Battle in Nicaragua's Maquiladoras

— Dianne Feeley

NICARAGUA HAS ONLY one major "free trade zone," Las Mercedes, and unlike the rest of Central America, half of the workers there have managed to build unions. Recently the zone management and the Labor Ministry are helping employers to implement a variety of union-busting actions:

* At the Jem III garment factory more than 100 workers-including the entire union leadership-have been fired for legally sanctioned strike activity. There are rumors that management has prepared a blacklist of fired workers for circulation throughout the zone. Jem III is part of JEM Sportswear Company, a California-based company owned by Jeffrey Marine. The factory produces for Wal-Mart.

* After three organizing drives workers at the Chih Hsing factory have won legal union recognition. Management successfully appealed to the Labor Ministry to have union registration canceled. Two union officers have been fired. The Taiwanese-owned factory produces for Kmart.

* Last November workers at the Chentex clothing factory were the victims of industrial poisoning although initially the Labor Ministry declared that the workers had poisoned themselves. After a National Police investigation discounted the claim, the Ministry revealed that workers had been poisoned by a mistaken combination of two substances used in fumigating rodents.

The union, with 1800 workers, affiliated with the National Workers' Front, is one of the strongest in the zone. Chentex, part of a Taiwanese consortium, requested authorization from the Labor Ministry to fire nine union leaders.

After eight months of attempting to negotiate a salary increase and a reinstatement of those fired, 90% of the workers stopped work for an hour on April 27 and went on strike May 2. A verbal agreement several days into the strike allowed everyone, including the nine fired, to return to work.

On June 5 the Labor Ministry approved the firings; the union immediately filed an appeal that was rejected. Eight additional workers have subsequently been dismissed. Chentex produces garments for JC Penney and K-Mart.

* Mil Colores, a U.S.-owned factory that employs 700 workers who sew clothing for Target/DaytonHudson, Mervyn's and Kohl's stores, has the worst working; conditions in Las Mercedes. It has the lowest wages (between twenty and twenty-three cents an hour), forced overtime, excessively high production goals, harsh treatment of its work force and filth bathrooms.

On January 10, 2000 workers formed a union. So far 208 have been fired, 68 facing trumped-up criminal charges for industrial sabotage. The 68 include the entire union steering committee and the union's most militant workers. Mil Colores is owned by Craig, Miller, a U.S. citizen who claims there is no union. They produce for Target and Kohl's.

Except for the Chentex workers, ill these unions are affiliated with the Garment Workers Federation of the Sandinista Central Labor Council.

U.S.-based solidarity committees have held over 125 informational pickets in front of various U.S. outlets, asking that shoppers encourage store managers to demand an to end to the union busting operation. For more information abuut the campaign, contact the Campaign for Labor Rights (e-mail clr@igc.org or call 541-344-5410).

ATC 87, July-August 2000

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