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Free is not Fair

Photo by teen delegate Noah Levine.

New IT reflects on first delegation experience

by Elizabeth Perkins

It’s been two months since I arrived in Managua, Nicaragua to begin as a new International Team member. Since then, I’ve been exposed to the world of free trade in a myriad of ways. As opposed to witnessing free trade from the perspective of the consumer, I have been exposed to the perspective of the worker in a way I could not have been at home in the U.S. After a week-long training, my first delegation of  20 teens ranging in age from 13 to 19 from the Southeast region of the U.S arrived. The schedule was full. It included talks on neoliberalism and free trade, Nicaraguan history and power and privilege. We saw a lot of Managua and the department surrounding the city. We spent a lot of time on the bus, slept and ate together, and did a whole lot of group processing together. This delegation’s focus was free trade and its consequences in Nicaragua. We spent a lot of time learning about and reflecting on free trade and its alternatives, like fair trade.

My first encounter with the effects of free trade and neoliberalism was in Masatepe, a town about a half hour south of Managua. We visited a small community there called La Curva. It’s comprised of about 120 families and contains a small school, a few small churches, and a preschool that houses about 30 children. A train used to run through the community until the early 1990s. Since it stopped, the inhabitants in and around the town have experienced economic difficulties due to loss of income. The majority of its current inhabitants work either in maquilas or seasonally as coffee pickers. Many are employed in Managua.

In La Curva we heard from two maquila workers who described their jobs to us. One of them, Doña Mary, recounted an experience she’d had the week before at work. She fainted in the maquila due to respiratory problems induced by constant inhalation of fabric dust for the past five years she’s worked there. She was taken to a clinic, where she eventually regained consciousness. Doña Mary lost pay for her time out of the maquila and also had to pay for the medicines she needed herself. She returned to work the next day, working from 5AM until 7PM, even though she was still feeling ill. If she hadn’t she would not have received her normal pay. As it is, her salary is not enough to support her family. She is the sole breadwinner in her family of five. One of her co-workers who suffered from the same illness Doña Mary has acquired had a much worse fate. Under pressure from a supervisor (who would not grant her permission to leave due to a large order they were completing) she continued to work, even though she felt ill. When she was finally allowed to leave later that day, she fell to the ground dead as she walked out the door. This blatant disregard for human life is unacceptable, but it is very common in the maquilas.

Paved road to the new free trade zone being constructed in La Curva. Photo by Christine Geoffredo

Jairo Ampie, a community leader in La Curva and founder of ArtePintura, showed us an area where a new free trade zone is being constructed in the town. It will be the largest free trade zone in the department of Masaya. He told us that people in La Curva are both anxious about and interested in its opening. It will bring jobs. However they’re low paying and many are worried they’ll be treated badly there based on experiences in other maquilas. He also shared that people who work in the maquilas often feel they have no choice because of the lack of other job opportunities. As we approached the construction site for the zone we were greeted with massive grey cement blocks topped with barbed wire. At first site, one of the delegates understandably asked if they were building a prison.

The following Monday our experience with free trade continued when we got a tour of a Taiwanese maquila in the Las Mercedes Fair Trade Zone. Our guide  Emilio Noguera, a legal consultant for the Free Trade Zone Corporation, was very articulate and very patient with my first group interpretation attempt. We walked into the warehouse and saw rows and rows of people (mostly women) sitting at sewing tables, many of them wearing face masks. As we walked through we were shown the steps of the process of making a North Face jacket. (Brands we saw included Patagonia and Jansport, among others.) Workers are paid based on how many pieces they can make in an hour. To earn more than minimum wage you have to produce more than the number of pieces determined to be the production minimum, which is set by a group of engineers for each order. They work 10-12 hour days 5 or 6 days a week doing the same task over and over and over again.

Emilio  told us that this is not the worst or the best maquila we could have seen. I had to pause in interpreting when he reminded us about the suicides of factory workers producing Apple products in China. His bottom line was that to attract foreign investors to bring these jobs into Nicaragua, the wages and production costs have to be “competitive,” meaning extremely low. Brands are created to produce the most they can in order to sell as much as they can with the highest profit margin possible, he explained. They do this because there are consumers who want to buy their products. He asked who was to blame for the working conditions and low wages. Not the maquilas, which he explained, are just trying to compete. It’s the companies that are looking for low production prices for the consumers who want to buy those products. It was a powerful visit; contrasted by a visit to a fair trade factory in a free trade zone later that day.

The fair trade factory at Masili was a dramatic difference. Walking into the small open building we heard music playing. The atmosphere was laid back. People were moving around the space, not required to stay at one specific station. Workers spoke and interacted with one another. They casually looked up from their work when we came by and did not seem hurried. Formerly called Nueva Vida, this free trade zone began as a sewing cooperative. According to their website, it was founded with the help of an NGO called Centro por Desarrollo en Centroamerica, Juliblee House Community. The NGO had been looking for ways to help combat the high unemployment rates after Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998. As a cooperative, the workers own the Masili Free Trade Zone. From their website: “Being worker-owners requires a true promise and commitment to provide other women in our community with better working conditions.” Seeing the remarkable difference in both versions of free trade zones, it was clear which seemed the more desirable place to work.

Neoliberal policies inherent to DR-CAFTA do not empower workers. They favor corporations. As cheap labor is abundant in Nicaragua, workers are expendable and have little bargaining power. Putting the power in the hands of the workers, the way it’s done at Masili, allows for workers to access the perks of free trade zones, while also controlling their own working conditions. Unfortunately, this is not the case in maquilas where human rights are disregarded. Unjust economic policies have contributed to the dehumanization of the worker. This delegation brought consumers to the workers who produce the products they buy. As consumers we have a responsibility to spend money ethically.  Delegates can return and act in solidarity by sharing stories and voting with their purchasing dollars in the U.S. Putting economic pressure on retailers to change their policies will aid the struggle of workers in Latin America.


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