Globalization and the mobility of capital have forced the Latin American labor movement to work on an international level and incorporate many new actors in the struggle for labor rights. The shift toward transnational coordination in the labor movement has achieved important victories in making large apparel companies responsible for workers in their supplier chains. While this transnational coordination has often been effective in achieving higher labor standards and curtailing human rights violations in maquila factories or factories in free trade zones, it is frequently complicated by competing motivations and conflicting interests, which can limit the effects of joint action.
In Central America there are many examples of transnational cooperation successfully forcing large brand-name companies to stop human rights violations in their suppliers’ factories. Mandarin, Do All, Hang Chan, and Amitex are only some of the factories in El Salvador where, after a mass dismissal for union discrimination, famous brands like The Gap, Liz Claiborne, and Phillips Van Heusen, among others, called on their supplier to correct these violations. In all of these cases, labor and human rights organizations in Central America worked together with activists from Canada, the United States, and Europe to force the brand-name company to act.
The organization I work with, Independent Monitoring Group (GMIES), is a Salvadoran group that monitors labor conditions in El Salvador. It was formed in 1996 with the mission to monitor and record labor abuses in maquila factories. The independent monitoring of labor conditions is often the result of the joint action of national and international actors working to pressure the national government, contractors, brand-name companies, and consumers to address labor rights violations. By auditing and releasing public reports, independent monitoring groups have contributed to resolving serious violations of labor rights, such as excessive working hours, forced overtime, sexual harassment, and lack of freedom of association. While this shift toward more transnational coordination in the labor movement has allowed labor groups in developing countries more access to factories, more ability to monitor labor conditions on-site, and more immediate results in labor disputes, it has also created tensions between groups, limited the autonomy of local groups, and left some workers behind.
Some of these tensions can be seen in the relationships between Northern and Southern labor groups. Labor activism around maquila factories often involves relocating the sphere of action and building transnational alliances, which allow workers to reach consumers in the North. Consumer pressure is essential to persuading apparel companies to act responsibly. However, these alliances are not free of difficulties. The geographic segmentation of production has put workers from the North at a disadvantage. When some of their jobs were relocated to the South, Northern activists initially reacted with a protectionist line. In the early 1990s, many American organizations publicized bad labor conditions in the South and called for consumers to buy only products made in the United States. Recently, their attitudes and tactics have been changing as it appears almost impossible to make these jobs come back to the United States. Some of these organizations are starting to recognize that, even if factories will not come back to the United States, their support for workers in the South could improve labor conditions in both the North and the South. However, it is likely that some Northern activists will continue a protectionist stance, since organizations based in the North have their own political interests. On March 9, 2002, the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica quoted a U.S. union representative who argued that, since NAFTA was signed, the U.S. textile and apparel industry had lost 450,000 jobs. The U.S. unionist predicted that her union would work to stop more jobs from leaving the United States.
American activists like this one are willing to contribute to the cause of workers in the South only when it suits their own needs. This can be problematic when workers in the South want to launch a campaign around issues that are not in the direct interests of Northern activists. (Activists in the United States often target a couple of brand-name companies for abuses committed by their suppliers but abuses that occur in the factories of other brands are overlooked.) In this transnational movement, where solidarity is still possible, activists in the South are not the ones defining the agenda.
Another change in the labor movement is the participation of national and foreign NGOs who typically have not been involved in labor-related activities. Among these NGOs, women’s rights organizations and human rights groups are the most active. Women’s organizations have begun to defend labor rights using alternative strategies for organizing women maquila workers. Emphasis has been placed on women’s rights and situations that are not traditional labor union grievances such as maternity benefits, sexual harassment, child labor, women’s empowerment within the organizations, and double shifts of female workers. Human rights groups put labor violations into the framework of human rights and translate those abuses into a more provocative language that identifies workers as victims of human rights violations in order to bring more attention to their problems.
The relationships between these actors are often rather contentious. Unions complain that NGOs are infringing upon their work and trying to replace the union as the workers’ representative. Some unions emphasize that unlike union leaders, these organizations are not elected by the workers. NGOs, especially women’s NGOs, maintain that they highlight demands specific to their constituencies—usually demands the unions have not taken into account.
Since the mid-1990s, the consuming public has become involved in the struggle for workers’ rights— a shift that has been both positive and problematic. Campaigns that connect brand names to labor rights grant a political value to the act of purchasing and demonstrate the power that consumers can have in defending workers in the South. The problem with this type of advocacy is that the consuming public only gets information about brand-name companies that are targeted by labor rights groups. Many other companies that commit abuses are never targeted and their abuses go unnoticed.
The mobility of capital and the many transnational strategies that are now undertaken to defend workers’ rights do not necessarily target the state. Cases are more quickly resolved through the intervention of brand-name companies that contract the factory than through direct state action. While this model manages to endow transnational companies with responsibilities and pressures them to guarantee the conditions of the workers who make their products (an important breakthrough), this model provides little opportunity for workers who are not employed by the production chains of multinational corporations and it has little effect on the other factories operating within the country that are oriented to the local or regional market.
Developing countries lack institutional frameworks and our governments lack seriousness in confronting the challenges their people face. This does not leave many alternatives to the type of vulnerable advocacy arrangements described above. Even if some transnational actions are successful, the challenge continues to be the same for labor organizations in the South: to strengthen the state in such a way that it can safeguard working citizens’ rights.