Fired sweatshop workers continue struggle in new political era
by Sara Wallace-Keeshen
As an intern at the CISPES office in San Salvador working to support free and fair elections earlier this year, I was extremely inspired by the struggle of the former workers of the Las Hermosas clothing factory. These women are waging a powerful, four year-long fight to hold multinational corporations like Adidas, Nike, and Russell accountable for exploitative labor practices that culminated in the illegal shut-down of their factory. I was also excited to learn that the election of leftist president Mauricio Funes could play a role in finally bringing justice to the Las Hermosas workers.
On Thursday, May 7th, CISPES joined workers from the Las Hermosas factory as they reiterated their demands for workplace justice to Adidas and the Salvadoran government at an afternoon press conference. Workers denounced the recent effects of right-wing trade agreements, like the Free Trade Agreement CAFTA, that allow corporations to easily withdraw production from unionized factories. Additionally, workers emphasized Adidas' responsibility to fully compensate the workers over $825,000 in unpaid severance, salaries, health care, overtime, and back pay. While workers expressed hope that the newly elected Funes government would hold multinational corporations accountable, lead organizer Estela Ramirez called on solidarity activists to organize at an international level, stating "We don't expect a lot of these things to be solved right away."
As a student labor rights activist, I became involved in the Las Hermosas workers' international campaign and participated in a 2006 delegation to strengthen students' solidarity relationships with the Las Hermosas women. One year after the closure of Las Hermosas, I asked Estela a simple question: Why, given that the big brands still haven't complied with your demands, are you still fighting? Why haven't you given up?
Confidently, Estela turned to me and said: "We're not giving up because our fight is a statement that multinational corporations cannot continue entering our country and exploiting our people."
The struggle of the workers at the predominately female Las Hermosas factory began in 2003, when workers first reported abusive conditions ranging from consistent sexual harassment and verbal and physical abuse to forced overtime. Estela remembers "the manager did not pay into social security, so workers could not receive health care form the public hospital and pregnant women couldn't receive health care." Despite the fourteen hour days, and increased illnesses, the women began to "talk about how we could change things."
Fed up with poor working conditions, a group of 64 women workers joined together with the Frente Sindical Salvadoreño (FSS), a national labor federation, and organized to form a union, bringing demands for back pay, severance and overtime to the Ministry of Labor. Upon receiving the demands, the Ministry gave the company one month to pay the workers. Rather than complying with the government's decision, the company made plans to avoid paying the workers by moving production to a completely different factory in another part of El Salvador.
The Las Hermosas workers had a different plan. On the day the factory was set to close, over a dozen workers faced down private security officers, blockaded the factory door, and took control of the building. Estela recounts, "We acted so quickly; we took control of the locks and said to the women, 'come and unite, this man is trying to close the factory without complying with the Ministry of Labor's agreement.'" Estela and other key organizers pulled more women into the protest, forcing the managers to lock themselves in the factory office. Determined to stay until they received pay, workers occupied the factory for a month, until the Ministry of Labor ordered them back to work at the risk of serving jail time.
The factory takeover was just the beginning. For the following five months, the women took to the streets, participated in international speaking tours, and joined students in the U.S. to pressure companies and the Salvadoran government to comply with Salvadoran labor law. Despite international pressure, the brands have ignored these laws, refusing to compensate the Las Hermosas workers the money that they unjustly deducted from their paychecks. Now, workers are calling on students, international solidarity activists, and the new Salvadoran government to pressure Adidas to comply with the workers' demands.
The implementation of the CAFTA agreement in 2006 has made it even easier for companies to carry out this kind of labor exploitation in El Salvador and the rest of Central America. By prioritizing corporations' rights to profit from the hiring and firing of cheap labor, and by permitting companies to legally challenge 'barriers' to foreign investment (such as strong labor rights protections), free trade agreements like CAFTA facilitate the closure of organized factories so that foreign investors can avoid being held accountable for workers' rights abuses. The Las Hermosas factory is just one example of this trend. According to Estela, "Many companies have closed their factories in one corner of the country and moved to another area as an excuse to avoid paying their workers." However, Estela affirmed, "If there is a way to fight to keep unionized factories in El Salvador, it will be through solidarity from international organizations and students."