Maquila workers fired by Gildan Activewear rally in front of a Gildan factory in Choloma, Cortés. Photos courtesy of CODEMUH.

The cost of a T-shirt

“Empleo si, pero con dignidad!”

The chant comes from a group of about 40 women in Choloma, Honduras, who have assembled outside the offices of Delta Apparel, a multinational garment company. Calling for “jobs, but with dignity,” they are demanding that the company reinstate three workers who were fired. The workers say the firings are illegal and discriminatory because they suffered from workplace injuries.

The sun is hot and a man stands beside the rally selling bags of water. The women pass a megaphone around and take turns leading chants.

The rally was coordinated by the Colectiva de Mujeres Hondureñas (CODEMUH), a grassroots women’s rights group that organizes women working in the maquiladora sector to defend themselves against workers’ rights violations, which are systemic across the industry.

Mass protests are unrolling against a backdrop of rising costs for housing, electricity, and food that make it very difficult for many Hondurans to get by.

Cheap labour and free trade zones form the backbone of the maquila business model. Maquilas are factories in Latin America where commodities are produced for export while being exempted from various taxes, duties, and tariffs. In Honduras, neoliberal policies – in particular, corporate, municipal, income, and fuel tax exemptions – have contributed to the underfunding of health and education systems, which the government is now working to privatize.

Mass protests are unrolling against a backdrop of rising costs for housing, electricity, and food that make it very difficult for many Hondurans to get by. Families making minimum wage can only afford 41 per cent of the basic family food basket, according to studies by the Asociación de Consumidores de Honduras. The food basket – a list of 30 tax-exempted basic goods – is one of two measures in Honduras for calculating the cost of living.

Honduran workers report that while there is a national labour code, parts of it are not applied to the maquila industry. Maquilas don’t pay the same minimum wage as companies producing goods for the national economy, they say. Maquila workers make poverty wages – approximately 7,600 lempiras per month (about $400 Canadian), as mandated for the industry for 2019.

“What’s going to happen when they privatize health and reduce social security?” asks one maquila worker about the right-wing National Party of Honduras headed by President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH). “Fuera JOH!” (JOH Out!) is found graffitied across the city of Choloma, which plays host to a large industrial park and export processing zone.

Women labourers in the maquilas also face an increased risk of gender-based violence, working 11-hour shifts that force them to travel early in the morning or late at night. Laws against gender-based violence in Honduras are being relaxed even though, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in 2014 the country had the highest rate of violent deaths for women in Latin America. Gains achieved years ago by the feminist movement are under attack. The government recently approved changes to the penal code that weaken prison sentences for femicide and decriminalize forms of spousal violence.

But thanks to organizations like CODEMUH, women are becoming empowered to protect themselves against workplace and societal violence through collective power.

CODEMUH has been organizing to transform harmful practices in the maquila sector for over 20 years. Their workshops help women address workplace violence, occupational health and safety issues, and harassment inside and outside the workplace. They also provide legal support, organize community actions, and carry out media relations.

The case of Canadian company Gildan Activewear Inc.

One of the companies CODEMUH is speaking out against is Montreal-based clothing company Gildan Activewear. The company currently operates eight garment factories in Honduras, in addition to its dyeing factories and other warehouses, according to its website. Though the company is best known for manufacturing plain T-shirts for other brands to print their logos on, it now owns a variety of brands, including American Apparel, Anvil, Kushyfoot, and Alstyle, which helped it bring in U.S. $2.9 billion in revenue in 2018.

Gildan boasts of a business model whereby the company owns and operates the production process. “This direct control of almost the entire manufacturing process, from raw materials to finished products, allows the Company to ensure that responsible and sustainable practices are deployed throughout the complete value chain,” reads its website.

For two decades, Gildan has faced accusations of mistreating its workers in Honduras and elsewhere.

Gildan’s current corporate social responsibility practices have emerged as a response to a long history of labour rights violations by the company. For two decades, Gildan has faced accusations of mistreating its workers in Honduras and elsewhere.

