Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop, the Most Rev. Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, were told that they would not be allowed return because they had incited violence. The allegations were made by officials in the local press, even though no violence was reported during the visit.

Despite Taiwan's close ties, members of the human rights committee of the National Assembly who wanted to investigate conditions at Las Mercedes were denied entry.

''We heard many complaints about abuses in the free zone and about how human rights are violated, physical mistreatment, psychological mistreatment and violations of the workers' fundamental labor rights,'' the head of the committee, Nelson Artola, said. ''The business people in the free zone apply their own laws, violating our laws and the Constitution. They do and undo what they want with the support of the Nicaraguan government.''

Photos: Cristina Downs, whom Chentex fired, and her daughter, Christy. (David Gonzalez/The New York Times); Thousands work in a free-trade zone at Las Mercedes, Nicaragua, which includes a Nien Hsing Textile plant. (Charles Kernaghan)

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