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El Salvador's Sweatshop Economy

by Stephen Lendman Sunday, Feb. 06, 2011 at 9:28 AM


El Salvador's Sweatshop Economy - by Stephen Lendman

A previous article addressed global sweatshop wage slavery, accessed through the following link:

Definition of a Sweatshop

The term has been around since the 19th century.

Definitions vary but essentially refer to workplaces where employees work for poor pay, few or no benefits, in unsafe, unfavorable, harsh, and/or hazardous environments, are treated inhumanely by employers, and are prevented from organizing for redress.

The term itself refers to the technique of "sweating" the maximum profit from each worker, a practice that thrived in the late 19th century.

Webster calls them "A shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages under unhealthy conditions."

According to the group Sweatshop Watch:

"A sweatshop is a workplace that violates the law and where workers are subject to:

-- extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or long hours;

-- poor working conditions, such as health and safety hazards;

-- arbitrary discipline, such as verbal or physical abuse, or

-- fear and intimidation when they speak out, organize, or attempt to form a union."

It's mainly a women's rights issue as 90% of the workforce is female, between the ages of 15 - 25. But it's also an environmental one as the global economy exacts a huge price through air pollution, ozone layer depletion, acid rain, ocean and fresh water contamination, and an overtaxed ecosystem producing unhealthy, unsafe living conditions globally.

Wage Slavery in America

In America, the US Department of Labor estimates that half or more of the nation's 22,000 garment factories are sweatshops, mostly in the apparel centers of New York, California, Dallas, Miami and Atlanta, but also offshore in US territories like Saipan, Guam and American Samoa where merchandise is labeled "Made in the USA."

In all locations, wages are below subsistence, benefits few if any, unions banned or powerless, and regulatory enforcement lax or absent. Moreover, hours are long, working conditions unsafe, and those complaining are fired and replaced.

Conditions are also horrific for around two million farm workers. They're ruthlessly exploited, living in impoverished misery, without benefits, a living wage, overtime pay, or other job protections, even for children.

Domestic servitude is another problem, affecting many thousands, usually foreign women taking jobs as live-in workers, mostly for the wealthy, foreign diplomats, or other domestic or foreign officials.

Excluded from labor law protections, they're underpaid, overworked, abused, given limited freedom, denied medical care, proper food and nutrition, and are subjected to unsafe working conditions.

So are many restaurant and hotel workers. They're also underpaid, get few benefits, worked long hours with no overtime pay, fired if they complain, and these practices exist for lack of regulation and a growing demand for cheap labor. As a result, unscrupulous employers exploit powerless workers for profit.

If it's common in America, what chance have workers in developing countries with lax labor laws, offering few protections, even for children, to attract business.

Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)

Its campaigns include stopping sweatshops in El Salvador and at home, urging consumers boycott companies profiting from worker exploitation. It's also promoting Violation-Free Zones in El Salvador's Free Trade ones, assuring fundamental worker rights to organize collectively for better pay and working conditions. Currently, workers there have no rights. More below explains.

New Report on El Salvador's Sweatshop Economy

The National Labor Committee (NLC), now called the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights (IGLHR), prepared it. Issued January 24, it was prepared jointly with Mujeres Transformando/Women Transforming (a Salvadoran women's rights NGO), discussing El Savador's sweatshop economy "where women are paid just eight cents for each NFL shirt they sew at Ocean Sky Sweatshop." It represents six-tenths of 1% of each shirt's retail price.

IGLHR's Executive Director, Charles Kernaghan authored the report with help from a six-member research team, including himself. Its findings are discussed below.

About 1,500 mostly women are affected, "locked in a Free Zone, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by guards armed with shotguns."

Besides the NFL, Ocean Sky produces garments for Reebok, Puma, Old Navy (GAP), Columbia, Talbots and Penguin (Munsingwear). Merchandise enters America duty-free even though El Salvador "is in blatant violation" of CAFTA-DR's loophole-ridden labor standards.

Workers are treated like prisoners. Under scorching heat, they report being drenched in their own sweat, constantly cursed at and humiliated. Moreover, security cameras monitor them. Illegal overtime is mandatory. They're constantly pressured. Factory water is contaminated with fecal coli, causing diarrhea, intestinal illnesses and infections. For alerting fellow workers of the problem, six were fired.

