It's 7 p.m. on a recent evening, in the capital of Nicaragua. The export factories have begun to shut down on the outskirts of Managua, and thousands of women and men are pouring through the factory gates. These are some of the workers who make the blue jeans that you wear. Most of them are cramming into bright yellow busses, to go home. But another group is gathering around a bullhorn. Some look angry - others seem almost dazed.
Until a few hours ago, these Nicaraguans were part of the global economy: they were hunched over sewing machines, inside a factory that's owned by a consortium from Taiwan, and they were making brand-name jeans for department stores in the United States. My interpreter translates:
IC: We just want to let you know that we're backing your struggle, the struggle for freedom of organizing. They cannot play with our dignity as workers...
Dozens of these workers have just been fired and the rest are worried they will be next. Three years ago, they formed a union in the biggest factory in the Taiwanese consortium, Chentex. They began demanding better working conditions and more money. But now, Chentex is retaliating. One of the union leaders has called this impromptu rally.
Union Leader: It is important that you, the workers, resist. Don't be provoked, because I know right now you're under a lot of harrassment, and a lot of psychological pressure. They're putting gangs to pressure you...
The women at this rally say that Chentex has fired hundreds of union members in just the past few months. And now the managers are purging every union supporter who's left.
IC: The one in the pink dress is saying that the company owners are making them sign papers, to say that they're voluntarily resigning from the union. This is a lie. They're marking us sign these papers.
There's a woman who's been standing at the fringes of this crowd, and it turns out she's a supervisor on the factory floor. She says she's come to the rally so these fired employees know that she sympathizes with their union. She says the working conditions at Chentex are terrible.
Supervisor: And the operators, they cannot go away from their post for more than three minutes. If they have to go to the bathroom, they have to rush back. And if they don't come back within that time, then the Chinese supervisor sends me to get them. And it makes me feel bad because, for example, if someone is not feeling well, and they need to be going to the bathroom, it's really horrible for me to go and get them out of the bathroom.The workers at this particular rally are struggling to save one union, in one factory in Nicaragua's export zone. But they say they're really fighting to save the labor movement: Since late last year, at least four different companies have suddenly fired union leaders and members. The union in the Chentex plant is especially important because it's been the strongest, until now. One of the women at this rally says look at the label on yourbluejeans. Do you have Bugle Boy, or Cherokee or Gloria Vanderbilt? Did you buy them at Target or K-Mart or JC Penney? She and her friends made them.
Woman: What we want to say to the businesses and consumers in the United States is, we have formed unions because we're not going to stand it anymore, we're not going to take this repression anymore. And we want to tell them, if they're going to buy a pair of pants, then they should know where it's coming from... that it's coming from the exploitation... of us.
When people in the United States hear about Nicaragua, it's usually about disaster. Back in the 1980s, it was civil war. A couple years ago it was Hurricane Mitch.
After all those years of misery, this country of mountains and palm trees is the poorest in Central America. More than half of the country's adults don't have any jobs at all, or they can only find part-time work. So back in the early 1990s, the leaders of Nicaragua came up with a plan: They decided, "let's become the bluejeans production capital for America."They're using the same tactics that other poor countries have tried, when they're desperate to create jobs. If you own a foreign company and you're willing to make your clothing in Nicaragua, the government will give you space in a huge industrial park that's surrounded by fences and guards. Your company won't pay a single penny in taxes for at least the first ten years. And you can pay your employees the lowest wages in Central America. They call it the "The Free Zone".
Gilberto Wong: The Free Zone is not only an economic benefit for the country, but it's also a social benefit for the people.
That's Gilberto Wong. He's the spokesman for Nicaragua's president, Arnaldo Alleman Check. Companies from all over the world have set up shop here. And Wong says they're giving jobs to roughly 25,000 workers. Most of them are young women.
Wong: The Free Zone generates mass employment for the Nicaraguan people. Especially, it gives the opportunity to women to join the industrial force. I'm not going to say these are the best jobs in the world, but can you imagine all these women being at home, having children, not working?
