Sunday, September 29, 2013

Dead Fish, Volcanoes, and Friendship

Last weekend we took advantage of our Friday off to visit the beaches on the South of Honduras. We hired a little bus to take us down to the wharf, and I ended up sitting in front next to the bus driver. This move always takes a leap of courage, but he was talkative and friendly, and in one of my proudest Spanish moments so far, we managed to chat for the entire drive!

We were dropped off at an isolated wharf, where "lanchas," little boats, waited to ferry us across to the island Amapala. 

Amapala is a small, poor island that depends on tourism for much of its economy. Southern Honduran beaches have dark sand and dark water. Since most tourists prefer the pristine, white-sand beaches of the North, we had a lot of the island to ourselves.

Once we were on the island, we checked into a little hostel for only $6 per person. On the other side of the island there are larger, more resort-style hotels and nicer beaches, but it's nice to be in a place where adventures are more important than comfort. Thankfully, spiders in the shower, sharing beds, and hungry cats that steal our loaves of bread are all still adventures.

We took mototaxis across the island to one of the beaches. Mototaxis are ubiquitous in Honduras, and they're wonderful. They're like little motorized tricycles with open sides that can squeeze four passengers and zip between traffic. They're perfect for rural areas that don't have roads for cars, or just for people who only want to spend 50 cents to get somewhere close by.

Though the beach wasn't anything out of a guidebook, the views were still spectacular. We were surrounded by mountains on every side, and rock formations bordered the little beach we found. 

My favorite part about little vacations is the people we meet. We found some fisherman and watched as one expertly filleted a stingray. 

We also ran into a group of school principles on vacation. We talked to some for a while and got to show off our (limited) knowledge of Honduran geography and history. Before we left, they saw my camera and wanted to be in a picture so we would remember them.

When the tide came in and swallowed the beach, we waited for our mototaxis in a restaurant right behind us. There we ate what was likely the freshest seafood I've ever had. Food that can stare back at you is the best kind, right?

The next morning, we started on a hike up the mountain that fills the center of the island. Years and years ago, it was a volcano, which made me imagine clambering up black rock sides and staring down into an open top, belching smoke and fire. Disappointingly, it was almost exactly like any other mountain, with the exception that the path was made up of much more volcanic rock.

After a 2-hour hike, during which I sweated more than I've probably ever sweated in my life, we finally reached the top. Through the clouds, we could see mountains and inlets for miles. To our left, El Salvador stretched into view, and Nicaragua to our right. As the clouds shifted and changed, we could see the shrimp and seafood farms that make up tiny pools for miles inland. With the sun shining through the clouds, it was a spectacular view.

At the summit, we also met a new friend. When exploring the area, we ran into a man with a machete and two barking dogs. Through a particularly difficult conversation, we finally established that he was the keeper of the paths, and lived up on top of the mountain in a little hut for a month at a time. He was thrilled to see us, which is nice, because it's always good to befriend men with machetes.

"Do you like guavas?" he asked us, when it looked like we were ready to leave. When we said yes, he led us to a wild tree off the beaten path, hacking grass down with his machete to make a way for us. "This is a good way to celebrate our new friendship," he said, but he said it in Spanish, and with a strong accent. "Do you understand?" he said, and we said no.

"Friendship -- that's when people look after each other and care for each other." He shimmied up the tree, tying his barking dog to a branch. "It's when they make sure the other is safe, and they want to give them things." He picked armfuls of guavas and handed them down to us, enough to fill our backpacks. "Do you understand?"

We nodded our heads and shook his hand. And there, on top of a volcano, taking fresh fruit from a very kind mountain man I think we really did understand friendship a little better.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Little Things I Love about Honduras

-Men cutting the grass on the median with machetes.
-Strangers coming up to practice Spanish with me
-When the Honduran soccer team is playing and the entire country puts on their team jersey
-Playing in the living room with my 2-year-old “niece,” blowing imaginary bubbles
-Delicious, fresh juices I’ve never heard of before (Hibiscus? Passion fruit?)
-Waking up every morning to find fresh pancakes on the table
-When the sun sets and we can look down from our backyards and see the capital city sparkling with a thousand colored lights
-Fried plantains
-The patience of strangers who speak at half the speed when they see how lost I am
-Handshakes with air kisses
-Our bus driver who drives us a different route to school every day
-The delightful absurdity of hearing “My Heart Will Go On” every day on our bus ride into town
-Pulling into Santa Lucia after a long weekend, seeing the little lagoon and the corner market, and thinking, “Aah… I’m home.”

