Guatemalan Women’s New World of Struggle

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

Jane Slaughter

“One thinks it’s better, working for a company, because there is a quitting time.”–Debora Guzmán, Guatemalan maquiladora worker

AS THE RICH countries shift more and more work to factories in the Third World, the women of those countries become, officially, proletarians. As garment and electronics companies set up in Asia, Central America and the Caribbean, women with little education but with an immense capacity for hard work are becoming integrated into the mainstream of the world economy, directly tied to international capital.

In many ways–both on a world historic scale and, for many, on the personal level–these new jobs are a step up for women. Their eighteen-hour days carrying water, caring for children, searching for firewood, cooking tortillas, scrubbing clothes–whether for their own families or for their richer neighbors–have always been considered marginal by politicians, economists and the IMF. Now they become actors in the world economy, with the opportunity to struggle against big capital. And they have some cash in their pockets.

On the other hand, of course, these new jobs are pretty shitty–low-paid and unhealthy–and women must do them on top of their other work. Their new status as factory workers adds another category of oppression to these women’s already full plate.

But the new workers don’t want to lose these shitty jobs–their demand is not “maquilas out!” In Guatemala, some of them are forming unions, at great risk, to make their new jobs livable.

The Maquila Explosion

A maquiladora is a factory that produces, by law, solely for export. Materials, such as cloth, are imported into the poor country; factory workers assemble or stitch the parts together; the finished product is then exported.

In Guatemala, almost all the maquilas produce clothing for sale in the United States. Customers include J.C. Penney, Sears, Montgomery Ward, The Gap, Walmart and KMart; brand names include Phillips-Van Heusen, Levi and Liz Claiborne, among many others.

Maquilas have grown so fast in the last five years that clothing exports are now the country’s fourth largest source of foreign exchange, after the traditional coffee, sugar and tourism. About 70,000 workers (perhaps more–no one knows the exact number), mostly women, work in about 500 plants, sewing shirts, dresses, shorts and pants. About half this production, in the larger factories, comes from plants owned by Korean investors. The rest are U.S.- or Guatemalan-owned.

In a brochure (in English), the maquila owners association GEXPRONT lists the advantages to clothing manufacturers of locating in Guatemala. These include:

* The salary levels are the lowest in the area.

* The labor laws are reasonable.

* The country is beautiful and spring lasts year-round.

To maintain these advantages, the maquila owners are ruthless, and they have the support of the Guatemalan government. Workers’ efforts to unionize are often met by a plant closing, sometimes by violence. In a 1990 interview, the former Korean ambassador said that the Korean and Guatemalan governments had a “special understanding” that unions would not be permitted in Korean factories.

Explains Hector Godinez of the General Central of Guatemalan Workers union federation, “The Labor Minister in several interviews has said `We thank these gentlemen for bringing their factories here.'”

GEXPRONT declares that, through maquilas, Guatemala can develop its economy rapidly, becoming a “Central American Jaguar” modeled on the “Four Asian Tigers” (Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore). But there’s a hitch: the “investment” required to make clothing consists of sewing machines and irons. All the maquilas add to the Guatemalan economy is the workers’ extremely low wages.

Working Conditions

The factories are often converted warehouses, hot, lacking ventilation. Sanitary services are often poor, and cafeterias nonexistent. The minimum wage is $2.80 a day, with a required bonus of forty-two cents. Some plants, however, pay as little as $1.40-1.75.

A large proportion of the work force is under 18. Although, legally, minors are supposed to work no more than seven hours per day, in practice they work the same as adults. Though illegal, forced overtime is the norm. In AVANCSO’s survey of fifteen maquilas, the average workday was ten hours;the majority worked Saturdays.

Since the maquilas operate under contract deadlines with American retailers, employers require workers to stay till a particular shipment is completed. It is not unusual for workers to work till dawn (velar), and then return for their regular shift two hours later. Some workers report being locked in by armed guards.

One worker described a velada: “We came in at 7:30 a.m. [Friday], at noon we had a half-hour break for lunch, then at six they would give us a meal of beans, tortillas, and a bit of chicken. At midnight we had another 10-minute break and at four in the morning, if we had reached our quotas, we could leave. Otherwise we worked until our shift started again at 7:30 Saturday morning.

Of course, many workers welcome the overtime, because, as one said, “Just a regular day’s salary wouldn’t be enough to meet our needs.”

Workers in many plants report being timed and harassed when they go to the john. At L&L Modas outside Guatemala City, for example, there are no breaks during the work day, only a lunch period. According to the head of personnel, when there were breaks, in the past, the workers abused them.

A sign warns, “It is strictly forbidden to stand talking in the toilet area and for there to be more than two persons.” Another sign by the toilets advises, “Pour water in so they don’t smell.”

It is in the Korean-owned maquilas that workers have the most serious complaints of mistreatment. Many owners refuse to pay into the legally-required government health care system, making their workers ineligible for treatment. And the factories are often behind on their pay, by as much as two weeks.