In 2002, the CBC television program Disclosure reported that Gildan workers in Honduras were exposed to harmful fabric dust, forced into taking pregnancy tests, and fired for attempting to organize unions. Gildan denied the allegations.

In 2003, the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) released a report co-authored by the Honduran Independent Monitoring Team that highlighted low wages and a lack of freedom of association as major issues for Honduran workers in Gildan’s facilities. The report notes that in November 2002, Gildan fired close to 45 workers just 10 days after a labour application was filed with the Ministry of Labour to register a union.

Gildan’s response to the report was heavy-handed. It threatened legal action against MSN, and one year later – in November 2003 – another 37 workers were fired at the same factory in El Progreso for attempting to organize a union. Then Gildan announced that it would be closing the factory and the Fair Labor Association put Gildan’s membership under review, eventually resulting in a negotiated plan for remedy with Gildan.

Today, workers continue to voice concerns surrounding the psychological and physical harm they experience at the hands of Gildan. They say the work is destroying workers’ bodies.

Despite concerns documented in the past 15 years, Gildan’s four-day, 11-hour shifts are still in place.

In an interview with Briarpatch, Gildan’s director of corporate communications and marketing, Geneviève Gosselin, acknowledges that, in the garment industry, workers do face risks of developing musculoskeletal disorders due to poor ergonomics.

“There are a number of things we do in order to reduce these risks and provide the best working environment for our employees,” she says.

Gildan boasts of having health and safety committees across its factories, yet according to CODEMUH director Maria Luisa Regalado, the committee representative is only called in when there is an inspection, in order to participate in a photo op.

Despite concerns documented in the past 15 years, Gildan’s four-day, 11-hour shifts are still in place, which Regalado says harm workers’ health and violate the national labour code’s provisions surrounding paid overtime and hours of work.

Gosselin says the work schedule is widely used in the textile industry. “Our employees generally appreciate this schedule and ask that it be maintained,” she says.

“It’s like an orange. You squeeze the orange and all you have is a peel. It’s like squeezing and squeezing until you have no juice.”

While Gildan claims to schedule exercise breaks for workers, Regalado says that workers must also find time to clean their machines during the scheduled five-minute stretch breaks. Workers say sometimes breaks aren’t respected by supervisors.

“It’s like an orange,” says Ana,* a worker in a Gildan factory. “You squeeze the orange and all you have is a peel. It’s like squeezing and squeezing until you have no juice.”

Ana suffers from partial disability of 32 per cent of her body, according to her medical assessment issued by the Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social (IHSS). This “assessed degree of disability” is a measure used to determine eligibility for disability benefits. She has been diagnosed with rotator cuff syndrome and cervicobrachialgia, which causes pain, numbness, weakness, and swelling in the neck and arm.

Before she went to CODEMUH, Ana says there were times when she would cry in pain in front of her workstation.

“But I thought of my kids. I knew I had to go to work, fill the quota, and go home,” she says.

Many workers organizing with CODEMUH report having painful and sometimes debilitating work-related injuries in the spine, arms, shoulders, and feet. A 2018 study conducted by Movimiento de Mujeres Trabajadoras y Desempleadas Maria Elena Cuadra that surveyed 1,016 women working in maquilas in Nicaragua found that 16 per cent reported being diagnosed with a musculoskeletal problem.

Maquila workers say that their injuries are often due to physical strain from repetitive movements, poor ergonomics, and long shifts. They say chronic tendonitis is a problem, and some women also suffer from tuberculosis and other respiratory conditions as a result of working with cotton fibres. Masks may be provided, but they have a short shelf life. And the noise from the machines can cause hearing problems.

“But I thought of my kids. I knew I had to go to work, fill the quota, and go home.”

Workers allege that when they develop injuries, the company engages in harassment in order to force them to quit. They say that when they ask to be relocated to other factory positions, their requests are often met with delay or denial.

