Saturday, September 21, 2013

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.

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