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EL SALVADOR: Government Report Details Labor Abuses

by Steven GreenhouseThe New York Times
May 10th, 2001

A long-suppressed report by the Salvadoran government, made public yesterday by an American labor rights group, spelled out serious problems in the country's apparel factories, including unhealthy air and water, large amounts of forced overtime and the frequent dismissal of workers who supported labor unions.

The National Labor Committee made the copy available as part of a campaign by labor unions and their Democratic allies to pressure the Bush administration and Congress to include strong worker protections in any new trade agreements.

El Salvador's government originally issued the unusually critical report last August, but withdrew it from circulation the next day, saying it was technically flawed. On the day the report was issued, managers of the country's duty-free, export-oriented factories, known as the maquiladoras, denounced it.

Last year, El Salvador exported $1.6 billion worth of apparel to the United States, making it the eighth- largest apparel exporter to this country.

The report found that many of the country's 229 apparel factories did not provide basic safety equipment and threatened to fire workers unless they agreed to work long hours of overtime. The report also faulted many factories for setting unrealistic production quotas and for requiring many workers to put in extra hours with no pay when they fell short of those quotas.

The report's harshest conclusion involved what it described as the systematic violation of workers' efforts to form unions.

"It was found that there exists an anti-union policy in the maquilas, by which any attempt at organization is repressed," said the report, prepared by the El Salvador Labor Ministry and financed in part by the United States Agency for International Development. "According to union leaders interviewed, it is very common for supervisors and chiefs of personnel to threaten workers with firings if they belong to a union or attempt to form one," it said.

The report noted that not one of the 229 maquiladora factories had a union contract. Many workers interviewed told Labor Ministry officials that there was a blacklist that factory managers used to make sure that known union supporters were not given jobs.

The report was made available just days after President Bush announced plans to seek expedited negotiating authority in the hope of establishing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a duty-free trade zone from Canada to Chile. In a speech on Monday, Mr. Bush said such a free trade area was essential to improving living standards throughout the Western Hemisphere.

But union leaders assert that unless the treaty establishing the free trade area includes strong labor protections, it will encourage companies to move operations to countries with the worst wages and working conditions, thus undermining efforts to upgrade living standards.

The El Salvador report criticized the country's factory inspectors, saying that many workers interviewed were emphatic in declaring that there was a great deal of corruption among inspectors.

Jorge Nieto Menndez, El Salvador's minister of labor, said the government was seeking to train inspectors better. "We want investment, but only with respect and fairness," he said. "Only when workers' rights are respected can we generate more contracts with American companies."

The report describes how important the export apparel industry is for El Salvador, growing at a 13 percent annual rate and accounting for 79,000 jobs.

Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Commission, and several members of Congress are planning to hold a news conference today in Washington where they will issue a report detailing problems at El Salvador factories that make goods for many well-known companies, including Kohl's, the Gap, Liz Claiborne and Nike. That report found that many apparel workers face mandatory pregnancy tests, work 80-hour weeks and have to work in temperatures of more than 90 degrees.

The Labor Ministry report found that many workers complained about inadequate wages. According to the report, many workers said that despite the many hours of overtime they worked, "the wage was insufficient to satisfy their family needs with dignity."

Factory managers told the labor ministry that an important reason that employees have to work so much overtime is that, in their view, the workers deliberately delay production to force the company to continue operations beyond the normal shift, thus allowing the workers to receive overtime pay.





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