In November 2016, Gildan fired five injured workers from its San Miguel facility. Briarpatch has obtained the five termination letters distributed to them.

According to the letters distributed between November 21 and November 25, 2016, the employees were being immediately fired because Gildan did not have positions available in the factory that could accommodate the restrictions and parameters of the employees’ medical assessments issued by the IHSS. The workers’ medical assessments referenced in the termination letters range from December 2, 2009, to September 3, 2014.

In Gildan’s statement, provided by Gosselin, company procedure requires a factory’s managers to first relocate employees to positions that accommodate their medical conditions. It states that “where employees are not satisfied with their relocation even though they were physically capable of carrying out functions required […] the Company may have to terminate the employment of these employees.”

CODEMUH is now arguing that the five firings were the result of discrimination and has organized protests against Gildan.

“There were rumours that they were going to lay off all the people who are sick,” says Regalado. “Because of constant pickets, it stopped at five people.”

An injury to one

“I am one of five women demanding to be hired back and to have my medical assessment respected,” says Rosa Dalila López Corea, employed with Gildan since 2005. She has been diagnosed with 30 per cent disability, rotator cuff syndrome, and chronic supraspinatus tendinitis of her left shoulder.

“They reduced our salaries because we were sick,” she says. Workers at her factory operate on a quota system, and are exempt from minimum wage rules. “There was a lot of psychological abuse and mistreatment in the company once they knew we were sick,” she adds.

Workplace injuries are exacerbated by the high pressure to work quickly and without breaks. Workers describe supervisors standing beside the production line with a stopwatch, telling them to work faster to fill their team’s quota. One study reports that approximately 7 out of 10 workers have goals that range from 3,000 to 6,000 pieces daily.

“There was a lot of psychological abuse and mistreatment in the company once they knew we were sick.”

“You are sitting down for a whole day, in front of a machine, for 11 hours. You have one minute to go to the washroom and get water, and sometimes there is a lineup. I have problems with my waist from sitting down,” López Corea continues.

She adds that she has suffered depression since losing her job.

According to a study CODEMUH conducted in collaboration with medical researchers from the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico on workers’ health in the maquila sector, 55 per cent of have anxiety, 52 per cent have depression, and 38 per cent are facing distress.

Limited employment opportunities in Honduras mean that women go to work in the maquila sector when they have few options. A single mom, López Corea has now started to sell jewellery and bracelets to help make ends meet.

She has filed a legal claim for reinstatement, and CODEMUH has provided her with medical and legal advice. “I think CODEMUH is the only organization helping female workers in the maquila industry,” she says.

Thirty-year-old Paola Vanessa Castillo López is also one of the five workers fired from Gildan’s San Miguel facility in November 2016. She suffers from permanent loss of movement and has been diagnosed with permanent partial disability in 25 per cent of her body, painful left shoulder syndrome, and supraspinatus tendinitis of the long head of the bicep.

She worked for Gildan for 12 years. “When I first started at Gildan, I exceeded the quotas. The supervisors would fight to have me on their team because my work was excellent,” she says.

According to Regalado, Gildan organizes their workers into production teams, pitting teams in competition against each other. Workers say that quotas must be met by the whole team, and bonuses are given to teams that exceed quotas.

“I think CODEMUH is the only organization helping female workers in the maquila industry.”

When Castillo López started to feel pain in her arm, she knew she should have gone to the on-site clinic. While Gildan boasts of the free on-site medical facilities it provides to staff – Gosselin says there is one at every manufacturing facility – workers tell Briarpatch that the company clinics are a way to avert social security claims and manage pain that’s endemic in the industry and slows down production. The company aims to prevent workers from taking time off work to travel to external clinics.

Castillo López explains that workers need to line up as early as 6 a.m. in order to get an appointment. “Some doctors were more empathetic and examined us. There were others who would not even look up at us and just gave us a prescription and tell us to go back to work,” she said. The company routinely distributes painkillers, workers say.

