In May 1999, I participated in a four-day conference hosted by the Nicaraguan Maria Elena Cuadra Movement of Working and Unemployed Women (MEC), one of the largest and most active feminist labor rights organizations in Central America. The conference was held in Managua, Nicaragua, with women representing six women's groups and two unions from Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Mirroring a similar initiative that had been carried out the previous year by women's groups in Asia, the participants evaluated the potential of codes of conduct for promoting greater respect for the rights of women maquila workers. (Maquila is short for maquiladora—a foreign-owned factory allowed to import components and raw materials duty-free and re-export the finished product.) They came together to share the results of research on women maquila workers in their home countries, specifically what workers know about codes of conduct and whether they believe codes might be useful tools for improving working conditions and wages.
Building on their research results, conference participants examined the content of codes from the perspective of women workers. Rather than start from the terms of existing codes, they identified a list of priority issues that should be addressed in any code. The resulting 12-point program included provisions for a living wage, the prohibition of discrimination, special protections for pregnant workers, improved health and safety practices, and respect for local law and international labor standards, such as the right to organize.
The researchers identified two top priorities for workers: wages and job security. The comments of Mayra Jimenez, the secretary-general of FUTRAZONA, a union organizing in the Dominican Republic’s free trade zones, resonated deeply with other participants: "Even if we earn the legal national minimum wage, we don't make enough to feed ourselves, let alone our families." The participants agreed that, given current wage levels, women need to work overtime to survive. What workers objected to was being forced to work overtime whenever their employers decide that they are needed. Workers complained that supervisors usually don't tell them until the end of the day that they have to stay and work overtime, which gives them no opportunity to make other arrangements for their children.
Jacqueline Garcia, also of FUTRAZONA, described how in her factory demand varies widely, from periods in which workers are forced to labor intensively for long hours, to days with no work at all. On slow days, she said, workers can't make even their base wage. "And managers make things worse by making piece rates dependent on the pace of production of the whole team," she explained. "It doesn't matter how many bra brooches I sew in an hour, my pay depends on the final output of finished bras. In order not to have to pay top rates, management combines experienced and new workers on the same line."
Women also want an end to the use of financial (and other) punishments for minor “offenses.” According to Rosa Medina, who makes pants in a Korean-owned maquila in Guatemala, workers are regularly docked pay for arriving even five minutes late: "The managers hit us and then dock our pay, which oftentimes we have to wait an extra week or two to receive. When we finally get our pay, we never know how it has been calculated, because it comes in cash with no pay slip."
A MEC representative also emphasized that maquila workers in Nicaragua do not support boycotts or any other strategy that will put their jobs at risk. In a country with over 60 percent unemployment, maquila jobs are prized. To address employment security, codes should contain a commitment from companies at the top of the subcontracting pyramid (major retailers and brand-name companies such as Nike, the Gap, and Levi Strauss) not to "take flight from one day to the next" whenever workers demand their rights and improved wages. The bottom line for the conference participants was that codes of conduct should protect workers’ jobs, not make them more vulnerable.
The research confirmed, however, what many of the groups already suspected—that the vast majority of maquila workers still know very little about codes of conduct. Of over 500 workers interviewed in six countries, only one worker thought that perhaps there was a code operating in her factory. A few realized through the workshops that the "English diplomas" on the walls were probably codes of conduct. Codes of conduct will not be successful unless workers are knowledgeable about employee rights and employer obligations contained therein, and how workers can use these codes as tools to defend their rights.
The Central American Code of Ethics is one of the few examples of a code of conduct that was developed from the ground up. While it has yet to be effectively enforced, this code was developed with the active participation of the workers it supports, incorporates their concerns (as expressed at the MEC workshop), and educates them of their rights. The code resulted from a 1997 campaign called Empleo sí, pero con dignidad (Jobs, Yes, but Jobs with Dignity). Launched by the MEC and women's groups in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, the campaign consisted of a massive lobbying and media effort in Nicaragua and the gathering of 30,000 signatures for a petition. Nicaraguan Minister of Labor Wilfredo Navarro signed the code on February 1, 1998, and the owners of Nicaragua’s 23 maquiladoras endorsed it the following day. Unfortunately, such codes are rare. Top-down company codes of conduct developed and adopted by large retailers and brand-name apparel giants are still much more prevalent.
On a final note, conference participants were concerned that current Northern code developments about which they know very little (because the discussions are usually held in English) will have an unknown impact on their lives. Participants were aware of disagreements between labor unions and NGOs involved in the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP) in the United States but were unclear about the main issues dividing them. There is no question that groups such as MEC want to continue to collaborate with groups in the North on campaigns to improve conditions in the maquilas. But the terms of solidarity are clearly becoming more complex as NGOs and unions in both the North and South grapple with how best to support workers’ efforts to improve working conditions without jeopardizing jobs. Before solidarity campaigns are initiated in the North, agreement must be reached with the affected groups in the South on demands and strategies.