But the way some employees tell the story, Nicaragua's made a kind of pact with the devil - and they need unions to protect them.
It's impossible to really talk with employees on the factory grounds - they're scared they'll get fired for talking with a reporter. But some of the workers who still have jobs in Chentex and other companies agree to meet on one of their rare days off. They gather at this community daycare center.
This "center" is actually a tiny house on a dirt road. It's one of the more solid houses in the neighborhood; it has cinder block walls and cement floors - and a toilet. Many of the workers live in shacks made from scraps of plywood and rusty sheets of metal. The floors of their homes are bare dirt. They say they got jobs in the foreign bluejean factories because they wanted a better life than this - but they feel like they can't take it anymore.
Woman One: You know, these people came to invest in Nicaragua, and we, the people of Nicaragua, were happy that they were coming. That meant work for us, and yes, we need the jobs. But they came with this way of being so arrogant.
Woman Two: Just a week ago, I saw how this supervisor, Ming Feng, came to this woman worker. The woman was doing pockets, and out of the hundred pockets she had just done, the superviser picked two, and she said they were done wrong. And she went to the worker, and slapped this one woman on the face.
But most of all, these women talk about the crushing hours and the pay: they say Chentex and the other factories force them to work huge amounts of overtime - and they make about 70 cents an hour in return.
One woman's schedule is typical: she says she gets up most days at 4:30 a.m. She washes her family's clothes and dresses her children. Then it takes her about an hour to take a bus to the factory zone. She starts her sewing machine by 7 a.m. sharp, and the managers often make her work until 7 p.m. or later, at least six days a week and sometimes Sundays. In fact, many women say the factories occasionally force them to stay until midnight. If they protest, the company warns they'll be fired. Another woman in the group bursts into tears.
Woman Three: The pressure is so much, I feel so tense and so nervous, I just feel like crying. And I go home and ... and I feel like I'm going to have a nervous breakdown.
The women in this meeting are the quintessential employees in the blue jeans plants. Most are 20-something. Some are single mothers - one woman says her partner beats her. They don't all belong to a union; the ones who don't say they're afraid that would get them fired. But everybody says they support what the unions are trying to do. Look, one employee says, some people might say: what are you all complaining about? Wouldn't you rather work in a factory, even if the conditions are bad and you don't get paid much, than have no job at all?
Woman: No. At least for me, as a woman, I work, I supprt my family, and I like working. But that doesn't mean it gives other people the right to come and we always have to say "yes, yes, yes" for everything and be beaten and hit, just like a dog, when it gets hit and then it just moves its tail and comes back. No, we're not going to do that, that's like slaves, and that is gone, it's past time. We came to the point where we said: It's enough. And that's why we formed a union.
In most poor countries, the people who make your pants and shoes have never seen a real union. But Nicaragua is different: In the late 1970s, a group of rebels called the Sandanistas overthrew the long-time dictator - and they called on peasants and factory workers to organize. Their socialist visions eventually crumbled, partly because they fought a long war against U.S.-backed guerillas, and then they held democratic elections and lost. But, many poor Nicaraguans have held on to that notion that they have the right to form a union.
A lot of women in the factories will tell you that one voice in particular really got the union at Chentex going. Her name is Gladys Mantanares. She's twice as old as most employees - 52. After a rally one evening, Mantanares relaxes at her house. She lives in one room with her six children and two grandchildren. She says she's embarrassed to talk inside, because she didn't have time to clean, so we chat under a huge almond tree.
Gladys Mantanares: It's not that I'm embarrassed of showing my poverty, it's not that, it's just that a house is a little like a woman: If you don't dress up a little bit, then .... You know, I'm romantic: I like the flowers. I am feminine and like to say that, even though I'm a union leader.
Right after Mantanares and other workers organized their union at Chentex, they began pressuring the Taiwanese managers to make changes - changes that used to be unthinkable.