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Questions for the Proactive Consumer: What's a Maquila? (1 of 3)

Stop what you’re doing for a minute and check the tag on your t-shirt. This may require some contortions on your part. That’s okay. I’ll wait.

Got it? Now, what connection do you have to that country, whether it was Bangladesh, Nicaragua, or Vietnam? What connection, besides the fact that your purchase supports a system of thousands of workers in conditions that you probably wouldn’t appreciate?

You’ve probably heard about “sweatshops” before, and you probably think you know where this is going. But my goal isn’t to make anyone guilty, it’s to take an honest look at the processes that go into making these t-shirts we’re both wearing. (Mine was from Haiti).

I had the privilege of visiting four different garment factories in the North coast of Honduras, where about 2% of the United States’ textiles originates. Though Honduras only holds a small share of the U.S. market, a full 62% of Honduran exports are textiles that will end up in the United States. For Honduras, it’s a huge chunk of their economy.

Factories in Honduras are called maquilas, which is a word that originally referred to the amount of flour the miller would keep in exchange for grinding it. In the same sense, the economic boost and job creation the factories offered was the “maquila” that Honduras got to keep, while the USA ended up with both the textiles and the companies’ profits.

I’ll start by conceding that the conditions we observed when we visited weren’t awful. It was loud and the close quarters were chaotic, but the rooms were air conditioned and music played over loudspeakers. The workers were dressed nicely. Some of them smiled at us as we walked by.

But it’s still easy to see why people get outraged. In Honduras, maquila workers make less than the Honduran minimum wage. To keep international companies from leaving Honduras, the Honduran government set a different minimum wage for maquilas. While elsewhere, people must be paid 325 U.S. dollars per month, in maquilas, they can be paid as little as $225 per month, which comes to just above $1 an hour. Even this is twice as much as Chinese workers make, and five times higher than what maquila workers make in Bangladesh.

To put this in perspective, when I was working at a hotel this summer, I made an hourly wage that was eight times higher while working four fewer hours per day. And this was not because I had any particular skill set. This was because I just happened to be born a couple countries north.

Besides the low pay, maquilas also threaten the health of their workers. The lint and chemicals in the air can affect workers lungs, while repetitive motions lead to injuries like carpal tunnel and torn rotator cuffs. One woman we spoke with said that after three years, every worker has been affected by some sort of stress injury.

Finally, the pressure against unionization is still very much in force, at least throughout Honduras. Though it’s illegal to fire workers for attempting to start a union, the practice is commonplace. When enough union workers are blacklisted from all maquilas, the rest of the workers are too afraid to make any motion to organize.

Judging from the information in the last few paragraphs, it might seem like maquilas are terrible and should be eliminated. Groups like United Students Against Sweatshops would certainly agree. But it’s not as simple as that, or as clear-cut. If maquilas were completely bad for Honduras, Honduras wouldn’t want to keep them so desperately. And there are other things that you won’t read on No Sweat handouts.

Maquilas provide employment for 150,000 Hondurans, and millions of Latin Americans in total. The average Honduran maquila worker has only finished 6th grade, and while this is higher than the national average, it still means that they would have more trouble finding a job elsewhere. The other side must be heard. In one article we read, author Paul Krugman says, “Bad jobs at bad wages are better than no jobs at all.” As unpalatable as this may be, it’s worth pondering.

People often compare maquila workers with workers in the United States. But this is a false comparison. Instead, more telling studies compare maquila workers with those who want to work for maquilas. One maquila told us they turn away 93% of applicants. In several factories, the turnover rate was under 2% per year. People want these jobs. And they keep them. In a study my professor did, 96% of maquila workers said they were very or somewhat satisfied with their jobs.

This raises an important question: Do we need to change all maquilas, or do we need to change the society that makes working there look like an attractive choice? Can we do both? And what does that look like? I'll admit right now that there is no easy answer. But that's why I'm here this semester. Because knowing is the first step towards action.

Questions for the Proactive Consumer: How do you Make a T-shirt? (2 of 3)

What does it look like to work in a maquila? This varies factory to factory, but the processes are the same. Everything begins in a textile factory. T-shirts start out in a large concrete room where spools of white yarn are fed through tubes into a whirring, spinning cylinder-shaped machine the size of a phone booth. If you’ve ever seen a grandmother knit socks with four needles, you’ll have an idea of what this machine is doing, except with over 1,000 needles.