To obtain a medical assessment to document her injury, she had to go to the social security office. These visits impact a worker’s pay. “If we go to therapy at social security, they take away our lunch break and we lose hours of salary,” she adds.

Once her injury emerged, she says her supervisor began to spread rumours about her and her co-workers disrespected her. “They used to call me ‘crystal shoulders.’ They would call me names,” she says.

“The moment came when I was fired. They laid me off because I wasn’t producing like I was before.” She was laid off alongside other women.

“When I defended myself, they were very angry.” She says her supervisor reported her and sent her to the company clinic, which refused her service and told her she was lying about her injuries When they laid her off, human resources tried to negotiate with her. She says she was offered a bonus if she signed a document declaring her resignation. Other women, some of whom had been working for Gildan for up to 20 years, were pressured into signing the company’s documents.

“Unfortunately, they weren’t organized and they were very badly affected by this. They got nervous and signed,” Castillo López explains.
But she refused. “I knew I should say no.”

She was directed to CODEMUH by another woman at the factory. “We trust that with the support of CODEMUH, we will be able to solve this,” she says.

Sewing discontent

Another injured maquila worker, Bertha,* said it is difficult for workers to take action against Gildan’s widespread violations of workers’ rights.

“There is a lot of fear of organizing against an injustice inside the factory,” she notes. She says that teams have a leader who gets paid more than the rest. “They don’t want to lose their privilege.”

She says there is a culture of competition in the workplace. For example, one team might have an eight-minute lunch break instead of 10. “They always compare us and they’ll do it publicly: ‘Team number one just reached a quota,’ or ‘team number two never went to the bathroom.’”

“We’ll look at each other and say, ‘Oh my god, we need to step up our production.’”

But CODEMUH is working to build unity among maquila workers. “So, what we do to generate collectiveness,” Bertha notes, “is we share the information that CODEMUH gives us.”

In some of Gildan’s factories, the company has installed employer or “boss” unions, workers explain. “They try to pit the Gildan union that they’ve created against CODEMUH,” says Bertha, “but we have been told here not to be dragged into those levels of discussion and not [to] lower ourselves into division.”

“They always compare us and they’ll do it publicly: ‘Team number one just reached a quota,’ or ‘team number two never went to the bathroom.’”

In other cases, verbal sexual harassment is a tool used to demoralize and divide workers.

“’[The employer] is responsible for creating division and competition,” says Bertha. “They will say to the women who are sick, ‘Move as fast as you moved for your husband last night.’”

But she doesn’t respond in kind. “I will never lower myself to that level.”

“I am poor, and I am proud of being poor. And I know they eat a lot better than me because they make more money than me, but they have way less dignity than I do,” she says. “We are better than them.”

Canada’s dirty laundry

The maquila industry, which has existed in Honduras for over 30 years, is a massive part of the country’s economy. Estimates of how many workers it employs in the country range from 120,000 to upwards of 167,000, and the industry accounted for $4.263 billion U.S. in exports in 2018, according to the Asociación Hondureña de Maquiladores.

At the turn of the century, Gildan created a global taskforce to study clothing pricing in order to calculate just how cheaply it would have to sell its products in order to be competitive globally. In the late ’90s, most of the company’s production was in Canada. But in 1998, it relocated a handful of its sewing facilities offshore, establishing factories in Honduras, Mexico, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

In the early 2000s, in the heat of the antiglobalization movement, the Canadian public was awakening to the harsh realities facing workers in global sweatshops. Thanks to the work of organizing groups like United Students Against Sweatshops, founded in 1997, and MSN, launched in 1994, many Canadians began to think more deeply about the exploitation woven into our clothing’s global production chain. Like the antiglobalization movement, the anti-sweatshop movement criticized corporate greed, unpacked the violence inherent in global capitalism, and pursued global justice for workers across borders.

In the early 2000s, in the heat of the antiglobalization movement, the Canadian public was awakening to the harsh realities facing workers in global sweatshops.

