Mexican garment workers meet up with their Sri Lankan colleagues

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Feb 14, 2005
Author: Teofilio Reyes

From December 17th to the 23rd, the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union (FTZGSEU) of Sri Lanka hosted an international exchange with garment workers from Mexico and Bangladesh. Organized in conjunction with Transnationals Information Exchange, the exchange brought together workers who produce for Wal-Mart, Sara Lee, Nike, and other international brands.
The FTZGSEU organizes garment workers in the free trade zones of Sri Lanka. From Bangladesh there were representatives of the National Garment Workers Federation. The participants from Mexico were all members of SEDEPAC, Service Development and Peace, an organization working to form an independent union and improve conditions at Sara Lee garment maquiladoras in Coahuila, Mexico.
Sara Lee recently closed one of its two garment plants near the border with Texas following attempts by workers to organize the plant in Frontera, Coahuila. Following an international campaign, Sara Lee negotiated an agreement with the Workers Rights Consortium, including a promise to rehire 200 workers at the remaining plant, including leaders of the independent union committee, and a promise of neutrality if the workers attempt to organize an independent union. So far, they have followed through on their promise to rehire laid-off workers.
The first day of the exchange was a seminar that focused on the lessons of Sara Lee and Jaqalanka, and on the impact of the Multi Fiber Agreement phase-out. Although the FTZGSEU counts members throughout the FTZs, Jaqalanka is the first company to have recognized the union, also following an international campaign. In this case, the union, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, was able to enlist the Fair Labor Association to bring Jaqalanka to the table. The FTZGSEU had pressured Jaqalanka sufficiently that they had to agree to a union election, but Jaqalanka management intimidated the workers to the point that they boycotted the election. With the intervention of the Fair Labor Association, Jaqalanka, which produces for Nike, finally agreed to recognize the union.
Betty Robles, the director of SEDEPAC in Frontera, Coahuila, asked: “how did you manage to organize a union in the free trade zones?” Anton Marcus, the Secretary General of the FTZGSEU explained: As with the maquilas in Mexico, the Free Trade Zones in Sri Lanka were set up as union-free zones with significant subsidies to encourage foreign investment. Although workers had rights on paper, in practice labor law was never enforced. To create a semblance of legality, the government decreed joint labor – management committees to give a façade of labor rights, but these committees were invariably tools of management. Following national pressure campaigns and several changes in government, the committees were transformed into works councils giving them greater independence from management, and the union was able to organize the works councils into a national organization of works councils in the Free Trade Zones. It was through this organization that the Free Trade Zone union was eventually formed.
However, as in Mexico, workers in Sri Lanka are physically threatened and plants have closed when they try to form a union. The FTZGSEU is currently fighting at Ceyenergy Electronic Company, where company thugs attacked and hospitalized five union activists who were preparing a protest for a cost-of-living raise [see this month’s SoliNet].
The exchange included several cultural activities, including a presentation by a workers’ theater troupe organized by the Women’s Centre, a garment worker advocacy organization. Songs, dances, and candies from the different countries were exchanged.
One important meeting was in Colombo with ALaRM, the Apparel industry Labour Rights Movement, a coalition of unions and NGOs working to deal with the MFA phase-out which threatens to wipe out up to 50% of Sri Lanka’s garment industry. ALaRM is working to build an international campaign to ensure workers receive adequate notice and full severance pay if a company relocates, worker retraining and job search assistance, and that the MFA phase-out not be used as an excuse to lower wages in the industry. ALaRM’s analysis of previous stages in the MFA phase-out showed that a certain portion of the industry remains, regardless of the termination of quotas, so it is crucial to defend the wages and working conditions in the industry against the blackmail of relocating to China.
Another interesting meeting was in Kandy with the Joint Plantation Trade Union Center that organizes tea plantation workers, where the discussion centered around globalization and the fact that multinational companies are unwilling to negotiate with workers, but are willing to negotiate with NGOs, a fact borne out by the experience at Sara Lee with the Workers Rights Consortium and at Jaqalanka with the Fair Labor Association.
The workers from Bangladesh and Mexico met and discussed with workers at several different free trade zones, including at Koggala near the Southern coast, one of the areas to be hardest hit by the tsunami [see last month’s SoliNet]. At Biyagama, the last night of the tour, workers jumped up to exclaim how they were tired of low wages, long hours, overbearing bosses, and sexual harassment. In all three countries, the majority of workers in the garment and maquila industries are women, with management-mandated pregnancy tests common in Mexico and Bangladesh. Workers from all three countries were struck to learn that they all faced many of the same problems. One of the women from Bangladesh noted, “I thought only in Asia were worker’s rights abused. I never imagined that in Mexico, so close to the United States, the same would be true.” There were regional differences, however. In Bangladesh workers complained about being forced to work through the night or for seven days straight with no day of rest. In Sri Lanka workers tend to live in dormitory style rooms in boarding houses. In all three countries, thugs are used to intimidate workers, although the practice seems more prevalent in Mexico and Bangladesh.
The flipside was also true. Workers from Mexico were floored that the FTZGSEU had organized a union at Jaqalanka, and the highlight of the tour was a visit to the Jaqalanka factory in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone. The workers from Mexico went home pumped to organize the Sara Lee plant so they could invite their new friends to visit during a future exchange. “If they can do it, so can we.”
The exchange was part of ExChains, a network that brings workers together along the garment retail production chain. The next exchange will be between German H&M retail workers, and H&M garment workers in Bangladesh, and plans are in place to organize follow-up garment worker exchanges in Mexico and Bangladesh, as well.

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