The fabric comes down from the needles in one smooth tube that is rolled onto a bolt. When the bolt is full, workers take it to a huge, steamy room where machines that cost upwards of $1 million churn the fabric through softeners and dyes. Other machines dry, iron, and preshrink the fabric. Workers monitor the machines in the 90 degree room, most wearing face masks against the lint in the air. But most workers are in the next room where the finished fabric is cut.

Some fabric goes through machines that press pieces for clothing out in patterns, but most goes to be cut by hand with mini chainsaws, cutting through a hundred layers of t-shirt material at a time. These premade, precut pieces are sold in Honduras, but also to El Salvador, Haiti, and other maquilas around the world. From spool of yarn to stacks of precut sleeves takes about 48 hours. Since the machines can’t be safely turned off, shifts work around the clock.

Maquilas buy fabric in precut pieces. The pieces are separated by garment color and style and given to “cells” of workers that stitch the garment together. Each t-shirt is sewn by 8-10 people, while polo shirts take up to 22 workers. The “cells” work in an assembly line style, so each does the same motion throughout his or her 12-hour shift, 1800-4800 times per day, depending on how complicated the product is. The finished garments are folded and boxed right at the cell. Underwear is hung on racks and price tags are affixed. In most maquilas, the workers put in 44-hour weeks, working 12 hours a day for four days, with three days off.

Though we visited two textile plants and two different maquilas, our visit to Fruit of the Loom was by far our most in-depth. An entire team of workers met us at the front of the factory. When he found out we’d be visiting, Fruit of the Loom’s Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, Stan, had decided to make his own visit coincide with ours. Stan shook each of our hands as we entered a room stocked with drinks, donuts, candies and snacks. They were desperate to impress us.

Fruit of the Loom, which manages Spalding, Russell, and Vanity Fair, employs 1,177 people in Honduras alone. In 2008, Fruit of the Loom closed the one maquila in Honduras that had unionized—reputedly to eliminate the union. Pressure from student groups forced the company not only to reopen the factory, but to pay back wages for the year that all its employees had been without work.

Stan was understandably cautious with our group, as if he expected that any moment we would break out into a protest. “Students against Sweatshops are really hard to work with,” he sighed. “They’re the reason I have no hair.”

In their credit, Fruit of the Loom has come a long way since reopening their factory. Three of their plants now have fully recognized unions, and the company is one of the highest-paying in the country.

They’ve also taken steps towards environmental sustainability with a shift from traditional coal-burning plants to new ones that burn king grass which is grown nearby. The waste product from the dyes is organic and clean enough to be used to fertilize the grass, creating a renewable circle of energy production and waste treatment.

Though the wage gap has yet to be closed, and many issues persist, it’s encouraging to see the improvement that has happened over just a few years. It’s also important to note that this change only happened when pressure from the inside (the desire for unions) met pressure from the outside (students against sweatshops.) Fruit of the Loom will do what it takes to keep a profit, and if underwear shoppers suddenly find the ethics behind their boxer shorts important, the company will be forced to comply.

I can’t overstate the power of organized groups, whether that’s inside or outside of the company. We, as shoppers, can change what we demand. But the workers themselves are fighting for better rights too.

Questions for the Proactive Consumer: The Walls Come Tumbling Down (3 of 3)

“The Israelites went seven times around Jericho, and that was after they felt defeated,” a recently-fired maquila workers told us resolutely. “We think maybe this time we’re on our sixth turn.”

We met several ex-maquila workers in the General Workers’ Center, which offers free legal advice and representation. When we walked into the small building, I saw a poster of ants with army helmets and guns trained on a boot. “Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo,” the poster said. “They fear us because we have no fear.”

And the people we met certainly were fearless. All the workers we met had been fired from a Korean-owned car parts factory, which manufactures electrical harnesses for cars like Hyundai and Kia. The plant has been broadly condemned for the treatment of its workers. Among other gross violations, these workers were only allowed to use bathroom twice a day.

A year and a half prior, a union had formed, but the company refused to recognize it. Just before the date that had been set for negotiations, all 9 union leaders were fired on the same day without reason—one while pregnant, which is illegal in Honduras. Over the next few weeks, 120 unionized workers were also fired.

Now the workers are fighting to get their jobs back and to get their union to be recognized. When asked why they would even want to go back to the place that had mistreated them, they said “We’re taking this risk for the others who are still there.” Even if they wanted to find another job, the common practice of blacklisting would keep any other maquila from hiring them.

At the end of the day, I left the Workers' office wondering what we can do with all this information. How can we take the good and the bad and the marginal and roll it around in our heads and not just be paralyzed into inaction by all the different voices in this argument? These are questions we put to everyone we met.