At the same time, the Canadian labour movement was playing an active role in anti-sweatshop organizing. The Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliates adopted the No Sweat campaign, which was launched in collaboration with MSN, Oxfam Canada, Students Against Sweatshops Canada, and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.

The campaign pushed an ethical purchasing agenda and, with varying success, pressured retailers and public institutions to only purchase goods produced by companies that comply with international labour standards. Pressuring industry through consumer power was viewed as an important tactic in improving workplace conditions across the global textile industry.

Nearly 20 years later, the global garment industry remains a violent beast. Buying Canadian-produced, union-made products has a positive impact for unionized workers in our own country – at least at some point in the product’s production line. But workers in Honduras don’t want their products to be boycotted. They want work. CODEMUH’s slogan, “Empleo si, pero con dignidad,” – “Jobs, but with dignity” – encapsulates this.

We have unique political leverage and resources that our fellow workers in Honduras do not have. We need to hold our own government accountable for allowing Canadian companies to operate overseas with impunity and demand that it legislate binding regulations pertaining to human rights.

“It’s very clear that they transfer their profits here and that they benefit from certain tax regimes in Canada. They benefit from being Canadian companies.”

According to Kirsten Francescone, Latin America coordinator for the advocacy organization MiningWatch Canada, there are many reasons for the federal government to regulate Canadian multinationals.

“It’s very clear that they transfer their profits here and that they benefit from certain tax regimes in Canada. They benefit from being Canadian companies,” she said.

Canadian financiers have helped develop offshore tax havens in Britain’s former Caribbean colonies. Barbados, for example, has for decades had a low income tax rate for international business companies that currently slides between 0.25 and 2.5 per cent. Canadian tax law, in conjunction with the tax treaties Canada has signed with Barbados, exempts Canadian-based companies from paying taxes on company profits remitted to Canada, since those companies are registered as international business companies paying income tax in Barbados.

In 1999, Gildan opened a subsidiary in Barbados. The Globe and Mail reported that between the 2009 and 2013 fiscal years, Gildan only paid a total of 1 per cent in income tax in Canada, despite bringing in U.S. $1 billion in profit.

On top of avoiding taxes, Gildan has benefited from Canadian government subsidies. Furthermore, the Globe and Mail reported that in 1996, Gildan received $3.5 million in investment from the Quebec-based development capital fund Fonds de solidarité FTQ. However, the union-sponsored fund divested from Gildan in 2003 when the company refused to reinstate 38 workers fired for their association with labour unionization efforts in 2002.

According to Francescone, “We are seeing a repeat of the years past, without any real political will to implement any sorts of policies or mechanisms that would hold Canadian corporations to account abroad.”

Between the 2009 and 2013 fiscal years, Gildan only paid a total of 1 per cent in income tax in Canada, despite bringing in U.S. $1 billion in profit.

During the 2015 election period, the Liberals pledged to take action to improve the conduct of Canadian companies overseas. In January 2018, the Trudeau government committed to creating an independent office to investigate allegations of human rights violations committed by Canadian garment and extractive companies operating abroad. The government announced that the office – named the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) – would have full investigative powers, including the ability to call witnesses and subpoena documents, with the aim of remedying human rights violations. But the Liberals never followed through on that promise.

The ombudsperson appointed to the position, Sheri Meyerhoffer – a former lobbyist for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – has neither robust investigative powers nor independence from government, since the office is housed under Global Affairs Canada. Without these powers, its ability to make fact-based recommendations on government policy and legislation is limited.

Francescone calls the effort “whitewashing.” In response to the government’s perceived backtracking, all 14 civil society and labour representatives on the government’s multi-stakeholder advisory body on responsible business conduct abroad resigned.

“The unanimous decision to resign is due [to] the erosion of civil society and labour unions’ trust and confidence in the government’s commitment to international corporate accountability,” reads a press release from the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability.

Francescone says that during stakeholder meetings, the Liberal government sent a clear message to civil society that regulatory binding legislation – which could include, for example, mandatory human rights due diligence or fines for human rights violations – is not on the table.

