The Women of Monclova




M

ore
than a year later, Leonor Castillo is still a very angry woman.
She sits at the kitchen table of her two-room cinderblock house
and talks in a gentle voice that mutes the rage about her six years
at the plant: the sudden reorganization of the production system
with the result that everyone seemed to be working just as hard
and maybe even harder but taking home less pay; the day she was
running a 102-degree fever and they wouldn’t give her a pass
to go home; those awful two months she was pregnant and kept asking
for a change of assignment from the operation that required her
to toss bundles of clothing over her shoulder from a sitting position. 


Sorry,
she was told, there was no lighter work available in the factory
of more than 1,000 workers engaged in a dozen different operations. 


“When
I miscarried, the doctors asked if I lifted anything heavy,”
she says. “They had to do a Caesarean to clean me out,”
Leonor, who is 32 and childless, adds softly. 


Then
there was the aguinaldo battle in November 2001. The aguinaldo is
a legally mandated annual bonus. For years workers had suspected
they had been short-changed. They circulated a petition requesting
a $60 increase in the aguinaldo and chose Leonor and four other
workers to deliver it to management. The petition, signed by almost
half the workers in the factory, couldn’t have been more polite. 


Leonor
remembers the plant manager complimenting the delegation for presenting
the request in this responsible manner and not resorting to a strike
or other disruptive tactics. 


The
company’s answer came in two parts. Ten days later all workers
in the factory received an additional $30 with their annual bonus.
A week after that Castillo and the other four members of the delegation
were fired.  


Within
days workers were leafleting in front of the plant. Leaflets condemned
the firings; they explained the legal limits on compulsory overtime;
they decried inadequate health and safety precautions; they denounced
the wages that were not enough to feed their families; they exhorted
the workers to stand together and fight for their rights. Some of
the leaflets urged workers to contact an organization called Sedepac
for more information. 


As
a result four more women were fired for insisting that the labor
laws of their country be obeyed. Before long the leafleting had
begun again, one of the thousands of ongoing battles in the global
sweatshop that never make it to the nightly news. 


The
country in this instance is Mexico and the company is the Sara Lee
Corporation, but on any given day a variation of this scenario unfolds
in dozens of other countries with equally familiar corporations
playing their assigned roles. 


The
apparel industry has been called the canary in the mineshaft of
America’s de-industrialization, the first to move most of its
manufacturing facilities offshore. For all its technological advances,
the apparel industry has yet to invent a machine more efficient
than human hands and eyes. Nor has the economic logic of the industry
changed that much in the past 100 years. Costs are pushed down through
a pyramid of retailers at the top and below them layers of manufacturers,
contractors, and sub-contractors, with a massive base of workers
at the bottom. A corollary of this arrangement is that garment workers,
as cheap and easily exposable assets in a volatile and labor-intensive
industry, must remain powerless.



“They
get nervous when journalists come around asking questions,”
explains a Sara Lee spokesperson at U.S. corporate headquarters,
politely denying permission for an interview with the plant manager
who fired Leonor Castillo and her co-workers. “We have people
here in headquarters who are very well informed and can answer all
your questions.” 


Well,
not really. 


Sweatshop
scandals are bad for business. The strategy generally is to try
to suppress them and, failing that, to ride them out. Sooner rather
than later the public’s attention is directed to more urgent
matters and the system slides safely back into its mode of hidden
production and lavish promotion. 


Sara
Lee is not just cheese cakes. Producing, distributing, and selling
an astonishing variety of foods, beverages, apparel, and household
goods from pork chops to shoe polish, wheeling and dealing with
its 30,000 trademarks, constantly divesting and acquiring businesses
to tweak the bottom line, it is a diverse, sophisticated, and thoroughly
modern corporation. 


Within
this sprawling mix is one of the largest and most profitable apparel
businesses in the world (Hanes, L’eggs, Playtex, Bali, Wonderbra,
Champion, Polo Ralph Lauren, DKNY), which owns and operates manufacturing
and distribution facilities in 8 U.S. states and 24 countries and
sources its goods from sweatshops on 5 continents. Of course Sara
Lee, like all the other big names in the industry, denies that it
runs or uses sweatshops, even though anyone with a working knowledge
of the industry knows it is impossible to produce clothing on the
scale Sara Lee does under the current rules of the game without
using sweatshops. Nevertheless, to prove its virtue, Sara Lee displays
a corporate code of Global Business Standards claiming that the
company complies with all labor laws wherever it operates, supports
fundamental human rights for all people, including the right of
its employees to free association, and is committed to a safe and
healthy work environment. Nobody pays much attention to this boilerplate,
which came into vogue after the Kathie Lee Gifford child labor scandal
in 1996, but Sara Lee’s presumptive ethical standards are notable
in one respect. 


