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.