“Write letters,” the union leader said. “Now that you know, you have a responsibility.” In a way, these giant corporations work for us, those of us who buy t-shirts and underwear. And the maquila workers knew this. “We don’t get anywhere without international involvement,” they said.

“So, we’re pretty new to this world of social media,” said Stan, from the corporate offices of Fruit of the Loom. “We only got a Facebook a few years ago. But my daughters are teaching me. And that’s probably the best way to let companies know what you think. We really do have someone reading that stuff.”

“A lot of our consumers want us to have a certain standard,” a tour guide said. If enough people raise their voices, companies listen. Companies change.

Maybe the biggest thing is that we need to change our expectations as consumers. Globalization expands our backyard and changes who we think of as our neighbor. Whether we realize it or not, we’re connected to the people who made our t-shirts. What we do affects them. We don’t get to pretend it doesn’t.

For some people this is going to mean rejecting maquilas altogether—buying local or used. But this only opts people out of the system and still leaves workers without defenders

When people are unable to make enough money to live, this is a human rights issue that should attract everyone's attention. But it has special meaning for Christians, who are told to “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3,4). This commandment is repeated throughout the Bible in echoes that remind us what God desires of us. He is waiting to empower those who fight for his justice.

If the maquila workers keep walking around Jericho, and if we blow the trumpets that we have, it won’t be long before the walls come tumbling down.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

How Bananas are Made (and Why you Should Care)

We wiped sweat off our foreheads as we stood in the muggy jungle, banana plants as far as we could see in every direction. Wiping his own face, the banana worker lowered his machete, dripping with a thick, red liquid.

“It’s disinfectant,” our professor translated, “So bacteria can’t spread from tree to tree."

I’ve eaten bananas my whole life without thinking about where they come from. Now, standing in the Chiquita banana fields in the North coast of Honduras, I’m surprised at how basic the system is. Bananas come from supermarkets, right? With linoleum floors and fluorescent lights. They’re certainly not hacked off with machetes in some humid farm in Central America. Except… of course they are.

We walked over planks across drainage ditches into a forest of bananas, green bunches covered in white bags hanging one from every plant. (Bananas don’t grow on trees, but on stalks that are 80% water, more similar to 10-foot-tall grass shoots.) A zip-line type wire ran down the rows of trees and a man zoomed by us, pulling bunches of bananas. Our guide pointed out men who lopped diseased leaves off trees. Then he introduced us to two men who were harvesting the bunches.

One man jabbed the banana plant with a machete, causing it to bend over far enough for the second man to catch the large banana bunch. The first man then cut the tree all the way through and the 10-foot giant fell to the ground. The second ran off with the bananas on his shoulder and took it on the zip-line to the main processing center, while the first lowered his machete, dripping disinfectant like blood.

At the end of the wire line was a storage area, where the bananas are checked for size and appearance. They’re wheeled past workers – mainly women – who separate the banana bunches with curved knives into batches of small, medium, and large bananas. These are processed separately to ensure an equal amount in each box. Then they’re checked for quality. Only the best go on to be Chiquita bananas. The company has two separate brands for sub-standard bananas. The lowest level of all ends up in the local market.

The selected bananas are then laid out on trays on a conveyer belt, where another woman affixes a sticker to each bunch. This is also where specialty bananas, like pre-weighed or individually wrapped, are processed. At the end of the conveyer belt, the finished bananas are boxed up, the boxes stacked into pallets, and the pallets into a waiting truck. It’s possible to imagine a banana going from tree to truck in about 2 hours.

But this is more than just interesting information to tuck away in the back of your mind. Not only are bananas a big part of Honduran economy, but the majority are shipped to the United States; which means that this entire industry exists so you can bring a fruit along with your lunch.

And what kind of industry are we supporting? Chiquita Banana Company was formed in 1913; and along with Dole, has been a big part of the Honduran economy since then. For the first few decades, the two American-owned banana companies operated with impunity, and the conditions for workers were terrible, with low wages and no unions. In 1954, workers finally organized the famous banana strike that won workers the right to unionize and made the Banana industry one of the best places to work in Honduras. Unfortunately, ever since then, unions have struggled to keep what rights they won.

We met the banana union, and they shared their concerns for their workers. The biggest issues the union fights for are pay, health care, and working conditions. Every year, Chiquita negotiates to take health insurance away from its workers and every year the union has to fight to keep it. Dole has already removed its workers’ health insurance, which puts a lot of pressure on Chiquita to lower its own production costs.

