Women workers joined by international student allies in factory protest
The women-led SITRASACOSI textile workers’ union in El Salvador continues to make important progress in their ongoing struggle for workers’ rights and safe working conditions in an atmosphere designed to keep workers unorganized and without a voice. Beginning in September 2010, workers at the NEMTEX factory began clandestinely organizing a union in response to dangerous working conditions, long hours and not receiving all their wages. Once organized, the newly-formed union brought their demands to the factory’s managers. Soon after, all workers publicly involved with the union were terminated. A variety of the lead organizers were also physically threatened and harassed outside of the workplace. Despite the ongoing threat of physical violence as well as the long-term violence of a degrading and unjust work environment, the workers continued to organize amongst themselves and to request outside accompaniment. Workers contacted the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which conducted an investigation confirming that workers’ rights had been violated, and contacted brands producing at the factory, including HanesBrands, UnderArmour, and Gear for Sport. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) also contacted factory management and US buyers, making it clear that these abuses would not be accepted by students. After an agreement was reached in December 2011, all of the workers were reinstated and reimbursed their back wages, with the important exception of one worker who was denied his rightful wage and not rehired. The union and USAS have continued to organize and exert pressure on both NEMTEX and the factory’s international buyers to defend the rights of this worker, as well as to ensure that the reinstated workers are treated equitably and allowed to continue their organizing. The workers are also demanding that the factory publicly state its commitment to respect workers’ freedom of association. With continued international support, another meeting was organized in February to discuss the workers’ demands.When the company promptly failed to uphold one of its agreements, namely to let the union know whether or not their co-worker would be re-hired, the union quickly mobilized in protest, drawing over 100 people. Union organizers reported that the company’s lawyer was standing by the entrance all day, to take note of any workers who left the building, presumably to charge them with neglect of their work duties that could leave them either penalized or potentially fired. Although NEMTEX’s owners and general manager refused, the Director of Human Resources reluctantly agreed, following international pressure, to meet with union members. He was joined by with the company’s lawyer (whose father happens to be a magistrate in the highest chamber of the Salvadoran Labor Court), and a representative of HanesBrands (who also happens to be on the board of the Social Responsibility in the Textile Industry Committee of the El Salvador’s National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), equivalent to the US Chamber of Commerce). During the meeting, the company claimed that they were “offended” by the chants at Friday’s protest (such as “Abogado vendido, sin verguenza”/“Sold-out lawyer without shame.”). The union’s lawyer responded by saying, “Well, there can be no greater insult than one of your own workers suffering from hunger.” Both HanesBrands and NEMTEX have shown resistance to changing the slippery loopholes concerning year-end wages that had appeared in the renegotiated contracts; while they did finally agree to make some changes, they still have yet to prove that they have actually done so. The real test for all of their commitments will be whether the company begins to allow workers to freely organize a union and, ultimately, negotiate a contract. The struggle of workers against NEMTEX illustrates the fallibility of the few mechanisms of justice that are supposedly available to the working class in El Salvador, despite the fact that El Salvador has strong labor laws on the books. Their struggle is exacerbated by free trade agreements like the Central American Free Trade agreement (CAFTA), which create incentives for foreign companies to produce their goods in countries that keep their wages lowest, deregulate worker and environmental protection laws, and remove corporate tax responsibilities, thus promoting systematic injustice and the continued exploitation of factory workers in Central America, the majority of whom are female. While there is still a lot of progress to be made, the worker-organizers of SITRASACOSI and international organizations like the WRC and USAS have made some very important steps forward in the struggle for a more just reality for El Salvador’s working class.