“We
feel a special responsibility to women’s causes—not just
because women make up more than half the world’s population,”
its statement on Corporate Citizenship explains. “Women are
important to Sara Lee because: Sara Lee Corporation is the world’s
largest company named after a woman; about half of our employees
are women; and women are the primary purchasers of Sara Lee branded
products.” 


It
is difficult to verify the accuracy of these statements because
Sara Lee will not disclose the locations of its factories or permit
independent inspections of them. Sara Lee is one of the few remaining
big apparel manufacturers that still owns some of its overseas factories,
rather than the more common practice of sourcing goods from local
contractors. This gives Sara Lee complete control over the production
process—and total responsibility for what occurs in these facilities. 


That
is the case of the plant where Leonor Castillo worked, one of two
Hanes T-shirt factories that Sara Lee opened in the early 1990s
in Monclova, an old industrial city in Mexico’s northern desert,
and the adjacent town of Frontera, about 150 miles southwest of
Laredo. It was regarded as another of Sara Lee’s astute, strategic
moves, streamlining its corporate structure by closing down plants
in the U.S. and moving production, a step ahead of its competitors,
slightly into the interior of Mexico where wages were even lower
than in the older maquila zones right on the border. 


Almost
everyone agreed that Monclova needed this new investment with the
2,500 jobs it would provide. For much of the last century the regional
economy had been driven by Monclova’s huge Altos Hornos steel
complex, until it was hit by some of the same global trends that
have reduced the U.S. steel industry to a shadow of its former self.
Monclova and the surrounding state of Coahuila struggled with Depression-level
unemployment rates, falling wages, and the social disintegration
that invariably flows from economic decline of this magnitude. 


While
local governments everywhere compete to attract and retain these
factories, national governments—pressured by international
financial institutions and powerful corporate lobbies—keep
pushing industries toward poorer areas on the theory that this type
of investment will raise wages and promote development. Like most
theories that serve to rationalize privilege and power, this one
is full of holes and slightly ridiculous. Multinational corporations
do not normally seek out lower wages in order to raise them, which
only happens when workers have the strength to extract such gains.
One study by the International Labor Organization found that real
wages of apparel workers had decreased in three out of four countries
where investment in the industry had increased. 


Sure
enough, ten years later in Monclova none of those social or economic
indicators has improved, some have deteriorated, and there are constant
rumors that Sara Lee will soon pick up and move to some more congenial
place where wages are even lower and workers less assertive. 


But
they will not do this without a fight. 


“A
lot of these women come from families of unionized steelworkers,”
says Betty Robles. “They’re not going to be rolled over
so easily.” 


Betty
Robles is a local leader of Sedepac, which stands for Servicio,
Desarollo y Paz (Service, Development and Peace), a 20-year-old
non-profit organization with branches in other states around the
country. Mexico’s political landscape is dotted with hundreds
of like-minded groups that spring from student, worker, and other
popular movements searching for new strategies to contend with the
entrenched, unresponsive, and often repressive Mexican state. 


Betty
Robles went to work in the maquila when she was 14 and spent a dozen
years on assembly lines making auto parts and thermostats. “Brutal,”
she says, “they treat you worse than one of the machines.” 


We
are sitting in Sedepac’s cluttered storefront office on Frontera’s
main commercial street, a few blocks beyond the packed sidewalk
market and a ten-minute drive from the factory. Several women meet
around a desk toward the rear of the office, away from the window
and prying eyes. 


Last
October they discovered that a lawyer who had been volunteering
his services at Sedepac was being paid by the company to spy on
them. Among other services rendered, he wrote an article “exposing”
Sedepac’s participation in a network of U.S. and Mexican NGO’s
called Enlace and denouncing the workers’ activities as a nefarious
plot to put Sara Lee’s factories out of business. It was a
full-scale attack. Thugs began shadowing Betty and some of the other
activists, staking out the office and parking in front of their
houses at night. 


One
woman unwinds a bandage from her wrist to display swollen tendons
and bulging nerve cysts, another the scar from her Carpal Tunnel
Syndrome operation, then more hands with a variety of disfig- urations
as the meeting turns into a spontaneous testimony of the walking
wounded: pain that begins in the hands and seems to work its way
up the arms; pain in the lower back that spreads to the shoulders
and then down into the arms; headaches from the dust and noise;
skin rashes, coughs, and runny eyes. They are still covered with
the lint that is thick in the air of the factory. But mostly it’s
the crippling pain. 


Maria
Ramirez (not her real name) looks strong and healthy, but her back
and shoulder have been aching for the past two years and now everything
hurts— back, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers. When she went
in to see the company doctor, he wrapped a tape around her thumb
and two fingers. 


“But
I can’t work like this,” she said. 


