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.

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