They earn a below-subsistence 72 cents an hour base wage, up to 92 cents with a good attendance bonus. Even El Salvador's Ministry of the Economy admits wages meet only one-fourth of a family's basic needs. Moreover, even mentioning the word "union" assures termination.

Sweatshop Sewing Lines (Modules)

Each one has 14 workers, required to complete 1,500 T-shirts in daily nine-hour shifts. Workers have no rights. Each one must finish 12 T-shirts hourly (five minutes per shirt), 167 per module.

Sky International Limited

Headquartered in Singapore, it operates facilities there, in China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Madagascar, and three El Salvador ones. Initially it was under its Hoons Apparel International name, later changed to Ocean Sky Apparel in January 2008.

Over 75% of its workers are women. Plant No. 1 operates the main production lines and packing department. Plant No. 2 has the cutting section and two small sewing lines, producing samples, as well as a storage warehouse. Plant No. 3 operates printing and embroidery departments.

Its web site promotes its "Vision-Mission-Values," including "Fun and Warmth," saying Ocean Sky strives:

"To provide a happy and caring environment. 'Find a job that you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life.' (The company stresses) teamwork. We encourage employee involvement and participation, and respect the individual contribution to our success. (It's also committed) to enhance the quality of life and protect the environment of the communities in which we do our business."

According to one worker, "We're treated like animals. I tolerate working at the factory only because of my children."

El Salvador's Free Zone a Virtual Prison

Patrolled by shotgun-carrying guards, its walls are topped with razor wire. Workers must show ID cards to enter. Others aren't let in. Surveillance cameras monitor everything. Workers are harassed, threatened and abused. Talking is prohibited. Another worker said:

"I feel my hands shake because of the constant pressure we are under. There is a man that is constantly measuring the time we spend on sewing a garment. Supervisors and group leaders are the ones that mistreat the workers the most. They tell us to quit if we don't like the work....Even the general manager insults the workers who cannot reach their goals," cursing them.

"We are told that we have no right to demand anything 'because you're in the factory to obey and work, (and) don't ever contradict what we say because we are your boss.' "

A former senior worker called Ocean Sky "an awful experience because there was so much pressure and too much shouting. We faced injustice....we were treated like children. They took away our time for lunch (and) kept us" overtime without pay to complete daily quotas.

They said if their shirts didn't sell in America, "we are going to be left without work and with nothing to eat." But "we are always hungry anyway. If someone has a conscience in the US, they should feel guilty to be wearing such an expensive shirt while they don't understand what it costs us here, being exploited."

CATFA-DR Provisions

Though one-way favoring corporate giants, it ostensibly "guarantees that the government of El Salvador and the apparel companies respect the legal rights of Ocean Sky workers." Yet, they're unaware that laws prohibit forced overtime, require they be treated with respect and correctly paid, and have the right to organize and bargain collectively with management.

Moreover, apparel companies have good conduct codes, affirming worker rights, and are supposed to conduct surprise audits to assure them. In fact, labor rights aren't enforced, so companies freely exploit poor women and men, unaware of their rights with no power to demand them.

Horrific Working Conditions

Despite year round tropical temperatures, Ocean Sky sealed all factory windows and keeps doors shut once worker shifts begin. They say dust extractors are installed, but ventilators don't circulate fresh air. In late April, temperatures reached 98 degrees, and assembly lines are so closely packed that sewing machines increase heat levels.

"We feel dizzy from the heat," one worker said. Others complained of headaches and exhaustion by 2PM, and if not for loud music to maintain alertness, they'd doze off from extreme exposure. One sewing machine operator explained:

"We can feel the sweat running down our legs. We sweat so much our shirts stick to our bodies. It feels so uncomfortable. When I get onto the shuttle bus, I am ashamed because I smell so bad every day."

Filthy Drinking Water Not Fit for Washing

Gotten from factory taps, they fill small plastic bottles to use at work stations, but it tastes bad, they say. Yet supervisors call the water "filtered and good to drink." In April and August 2010, lab results showed it contained fecal coli, meaning it was contaminated with raw sewage liable to cause diarrhea and salmonella poisoning. Pseudomona aeruginosa and heterotrophic bacteria were also found, a lab report saying:

"We have found a large amount of bacteria in the water, and it is serious. The water is totally polluted, and can cause sickness in humans such as diarrhea, stomach pain, stomach infections, nausea, vomiting, and can foster conditions for parasites and amoebas. The Pseudomona aeruginosa bacteria can grow in small cuts in the skin and can cause skin infections even for workers who have small cuts on their hands if they wash with this water."