For instance, they got a place to sit down during lunch. They used to have eat standing up. They got the company to install air filters, to take the cotton dust out of the air. Taiwanese managers agreed that whenever an employee has a baby, they'll give her about one week's extra wages, to help out. And if someone in your immediate family dies, you get six days off - with pay.
Gladys Mantanares: In terms of money, I mean, it's not a huge help, but I feel like people feel they count. This is very different from other companies where there are no unions. I mean, if a woman has a child, so what? Nothing happens. Or if someone dies, they'll just cry on their sewing machine. And we were also able to get hot water in the building so that we could make coffee. And we can make coffee anytime we wanted. This seems little, but these are really big changes for us.
But the more the union gained, the more Chentex resisted. The way Mantanares tells the story, company managers tried to kill the union softly, at first. Early last year, one of the top managers asked Mantanares to meet with her at a popular hotel.
Gladys Mantanares: So, this woman, Doris Escalona, was there, and she greeted me very very caring, in a very caring way. And she was, oh, giving me hugs. And she started saying, "Ahhh, Doña Gladys, wouldn't you like something to drink, would you like something to eat, you must be hungry?" And I was thinking to myself, "Hmmmmm... "
She says the Chentex manager finally got to the point. The woman told Mantanares that the company wanted to pay her roughly $25,000 worth of Nicaraguan cash - assuming, of course, she'd quit the union. That's what the typical factory worker would make over 25 years at current wages.
Gladys Mantanares: And I actually looked at her and sort of laughed. I thought to myself, "Poor woman." I mean, she doesn't know how to value human life. So when I said to her I didn't want the money, she just smiled, and she said: "Ahh, Dona Gladys... why are you such a simple person?"
Officials at the Taiwanese consortium wouldn't talk to NPR. They didn't respond to more than a dozen phone calls asking for an interview. In any case, Mantanares didn't quit the union and the union members didn't back down ... in fact, they began pushing for higher wages. Chentex refused to negotiate, and that's when the real trouble began.
Three months ago, the union called a quick strike to try to pressure the Taiwanese owners to bargain. The company called in riot police armed with automatic weapons. Nobody got hurt, but since then, Chentex has fired between 300 and 500 workers, according to union leaders.
Gladys Mantanares is one of them. You know, she says, she has more skills and experience than most factory employees. She probably could have found a more lucrative job.
Gladys Mantanares: I have one son who is very resentful of me. He feels that because of work with the union, I've sacrificed their lives. Sometimes it's really hard for me, and it hurts me. But I feel like my son is only really jealous, I think he wishes that he could have me all for himself. But I keep telling him I wasn't born just for him - I was born for many other people - and that one day, he and his siblings are going to be thankful for the good example I've given them. They'll understand and value the mother that they've had.
A human rights group in Nicaragua has taken the Chentex case to court. The group's lawyers charge that the Taiwanese consortium and other export companies are breaking the law, by systematically crushing the unions. They say the Nicaraguan government is colluding: In one case after another, union leaders have asked government officials to block the firings, and in virtually every case, the government has backed the company owners. Human rights activists say you can see some of the possible reasons why at construction sites in downtown Managua.
The Nicaraguan government's building a fancy new headquarters for its foreign ministry, right on this corner. And the government of Taiwan is paying for it; there's a big sign with the Taiwanese flag. Go a few more blocks and there's Nicaragua's brand new Presidential Palace. This palace was a gift ... from Taiwan. And now the Taiwanese government is talking about building a new industrial complex, in Nicaragua, worth $100 million. But the President's spokesman, Gilberto Wong, says none of this has anything to do with Nicaragua's policies on unions and Taiwanese bluejeans.
Gilberto Wong: No that's not true. What happens in the Free Zone has nothing to do with what the government of Taiwan have given to the Nicaraguan people, through the government. The investors in the Free Zone are private investors, which have nothing to do with the Taiwanese government.
And Wong says nobody's trying to break the unions.
Gilberto Wong: It is a lie. I deny that the owners of the factories are violating human rights. The factories are complying with labor law, with good treatment, with human rights, and with working conditions. So I don't see why someone would say that here we are having a human rights problem.
