Countdown in Managua
6 am, July 13, Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone, Managua, Nicaragua
A river of people, 19,000 workers, packed ten or twelve across, pours slowly through a bazaar of hawkers toward the gates of the Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone, about a mile from Managua's airport. Headed for twenty-three factories that open at 7 am, the people will work until at least 5:15 pm; many will be forced to work until 7, and others until 9, for firms that are free from most tariffs. The hawkers sell them fried bread, fruit, meat sandwiches, caffeine and vitamin-B pills. The workers suck neon-colored sweet drinks from sandwich bags as they flow through the gates.
We are at the Zona Franca at the request of the Managua union confederation (CST-JBE) to verify its charges of violations of internationally recognized labor rights and Nicaraguan labor law, especially at the Chentex factory, the last of two Las Mercedes factories with functioning unions. This year, Nien Hsing, the Taiwanese company that owns the Chentex plant, two others in the zone and three in Mexico, launched a brutal offensive to crush the union. The Chentex management has fired workers who are members of the union and even those seen as friendly to it, and it has charged union leaders with serious criminal offenses carrying potential seven-year sentences. In response, the union is reaching out to allies in North America, including the National Labor Committee, the AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers, the apparel workers' union UNITE, Witness for Peace and the Campaign for Labor Rights.
On this morning, the workers give us evidence that los Chinos (the Chinese), as they refer to the management, act with lawless impunity. Amid the dust and rotten fruit of the bazaar's trash, a knot of activists passes out leaflets. People gather, drawn by their leaders and eddying around us. A slim young man reading from some notes on an envelope introduces a woman who has been hit by her supervisor at Chentex. She tells of complaining to the Ministry of Labor after she was verbally abused and then hit, and says that she was fired when she made the complaint. The young man, the financial secretary of the Chentex workers' union, introduces us to Jessica, a fired union activist who was hit by the same supervisor in 1997.
The workers are mostly young women, and single mothers are numerous, although an experienced observer notes that it seems as if the number of men has increased among the mass trudging toward the gates. Elsewhere--in the United States too, as Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum report in their new book on the Los Angeles apparel industry, Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry--the proportion of men in this basically female industry rises when work becomes more scarce.
Out of the crowd comes a young man, muscular in a red football jersey, his black hair shining in the morning sun. He is among the 300 fired at Chentex. One afternoon his supervisor handed him a photocopied note written by hand. There was a blank space for his name. Addressed to the director of human resources, the letter said he was writing to resign from the Chentex union, and asked the firm to stop deducting union dues. He refused to sign, as many others had. He was fired on the spot.
Nicaraguan labor law nominally protects this man, as well as the women who were hit. But in addition to being bureaucratically slow, the Ministry of Labor processes complaints as directed by the government of President Arnoldo Alemán, which openly sides with the employer. Time, in Managua as in New York, is the great ally of the employer in labor disputes. The Chentex and other Las Mercedes workers have no savings. So, fired unjustly, they have few resources that might support a patient wait for the not-so-just process of law. Within this desperate gap between resources and justice the employer sometimes offers a Faustian deal: We will release you and give you the legally entitled severance pay (accrued at one month per year of service) if you withdraw your complaint of unfair practices. Thus, impunity is purchased.