Countdown in Managua
When we visit their homes we can see the result. Tipitapa is a sprawling town twenty minutes from the Free Trade Zone. There we meet a woman who was fired from Chentex--unjustly, she thinks--for low production. Her sister, who lives across town, was fired for being a union member. Cristina's home is a ten-square-foot wooden frame; two of the walls are hung with plastic sheeting, while the others are constructed from cardboard boxes that once held shirts shipped from the free zone in Panama. Her shack has a dirt floor and holds one large bed and two chairs for herself and her husband and baby. Her toilet is a hole in the ground surrounded by a shower curtain hung from a rack. We are shocked to learn that her husband works seven days a week at another of the free-zone plants, but even with his overtime they can afford only this bare shelter.
Important increases in workers' pay would have small impact on the final retail price. The Chentex workers earn but 20 cents for a pair of jeans selling for $21-$34. The Nien Hsing owners, whose profits increased 29 percent in 1999, must be held accountable for their actions. They can be pressured through their big customer, Kohl's, which needs to be informed that North American consumers care about the behavior of their contractors. In 1998-99 the Chentex union succeeded in obtaining legal status, and in negotiations won relief from forced overtime. They began wage discussions this year by proposing a base-pay increase of 40 percent, but management would not negotiate. The union called a one-hour stoppage to emphasize its seriousness. Then things got nasty, with criminal charges against union officers and the campaign to fire activists and intimidate union supporters.
As the workers reached out to their international allies, Nien Hsing unsheathed its longest sword. The company told the Nicaraguan government that if the Ministry of Labor forced it to drop the criminal charges against union leaders, Nien Hsing would drop its plans to build a new, $100 million Free Trade Zone industrial park in the city of León and would pull its three factories out of the country.
The charges have not been dropped, and the Nicaraguan government shows no willingness to support the union's demands that the right to join a union, ostensibly protected by local law and conventions of the International Labor Organization, be respected. The Vice Minister of Labor broke an appointment with our delegation, as did the US Embassy labor attaché. Had we met with the latter, we would have asked him to use the weight of the embassy's influence with the Vice Minister of Labor.
Representative Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a member of the delegation, was astounded that the embassy had broken its appointment with us and has circulated a letter signed by sixty-seven of his House colleagues, asking President Clinton to call for an investigation of labor-rights abuses, in order to determine various Central American countries' and firms' eligibility for the new benefits of Caribbean Basin "parity" (parity, that is, with NAFTA benefits). These are supposed to be conditional on acceptance of internationally recognized labor rights. There are other ways in which US policy can tell the Nicaraguans that we really do believe in labor rights as human rights; for example, the US Embassy could tell the Nicaraguan government that we consider criminalizing labor organizing to be a human rights issue.
The union is attempting to preserve its base of support among the workers still inside the plant by telling members to go ahead and sign the letters renouncing the union, but the firings continue. The enthusiastic spirit of the workers is large but not infinite. The union's legal status is in jeopardy because Nien Hsing uses the renunciations as evidence of the union's minority status, and the Ministry of Labor gives copies to the US Embassy to claim its innocence. At our wrap-up meeting late one night, we asked Manuel Ruiz of the CST-JBE how long the union could hold out. A short man with dark eyes and an easy smile, Ruiz delivers answers in concise lists. He glances at Luis Barbosa, the CST general secretary, who nods. "Eight weeks," says Ruiz. That was on July 15. The clock is ticking.
Readers are encouraged to urge their Congressional representatives to make labor rights a condition of US foreign and trade policy, and to write Kohl's about ending labor abuses at the Chentex factory: CEO R. Lawrence Montgomery, N. 56 W. 17000 Ridgewood Dr., Menomonee Falls, WI 53051; (262) 703-7000. For more information, contact the National Labor Committee, (212) 242-3002, or www.nlcnet.org.