“I
can give you a pill,” the doctor replied. 


“I
don’t know what’s in it.” 


“Suit
yourself.” 


“But
I can’t work with my fingers taped like this.” 


“It’s
nerve damage. There’s nothing you can do about it. Take the
pill, I take off the tape.” 


Of
course there’s a lot you can do about it. 


“It’s
an ergonomic problem and it’s extensive in the maquilas,”
says Dr. Jorge Hernandez, who has an occupational health practice
in Frontera. “There are all kinds of studies that demonstrate
these injuries can be reduced and prevented. The employer, the government,
the union, nobody does anything. But it’s the employer’s
responsibility.” 


Ramirez
took the pill. When the pills didn’t help any more, she went
to Seguro, the public health clinic. Workers believe that the doctors
at Seguro are in cahoots with the company, reluctant to make diagnoses
that might require the company to cover work-related injuries. In
Maria’s case, the Seguro doctors don’t agree on the diagnosis.
One says Carpal Tunnel, another a herniated disk in her neck, and
still another a twisted spinal column due to the long hours sitting. 


Dealing
with their pregnancies at work is a sensitive subject for these
women. Many have stories like Leonor Castillo’s. Title 5 of
Mexico’s federal labor code explicitly prohibits employers
from requiring pregnant workers to lift weights that endanger their
health. Companies in Mexico do not like to employ pregnant women
because one of the few consistently enforced provisions of the labor
code is three months paid maternity leave. When pregnant workers
aren’t screened out with pre-employment pregnancy tests—an
illegal but widespread practice—the normal wear and tear of
the job can hold down maternity benefits when expectant mothers
quit or miscarry.





We
are talking about a virtually unregulated global industry in which
millions of workers put in 12-hour days and longer for as little
as $2.50 a day, reports of indentured servitude are verified with
regularity, and the U.S. Supreme Court cannot decide whether Nike
has the constitutional right to lie about the conditions in its
factories. Sara Lee could argue that compared to what’s out
there, its Monclova factories are not that bad. They are probably
right, which will give you an idea of how rotten the industry is. 



T

he
production system in the Monclova factories is modular, typically
teams of 12 workers, each performing a different operation—hemming
various parts of the garment, attaching sleeves, finishing seams,
tying and inspecting the bundles. A supervisor is assigned to each
team, monitoring the flow of work and pushing everyone to meet their
quotas. 


Ana
Velasquez stitches the hem that runs around the bottom of the T-shirt.
Her quota is based on a time and motion study that has broken down
every operation and is used as the template in all Sara Lee factories
producing this garment. Ana’s movement through the five separate
motions of her operation is so rhythmic, fluid, and quick it seems
almost effortless. 


Getting
the garment from the pile on her left, folding it, smoothing the
fabric for the stitch, maneuvering it through the machine with her
right hand while turning it over with her left, placing it on the
pile in front of her for the next worker in the team, and then beginning
again—a complete cycle every 9.4 seconds to meet her quota
of 32 dozen T-shirts an hour. The more efficient she is, the higher
the bar is set. 


These
workers are paid around 70 cents an hour plus incentive bonuses
for making quotas. In a typical week of 45 to 49 hours worked, gross
pay ranges between $50 and $80, but there are numerous deductions,
many for loans facilitated by the company. It is not at all unusual
for weekly take home pay to be as low as $25 or $30. Most of these
workers are in debt, their income keeping them below the poverty
line. Contrary to popular belief, the cost of living in places like
Monclova is not light years away from that of more developed economies.
Maquila workers further north regularly cross the border into El
Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville for groceries and other basic goods
because they’re cheaper there than on the Mexican side of the
border. 


 “If
you make the payment on the furniture, you can’t buy shoes,”
Velasquez says. “It’s pathetic what they pay us, don’t
you think?” 


They
could pay more. The company estimates that a worker like Ana costs
$1.68 an hour in “fully loaded” wages, which include bonuses,
benefits, and payroll taxes. At that rate, Ana’s team of 12
workers are paid a total of $20.16 for the 384 T-shirts they produce
in an hour. These T-shirts sell at retail from $5 to $12, which
means that the Moncolva workers are paid between 1.1 percent and
4/10 of 1 percent of the retail price. If you doubled their pay,
it would add a staggering 5.3 cents to the cost of that T-shirt. 


Whether
these additional pennies were passed along to the consumer or absorbed
somewhere along the line between Monclova and retailers like WalMart
(2002 profits: $8.04 billion), one of Sara Lee’s largest customers,
it does not seem like an amount that would ruin any business. In
the meantime, consider the difference it could make in the lives
of these workers and their families. 