"We recommend an investigation of the water pipes, a cleaning of the pipes using chlorine, and to check and clean the filters, or install new" ones.

For mentioning polluted water, six workers were fired. Afterward, management announced that water quality would improve. Late in May they said new filters were installed, and "the water was now purified and 100 percent safe to drink." However, August tests showed it was "too polluted to be used as drinking water."

In fact, Ocean Sky "is run pretty much like a minimum security prison where the workers, or 'inmates,' are prohibited from speaking or questioning anything regarding how management runs the factory."

Omnipresent Surveillance Cameras

Installed throughout the factory, they're in locker areas, on the production floor, in the packing department, even outside worker bathrooms. All their moves are monitored, pressuring and intimidating them to perform and obey all rules, including minimal use of toilets, no loitering and no talking while working.

Illegal Forced Overtime

Regular El Salvador work weeks are 44 hours. At Ocean Sky, factory hours are from 6:45AM - 4:30PM with 45 minutes for lunch, and no other breaks, totaling nine and three-quarter hour days, an hour less on Fridays.

According to state labor law, all overtime must be voluntary. Coercion is prohibited. The Salvadoran Labor Code's Article 170 stipulates:

"Overtime work may only be agreed upon on an occasional basis when unforeseen or necessary circumstances demand it," and must be voluntary and limited.

However, Ocean Sky management has its own rules, requiring mandatory overtime, clear signs reading:

"Given the nature of the work carried out, your work shift will be, without further process, subject to overtime work according to the needs of the company, whenever this is required" to complete quotas.

As a result, operations sometimes continue until 8:30PM, including a 30 minute supper break. On a six-day schedule from April through June, workers spend 68 and a half hours at the factory, working 62 and a half hours, including 18 and a half mandatory overtime hours.

During especially busy April weeks, 13 and three-fourths daily hours are required Monday - Friday. In July and August, production slows somewhat to 63 factory hours present, 58 and one-half spent working, including 14 and one-half mandatory overtime hours. By September and October, lower production means little or no overtime for a 44-hour work week for 5.41 a month, a fraction of what a family needs to survive.

Well Below Subsistence Wages

Base wage is 72 cents an hour, raised to 92 cents if workers miss no workdays and arrive regularly on time. Nonetheless, at below subsistence levels, it traps them and their families in poverty, earning from ,650 - ,100 annually.

Other benefits include .05 vacation pay, and with one to three years at the same factory another .76 Christmas bonus. Workers there longer get .85.

They're paid every two weeks by direct bank deposit with no pay slips except to review briefly and sign. Workers complain that they're written in Spanish and English. They're also too complicated to check if they've been correctly paid.

Clearly, they get well below subsistence pay. In December 2009, El Salvador's Ministry of Economy said families of 3.81 people need 9 a month to meet basic needs, including housing, food, utilities, transport, education, shoes, and other essentials.

A Final Comment

IGLHR's Kernaghan notes that efforts to "promote and protect human, women's and worker rights in the globally economy have hit a brick wall." Corporate codes of conduct are meaningless. Workers have no rights. These "codes existed side by side with slave labor conditions."

Guilty parties include Wall-Mart, Kohl's, Sears, Nike, GAP, LL Bean, Hanes, Gloria Vanderbilt, Wrangler, and many others. Under CAFTA-DR, workers "have no rights or voice." Those complaining are fired and blacklisted.

Above all, Washington bears most responsibility, letting corporate allies brutally exploit workers. Unless that changes, nothing else will, and, in fact, conditions are worsening. The "reality on the ground is exploitation and the creation of a permanent underclass to service our economy."

Moreover, since the late 1970s, it's been US policy. Corporate power runs America. Unions have been crushed. Full-time, high-paying jobs have been sacrificed for part-time, low-paying ones with few or no benefits, and under Obama rampant unemployment, homelessness, hunger and despair have grown unabated, heading the nation for third world status.

Kernaghan asked if Washington "will give workers across the developing world a voice and empower them to exercise their legal rights?" Examining where America is headed suggests no chance whatever for workers globally.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at Also visit his blog site at and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.

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