Francescone says the government uses the excuse that what happens overseas is under the legislation of local governments.

The Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability reports that to date, no non-Canadian has won a suit regarding international corporate accountability in Canadian courts.

They aren’t the first to use this defence. The same concept has been integrated into parts of Canada’s judicial system and trade regime. For foreign victims of human rights abuses seeking access to justice in Canada, judges may establish that a case should be heard in the country where the abuse took place. The Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability reports that to date, no non-Canadian has won a suit regarding international corporate accountability in Canadian courts.

And it is part of the logic shaping the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement, which came into force on October 1, 2014. While Chapter 19 of the agreement states that countries have “general obligations concerning […] internationally recognized labour principles,” the reality is that Canada’s trade agreements – in both word and enforcement – lack teeth when it comes to protecting the labour rights of workers across borders.

Global problems require global responses

The same companies alleged to be exploiting maquila workers in Honduras are aggressively lobbying Canadian politicians regarding trade and tax policy. In the five years since September 2014, Gildan has booked 25 instances of lobbying pertaining to international trade, taxation, and finance. International solidarity is a reciprocal relationship that requires us to understand our problems on a systemic level.

Lower corporate taxes contribute to the debasement of our social security net and harm Canadian residents. In the face of such a powerful threat, we are stronger when we are united.

Through international solidarity organizations, organizations can channel resources to front-line groups organizing workers. As a staff person at the Health Sciences Association of B.C. – a partner of CoDevelopment Canada, a B.C.-based NGO that helps fundraise for CODEMUH – I have witnessed how far the Canadian dollar can stretch in Honduras.

But apart from giving money, we can use our agency to amplify workers’ stories and their political demands here in Canada, identifying global intersections in our own organizing efforts. To be effective, this work requires relationship building.

This begins with familiarizing ourselves with their issues and demands. Maquila workers in Honduras are calling for systemic change. In Honduras, this could mean: improved occupational health and safety legislation; updating the labour code so that the IHSS recognizes certain injuries, such as lumbar damage, as work-related; requiring workplace inspectors to be certified in ergonomics; enforcement of the labour code and the Honduran Constitution in the maquila sector, including paid overtime after an eight-hour shift and on holidays and weekends; stronger protection from workplace sexual harassment; mandatory ergonomic workstations; enforcement of adequate breaks; reversal of privatization in health care and education; and justice for women experiencing violence in the face of widespread impunity across the justice system.

“Our message is that government should be the one making sure that companies are respecting laws,” says Regalado. When it comes to companies like Gildan – taking advantage of both Honduras’ unwillingness to enforce their own labour laws and Canada’s unwillingness to rein in Canadian companies harming their workers abroad – we need to hold our governments to account.

*Names have been changed for sources’ protection.

Editor’s note: The version of this article which was published in print failed to incorporate the corrections of a Briarpatch fact-checker. The online version has been updated with the following clarifications:

1. The print article stated that 7,600 lempiras was equivalent to approximately $433 Canadian; in fact, it is now equivalent to approximately $400.
2. The print article stated that according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Honduras has the second-highest rate of violent deaths against women in Latin America; in fact, in 2014 it had the highest rate.
3. The print article stated that the maquila sector employs 167,000 workers in Honduras; in fact, estimates range between 120,000 to over 167,000 workers.
4. The print article quoted a joint statement from the 14 civil society and labour representatives who resigned from the Canadian government’s Stakeholder Advisory Body on Responsible Business Conduct Abroad; in fact, the quote was from a press release from the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability.
5. The print article noted that Chapter 19 of the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement states that countries have an obligation to meet “internationally recognized labour principles”; in fact, they have “general obligations concerning” such principles and rights.

Samantha Ponting is an organizer, writer, and editor living in Vancouver, B.C., on the unceded lands of the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam First Nations. She currently works in communications for a public-sector labour union.

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