“The consumer is demanding more and more specialty things, but they’re not willing to pay extra for it, so the company doesn’t want to pay more for the extra work,” the union workers said. New demands like individually wrapped bananas are much more time-consuming, but the workers are expected to produce the same amount for the same pay.

The banana union also hasn’t been able to get pay increases to keep up with the rate of inflation, meaning that they actually make a smaller percentage of a living wage now than they used to.

“So, should we buy bananas?” we asked, half expecting to start a boycott when we returned to the states. But the workers were all in agreement. “We live from these bananas,” they said together.

“No, we want you to buy our bananas; but as consumers, we wish you would pressure the company so they would treat us better.”

Chiquita bananas are now “rainforest certified,” which means that their production meets a certain environmental standard. This is not something that the company did because of its conscience, but because of pressure from groups of consumers. Companies are completely dependent on those who buy their products. If people stopped buying bananas that were produced by people who weren’t given a living wage, banana companies would be forced to start paying that.

Ignorance is easier. So is ignoring what we’ve learned. But with every place I visit and every person I talk to, I realize how much more responsible I should be. What does it look like to be a proactive consumer? I’m still figuring this out. But next time I see that Chiquita sticker, I’ll remember the woman who stands 12 hours a day applying thousands of stickers and wonder if she’s making enough to live and live well…

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Great Honduran Taxi Adventure

“Yes. I like taxi.”

What am I doing? There has to be an easier way. Usually, after class, a van takes us students to the bus stop, but today two friends and I want to go to a museum instead, so we’re calling a taxi. Have I mentioned I’m not quite fluent in Spanish? Have I mentioned how much harder it is to speak over the phone?

“Yes, from the bus stop to the Central Park. Near the museum. Yes. Thank you.” This is our first time venturing out in Tegucigalpa without our Professors. This is our first time ordering a taxi ever, let alone in Honduras. But we’re going by radio taxi, which is supposed to be the safest and best. And it’s just as easy as our Professors promised. Within minutes, a taxi pulls up right in front of us.

“You are our taxi?” He nods vigorously. “To Central Park?” Good. We get in.

The ride takes us through parts of Tegus we haven’t seen yet, or at least haven’t noticed. We look out at barefoot men selling water in plastic baggies. Women in shops sift through used clothes that have been shipped in bulk from the United States.

The taxi driver pulls up to the Park and asks for 70 Lempiras (about $3.50). That’s cheaper than we expected. “Each?” I ask, stupidly. “No, for the three of you,” he answers, and I hand him the money, grateful for honest people.

We walk through the bustling center of town to the Museum of National Identity. There’s a new exhibit of cartoons and political satire. As recent students of Honduran politics, we’re thrilled when we recognize politicians and understand what’s being lampooned. We translate the jokes laboriously. I get a phone call, and the security guard points me outside.

“Hola? Hello?” I hate telephones. Who is this? Is this the taxi driver? He’s in a black car? Why is he telling me this? “No we used a taxi. Already. We are at the museum.” And… he hung up.

“Hey,” I ask my friends. “Did we get into a radio taxi?”
We all stood there blinking as realization dawned.

 “Crap. He’s still waiting for us at the gas station.”

I thought back to the public taxi that had seen lost-looking Gringas on the side of the road. “Are you our taxi?” – “Sure, I can be.” – “To Central Park?” – “Yeah, I can go there.”

“I’m going to be black-listed forever,” I moaned.

I called our Professor, who promised to talk to the taxi company and explain what had happened. But then when I called the taxi again, no one answered. I tried a different taxi company and the number wasn’t active. Even though most of the public taxis, like the one we took, are perfectly safe; there are occasional problems with them and we really aren’t supposed to take them. But we didn’t have a lot of other options.

“The last bus leaves Tegus at 6:15,” my friend noted. “It’s already after 5:00.”

What’s the worst that could happen? We stopped by a food court bakery to distract ourselves from that thought.

At 5:30, our Professor called us back. None of the taxi companies were picking up, but there were some employees of their organization pretty close by that they were going to send. Look for Miguel in the silver truck.

“Yeah,” my friend said, as we walked out to the road where she told us to wait. “This guy, we ask for his birth certificate.”

“You’re Joann’s students?” Uniform shirt of the organization—check. Silver truck—check.”

“You’re… Miguel?”

A 15-minute private taxi ride later, we were at the bus stop with time to spare. “Thanks Miguel!” we all shouted as we squeezed onto the last bus of the night.

I don’t even know if this story has a moral. The closest one I can think of is this: when you’re traveling in another country, don’t get in cars with strangers. And if, accidentally, you do—always know who to call.