The Cost Of A T-Shirt
Briarpatch|November/December 2019
In Honduras, women maquila workers are fighting back against the multinational garment companies that they say are endangering their health and safety.
Samantha Ponting

“ Empleo si, pero con dignidad!”

The chant comes from a group of about 40 women in Choloma, Honduras, who have assembled outside the offices of Delta Apparel, a multinational garment company. Calling for “jobs, but with dignity,” they are demanding that the company reinstate three workers who were fired. The workers say the firings are illegal and discriminatory because they suffered from workplace injuries.

The sun is hot and a man stands beside the rally selling bags of water. The women pass a megaphone around and take turns leading chants.

The rally was coordinated by the Colectiva de Mujeres Hondureñas (CODEMUH), a grassroots women’s rights group that organizes women working in the maquiladora sector to defend themselves against workers’ rights violations, which are systemic across the industry.

Cheap labour and free trade zones form the backbone of the maquila business model. Maquilas are factories in Latin America where commodities are produced for export while being exempted from various taxes, duties, and tariffs. In Honduras, neoliberal policies – in particular, corporate, municipal, income, and fuel tax exemptions – have contributed to the underfunding of health and education systems, which the government is now working to privatize.

Mass protests are unrolling against a backdrop of rising costs for housing, electricity, and food that make it very difficult for many Hondurans to get by. Families making minimum wage can only afford 41 percent of the basic family food basket, according to studies by the Asociación de Consumidores de Honduras. The food basket – a list of 30 tax-exempted basic goods – is one of two measures in Honduras for calculating the cost of living.

Honduran workers report that while there is a national labour code, parts of it are not applied to the maquila industry. Maquilas don’t pay the same minimum wage as companies producing goods for the national economy, they say. Maquila workers make poverty wages – approximately 7,600 lempiras per month (about $433 Canadian), as mandated for the industry for 2019.

“What’s going to happen when they privatize health and reduce social security?” asks one maquila worker about the right-wing National Party of Honduras headed by President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH). “Fuera JOH!” (JOH Out!) is found graffitied across the city of Choloma, which plays host to a large industrial park and export processing zone.

Women labourers in the maquilas also face an increased risk of gender-based violence, working 11-hour shifts that force them to travel early in the morning or late at night. Laws against gender-based violence in Honduras are being relaxed even though, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the country has the second-highest rate of violent deaths for women in Latin America. Gains achieved years ago by the feminist movement are under attack. The government recently approved changes to the penal code that weaken prison sentences for femicide and decriminalize forms of spousal violence.

But thanks to organizations like CODEMUH, women are becoming empowered to protect themselves against workplace and societal violence through collective power.

CODEMUH has been organizing to transform harmful practices in the maquila sector for over 20 years. Their workshops help women address workplace violence, occupational health and safety issues, and harassment inside and outside the workplace. They also provide legal support, organize community actions, and carry out media relations.

THE CASE OF CANADIAN COMPANY GILDAN ACTIVEWEAR INC.

One of the companies CODEMUH is speaking out against is the Montreal-based clothing company Gildan Activewear. The company currently operates eight garment factories in Honduras, in addition to its dyeing factories and other warehouses, according to its website. Though the company is best known for manufacturing plain T-shirts for other brands to print their logos on, it now owns a variety of brands, including American Apparel, Anvil, Kushyfoot, and Alstyle, which helped it bring in U.S. $2.9 billion in revenue in 2018.

Gildan boasts of a business model whereby the company owns and operates the production process. “This direct control of almost the entire manufacturing process, from raw materials to finished products, allows the Company to ensure that responsible and sustainable practices are deployed throughout the complete value chain,” reads its website.

Gildan’s current corporate social responsibility practices have emerged as a response to a long history of labour rights violations by the company. For two decades, Gildan has faced accusations of mistreating its workers in Honduras and elsewhere.

In 2002, the CBC television program Disclosure reported that Gildan workers in Honduras were exposed to harmful fabric dust, forced into taking pregnancy tests, and fired for attempting to organize unions. Gildan denied the allegations.

In 2003, the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) released a report co-authored by the Honduran Independent Monitoring Team that highlighted low wages and a lack of freedom of association as major issues for Honduran workers in Gildan’s facilities. The report notes that in November 2002, Gildan fired close to 45 workers just 10 days after a labour application was filed with the Ministry of Labour to register a union.

Gildan’s response to the report was heavy-handed. It threatened legal action against MSN, and one year later – in November 2003 – another 37 workers were fired at the same factory in El Progreso for attempting to organize a union. Then Gildan announced that it would be closing the factory and the Fair Labor Association put Gildan’s membership under review, eventually resulting in a negotiated plan for remedy with Gildan.

Today, workers continue to voice concerns surrounding the psychological and physical harm they experience at the hands of Gildan. They say the work is destroying workers’ bodies.

In an interview with Briarpatch, Gildan’s director of corporate communications and marketing, Geneviève Gosselin, acknowledges that, in the garment industry, workers do face risks of developing musculoskeletal disorders due to poor ergonomics.

“There are a number of things we do in order to reduce these risks and provide the best working environment for our employees,” she says.

Gildan boasts of having health and safety committees across its factories, yet according to CODEMUH director Maria Luisa Regalado, the committee representative is only called in when there is an inspection, in order to participate in a photo-op.

Despite concerns documented in the past 15 years, Gildan’s four-day, 11-hour shifts are still in place, which Regalado says harm workers’ health and violate the national labour code’s provisions surrounding paid overtime and hours of work.

Gosselin says the work schedule is widely used in the textile industry. “Our employees generally appreciate this schedule and ask that it be maintained,” she says.

While Gildan claims to schedule exercise breaks for workers, Regalado says that workers must also find time to clean their machines during the scheduled five-minute stretch breaks. Workers say sometimes breaks aren’t respected by supervisors.

“It’s like an orange,” says Ana,* a worker in a Gildan factory. “You squeeze the orange and all you have is a peel. It’s like squeezing and squeezing until you have no juice.”

Ana suffers from partial disability of 32 percent of her body, according to her medical assessment issued by the Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social (IHSS). This “assessed degree of disability” is a measure used to determine eligibility for disability benefits. She has been diagnosed with rotator cuff syndrome and cervicobrachialgia, which causes pain, numbness, weakness, and swelling in the neck and arm.

Before she went to CODEMUH, Ana says there were times when she would cry in pain in front of her workstation.

“But I thought of my kids. I knew I had to go to work, fill the quota, and go home,” she says.

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