We
sit around Laura Garcia’s living room with half a dozen other
workers from the plant. To minimize risk for the workers, Betty
Robles and the two other full-time Sedepac organizers hold house
meetings in the ejidos and barrios where most of the Sara Lee workers
live. Some neighbors are afraid to attend because word has gone
out that anyone connected to Sedepac will be fired. But the room
is soon filled. 


They
go around the room with stories about sick children, the guilt at
not being to care for them, the fines for missing work when they
do, the hundreds of dollars in doctors’ fees and medicine. 


“When
one of my kids gets sick, I don’t go to work,” a woman
says firmly. “But it’s a problem. They never want to give
you permission.” 


“You
can always bring it up with the union,” someone says and gets
a big laugh. 


Officially,
there is a union and perhaps even a collective contract in Sara
Lee’s Monclova factories. Perhaps, because when workers question
some policy or other they are often told, “It’s in the
contract.” But when they ask the union delegate to see the
contract, they are told to get it from management who tells them
to get it from the union. Last October eight workers filed a legal
complaint asking the state labor board in Monclova to make a copy
of the contract available to them. They are still waiting and the
prospects are not good.     


“It
is judically impossible for me to comply with that request,”
explains Juan Carlos Maldonado, president of the board. “Only
the parties to the contract—the company and the union—have
a right to the contract. Either is free to make it available.” 


The
local office of the union, the Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos
(CTM), is on the same street as the Sedepac office, but several
blocks away in a nicer section of town, befitting the CTM’s
status as a major political player in the state. On a morning in
mid-March the secretary general of this CTM region, the elderly,
plain-spoken Jose Dimas Galindo, laments the terrible state of the
economy and vents his fury at Mexican President Vicente Fox for
not supporting the U.S. war in Iraq. 


“The
Sara Lee workers say they can’t even get a copy of the contract.” 


“It’s
not mine. You have to talk to the big guy in Saltillo.” 


“There’s
nothing the workers can do?” 


“If
they try to do anything, it’s goodbye T-shirts.” 


The
big guy in Saltillo is Tereso Medina, the secretary general of the
state CTM and a deputy in the state legislature, who confirms that
he controls this particular contract. The problem isn’t the
contract, he explains, it’s Betty Robles and Sedepac. “It
happens everywhere, these local NGO’s supported by unions in
the United States to stir up trouble, destabilize the industry here
to discourage firms from leaving your country. Their own lawyer
admitted it. We need these jobs and everyone knows they’ll
take off overnight to find cheaper labor.” 


He
suggests that the U.S. unions would be better off working with the
CTM on the basis of its seven-point program: jobs, labor peace,
productivity linked to salaries, education, housing, health, and
social security for all the workers of the world. 


“Under
this program, do the Sara Lee workers get to see their contract?” 


“It
costs money to print them,” he says. “We’ll have
to collect dues.” 


“We’re
obviously not opposed to foreign investment here,” Betty Robles
says. “We’re doing everything we can to keep these factories
in Monclova. But these companies come and go. All we ask is that
they respect our rights while they’re here.” 


“What
about the charges of stirring up trouble with the gringo unions?” 


Betty
laughs. “You mean it’s a crime for workers to organize
internationally to deal with an international company? Besides,
it isn’t just gringo unions. It’s students, women’s
groups, churches, labor rights organizations, and not just in the
United States. We have allies, this new global justice movement,
and it’s a good thing we do. Given the size and power of this
corporation, how can we win without them?” 


One
of those allies weighed in recently when the $30 billion New York
City pension fund, concerned about the company’s performance
and reports from Monclova, filed a shareholder’s proxy resolution
with Sara Lee urging it to establish a program of independent monitoring
of its global human rights standards. 


“A
poor record on labor and human rights abuses can damage the reputation
of the company and the long-term interests of shareholders,”
says Michael Musaraca, chair of the fund’s proxy committee.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to prevent that from happening.” 


The
pressure is building and not a moment too soon. “There is a
widespread impression here,” Robles wrote, “that these
factories will be closed to punish workers for speaking out against
conditions that are clearly inconsistent with Sara Lee policy and
in some cases are illegal…. We are aware that some multinational
corporations have recently left Mexico for countries where wages
are even lower than in Mexico. It is neither necessary nor wise
for such a large and well-run company like Sara Lee to engage in
practices that are increasingly repudiated by both expert and public
opinion…” 


Three
weeks later the plant manager in Frontera told the workers, though
he did not put it in writing, that there were no plans to close
in the near future. Perhaps this is true, but only a month earlier
Sara Lee announced it was expanding its apparel business in China
and “looking at India as a sourcing hub for our products in
the U.S. market.” Stay tuned. 







 





Alan Howard is
former assistant to the president of UNITE. He has written for the



New York Times Magazine

, the

Nation

, and public
television. The names of current Sara Lee workers have been changed.