Craig Miller: Basically, everything flows in from this end of the factory. The rolls of fabric, thread, buttons, zippers.The Taiwanese company wouldn't talk to NPR, but another bluejeans maker opened the door to his factory. This is Craig Miller, he's American and human rights activists say he's one of the owners who's breaking the unions. Miller says practically everything union members say about factory conditions is nonsense. First of all, he says, look at this factory. And on the surface, it doesn't look like a "sweatshop." More than eight hundred workers are grouped in lines, in a vast building with high ceilings. There's plenty of light, and it's definitely warm in here but not sweltering. Second, Miller says, he never forces people to work overtime. He points to a sign on the wall.
Craig Miller: This is one of the circulars I was telling you about: that overtime is completely voluntary. And whatever person, if they're having whatever kind of problem, they can come directly to me. There's a suggestion box in the plant. Only I have a key to that. Anybody who has a complaint, where they want to be anonymous or however they want to do it? It's another route directly to me. As for me trying to bust a union? That's inaccurate.Here's what did happen, according to the public record: Last January, several dozen workers in the plant got together, and formed a brand new union. Miller fired the new union's leader the very next day and over the next week and a half, he fired the rest of the union officers, along with most of the employees who backed them. But Miller says the only reason he got rid of those employees was because they didn't do good work:
Craig Miller: We found ourselves in a position where we had an awful lot of employees and a lot of people who were inefficient. These people were fired, it's not because they were union, it's because they were poor workers, they had poor quality, poor efficiency. We needed to do it for business purposes. The next thing I find out is, well, we were part of a union, or some of them said they were part of a union.
Miller says it's too convenient for Americans to look at a country like Nicaragua and conclude that foreign factory owners are exploiting their workers. It is true, he says, it's hard working on the assembly lines. And yes, the workers don't make much money, by American standards - although they do make more than Nicaraguan nurses and police. And yes, Miller says, many workers can't afford to live in anything more than a shack - with dirt floors and two chairs and one lightbulb.
Craig Miller: If I wasn't here, would they have two chairs? Would they have food on the table? Would they have the electricity to put on that light bulb? This is a country that is just starting to grow, a country that is basically going through its own industrial revolution. You know, go back a hundred years in the United States - the conditions that we have today are not the way they were then. You know, these people were born into this lifestyle as well. It's not like they were living in palaces and came to this. I feel that I have a moral responsibility to these people. For a lot of them, they're seeing the conditions improve, not deteriorate.
It's 6 a.m. just outside the gates of the Free Zone. Busses are swooping in and out, they're disgorging the tens of thousands of workers who are about to start another day on the bluejeans assembly lines. There's a massive stream of men and women stretching as far as you can see. They're jammed shoulder to shoulder, they're shuffling through the gates toward the factories... and they're almost silent. Just about the only voices you hear are the children hawking tamales.Suddenly, a woman tugs on my sleeve. We had met the week before at the daycare center, she'd been working at Chentex. But she says the manager called her to his office and gave her one of those forms denouncing the union ... and when she refused to sign it, he fired her. Now she's starting a new job at another factory, for 30 percent less money. She says sometimes, she fantasizes what it'd be like to get the perfect job and earn lots of money.
Woman: I dreamed once that I had my house and I would like to have all the things that I've wished for. You know, like a TV for my children - they love to watch cartoons. Ummm. I'd like a fan ... a bed ... a table ... those things that I've always wished for.Just a couple of weeks ago, labor leaders in the United States announced that they've decided to back the union battles in Nicaragua. They see them as a symbol of what's coming next in the global economy. They're going to send money to the blue jeans unions, along with strategic advice. Meanwhile, owners of the Taiwanese consortium have announced that they've changed their plans. A few months ago, they declared that they were going to shut down their factories in Nicaragua this summer and move to another country; they didn't want any labor problems. But now that they've managed to neutralize the union, they've decided to stay.