El Salvador: Las Hermosas Factory Struggle – Background

[Editors’ note: Yesterday CISPES released an action alert concerning the struggle of workers at Las Hermosas maquila in El Salvador. We invited them to give us a background on the situation of women workers, who make up the majority of workers and of leaders in this struggle. They sent us the report below. Thanks to CISPES for its work, to Estelle Jamira Ramirez, and to the women workers at Las Hermosas, and do go to http://cispes.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=566&Itemid=27  for the action alert and things you can do in support.]

Beginning in 2005, a group of women workers at the Las Hermosas maquila, a factory that formerly produced university clothing for Nike, Adidas, and Russell, began to organize to change unjust working conditions, including forced overtime, verbal and sexual harassment, and wage violations. Immediately after the workers began to organize, the factory owner closed the factory, leaving over 60 worker organizers unemployed, blacklisted from neighboring maquilas, and owed over $825,000. This money accounts for legally-due severance pay, salaries, overtime, two years of vacation pay, bonus pay, disability pay, and compensation for maternity leave, as well as deductions that were taken from our paychecks for housing, bank credits, health care contributions, and pension funds. 

Since then, a determined group of 63 women workers have organized protests, participated in international speaking tours, and joined students in the US to pressure Adidas, Russell, Nike and the Salvadoran government to comply with Salvadoran labor law, to ensure payment of the outstanding wages, overtime payments and severance pay, and to respect the right to organize in a union. Despite international pressure, the brands have ignored these codes, refusing to compensate the Las Hermosas workers the money that they unjustly deducted from their paychecks. 

While the case has fallen from international attention, the workers are continuing to fight the factory owner in the Salvadoran court system for violations of Salvadoran labor law. Currently, the Las Hermosas organizers and allied organizations are preparing a socio-economic survey to compare the current living situations of the Las Hermosas workers with their economic and social experience prior to the factory´s closure.

Testimony from Estella Jamira Ramirez, Former Las Hermosas Factory Workers

On February 2005, a group of 10 women workers sought to organize. In November, 2003 the factory Hermosa had cut wages. Even before that conditions had been precarious. There were long hours. There was maltreatment physically and verbally. There were frequent incidents of sexual assault by the owner’s nephews and an open environment for the supervisors to do the same thing. There was little access to medical care. There was a clinic in the factory but the doctor would not allow us to get check-ups at the Social Security Hospital. Workers did not generally get care at the Social Security hospital. They punished pregnant workers saying that they were going to the bathroom more frequently, vomiting and therefore their production had fallen. Additionally, the company would take pregnant workers out and segregate them to work 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The company would only bring them out when there were foreign visitors. 

One day, one of the workers who had been there for 9 years mentioned a union and was fired immediately. After November 19, they began to not even pay our salary. They insisted that we work Saturday and Sunday and did not pay us extra. In 2004, the Social Security Administration cut gynecological, neurological, and optical treatment. So the women who were pregnant could not go to that hospital and had to go to the national hospital, where they had to pay the expenses themselves. We would come to work but did not have enough money to eat. At our rest periods we would talk about what were we going to do.

In the summer of 2004, the majority of workers quit. Out of 600 workers, 250 stayed. These workers left with a promise that the owner would pay the salary, overtime and vacation that was owed. But to this time, none of those have been paid. In 2005, we were in deep debt. The company was taking out money from workers’ checks to pay their mortgages but was not paying their mortgages. Many were evicted including Norma. We went to FENASTRAS, the union that represented us.  

After the Peace Accords, the government had been able to buy off the heads of these unions. They organized us but then sold us out and negotiated with the owner of the factory. We had legal standing that we were the union. We made our demands against the company with the ministry of labor. We denounced all the things that Hermosa owed us and all the violations that had occurred. They scheduled two appointments but it was hard to get the company to come to them. It wasn’t until the last one that the company came. 

The Minister of Labor said that the company would have a month to pay us. In the same week, the company took out all of the materials from the factory. The owner had another maquila set up north of San Salvador. He completely closed the factory. On May 11, we stopped our work and took control of the factory. We were 14 women and one man. We divided into two groups. One went to the gates of the factory. The other went to the offices and began to demonstrate there. We were few people but very courageous. The police came. We said we are the ones who work this factory we decide who comes and leaves and at this moment nobody leaves. The police began to shake and said OK you run the factory just give me the key. 

We did everything so quickly and we took hold of the locks and we said to the women “Come and unite with us this man is trying to close the factory and has not complied with the agreement.” At this moment there was a big group of women – 64 women and seven men. The police came to kick us out and they accused us of taking private property. But we took the locks and put them in our pockets so they couldn’t see them. They said we were guerrillas and we kept screaming “We want them to pay us.” 

They went into their offices. There was a group that didn’t support us that told the police to take us out of there. We spoke to the police and said we haven’t done anything and there were no locks to begin with and what would you do if your children had nothing to eat. He finally left. We said to the owner “From this moment we are on strike and we are not going to work until you pay us.”

For a month, we cooked there, slept on the floor and had a committee to find resources. After a month the company asked for certification of the strike as a legal strike. The government ruled that the strike was not legal and ordered us back to work on June 19. We had to leave. We couldn’t risk going to jail for violating the order. They kicked us out but we stayed out on the street in front of the factory for five months. The owner hired a woman to follow us every day. FENASTRAS was saying that you already negotiated with the company. At first it didn’t matter, we were out on the streets making a huge ruckus. But we couldn’t get the press to cover us. From there, we started to look for other organizations and that is how we found the STS. 

We met a friend who was a journalist who helped us write letters to different social organizations and unions. That is how we found out about different organizations. They invited us to participate in the closing of a street in front of the Minister of Labor. There were 15 of us. We were there screaming “Minister of Labor – we are starving in the streets and you caused us to be starving in the street.” We saw a woman with green eyes. We came up to her and said “Are you here helping us?” She said “Why are you protesting?” We said “Because the Department of Labor doesn’t do anything for the workers.”  She was interested and went to look at the protest in front of the factory She asked a lot of questions about the brands we made. She came back with two compañeros – two real big guys. They did a whole video of us. They took us to eat at Mr. Donut which was nice because we hadn’t eaten for days. They said they were going to take our demands to Adidas which was really responsible.

They gave us $125 for food but asked for a receipt to show that we received the money. We asked what organizations they were with and they said Christian Romero in Germany and we said so you are not gringos. We felt a lot of fear because of the repression we had been through. When they asked us to sign the receipt, I thought “What if the owner had sent them to mess with us. We talked to them again on the phone and they said that Lauren from the Workers Rights Consortium was coming. This was the way our struggle moved to an international way. We continued marching in the streets but also had started judicial procedures.  The Germans helped us take the campaign internationally.

 Contact elsalvador@cispes.org for more information or call (202) 521-2510