But the most common grievance is that supervisors hit the workers and yell at them. L&L’s chief of personnel says that this is why the workers there formed a union. “It’s hard for the Koreans to comply with the laws because of their ideology,” he explained. “They are demanding; they want you to work fast.”

Despite these conditions, neither ordinary workers nor union activists want the maquilas to leave. Rosa Maria Wantland of the union federation FESTRAS says, “We don’t want the maquilas to close–it’s 90,000 jobs for compa<164>eras.”

The maquilas are providing at least some salary–and some independence–for thousands of young women. Many worked previously as domestics, or alongside their mothers in the home.

L&L union member Debora Guzm<160>n points out, “One thinks it’s better, because when you’re working for a company, there is a quitting time. In a private house, when they give you tasks to do, you might be there till nine at night doing them.”

Of course, with enforced veladas, the official quitting time can be moot in a factory too. The difference is that in a maquila, you are not isolated, dealing with one se<164>ora. Just as, in the early nineteenth century, the Yankee farm girls of New England flocked to the new textile mills in the cities–despite the horrific working conditions–so for thousands of Guatemalan girls and women, the maquilas are an opportunity to get out in the world and work for pay.

Violent Repression

It is safer to be a Guatemalan union activist today than it was in the early 1980s, when the labor movement lost hundreds of leaders and members to death squads sponsored by employers, the army, or both. But in 1994 and 1995, kidnappings, death threats, and beatings of Guatemalan unionists rose alarmingly, and the maquila sector saw its
first murder.

* In September, 1994 the seven-person executive committee of the union at the Marissa maquila was abducted, taken to a nearby plantation, and threatened with death if its members did not resign. Two hundred union supporters were fired, and the union was destroyed. Marissa is owned by New York-based GHR Industries.

* In March, 1995 Yovany Gomez was disappeared, beaten to death, and thrown into a ravine. Gomez had been leading a struggle to get an illegally closed maquila to settle back pay claims.

* In May, 1995 Flor de Maria Salguero was taken off a bus at gunpoint, drugged, taken to a house, beaten and raped. Salguero works for the union federation FESTRAS, and had been advising some workers at the Juana Modas factory.

Earlier, Salguero had helped a group of girls, 12 to 17 years old, to get severance pay after they quit Juana Modas because of constant sexual harassment from the factory owner. Owner Grek Sung Bang had the habit of calling them into his office to suggest they fit him with condoms.

At a meeting with the workers, Grek told Salguero that what she needed was <169>a little present.<170> Threatening phone calls followed, and then the abduction.

The Guatemalan authorities conducted no serious investigation of these or the other violent acts against maquila unionists. The government has made it clear it will do nothing–such as enforcing labor laws–to discourage maquila investment. The Labor Code is actually quite good, on paper, but interminable delays and corruption make it almost a
dead letter.

Workers tell of government labor inspectors who arrive to investigate a complaint and leave with their briefcases bulging with sportswear. In the case of Grek Sung Bang, a labor inspector ruled that Grek was just trying to provide his employees with sex education.

U.S. Retailers

When confronted with this information about conditions in their Guatemalan contractors, how do J.C. Penney, Sears and other American corporations respond?

“U.S. retailers have put out to the media codes of conduct that supposedly govern the behavior of their suppliers,” says Stephen Coats of the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project (US/GLEP). “But none of the major retailers really monitor their codes.”

“When we’ve contacted them about violations by their suppliers, they simply ask the supplier, ‘Have you done wrong?’ The accused always claim their innocence, and then the retailer tells us, `We’ve investigated the allegation and found no evidence of wrongdoing.’

“Nevertheless, suppliers who receive a phone call or a letter from a Walmart or a Sears about reports of violations often take steps to end the violations, even while denying that they happened.”

In 1992, US/GLEP’s pressure was one ingredient in a successful campaign against Phillips-Van Heusen, the U.S.-owned shirtmaker. The company was trying to bust the union in its directly-owned maquila; one union leader was shot and visited at home by strangers claiming to be her co-workers.

US/GLEP organized unionists and Central America activists in many cities to leaflet stores carrying PVH shirts, informing shoppers of the actions of PVH management in Guatemala. At the same time, the Guatemalan government was also feeling the heat from US/GLEP about its trading privileges with the U.S. (its “GSP” status, explained below).

As a result, the Labor Ministry recognized the union at PVH–the first maquila union to be recognized in six years. And PVH management finally acknowledged the union’s existence, agreeing to add bathrooms and a cafeteria, ventilation, and school supplies for workers’ children, and to stop firing union members and making death threats against them.

U.S. Government’s Role

The U.S. government’s official policy is to promote worker rights in Guatemala. This is part of its broader plan to pressure Guatemala to join the roster of “civilized nations”–to negotiate an end to the thirty-year war with the guerrilla opposition and put a stop to the army’s death squads.

Plans are to extend NAFTA to Central America, and investors–taken by surprise by the upheaval in Mexico–demand stability. Thus the U.S. government has been somewhat responsive to American supporters of Guatemalan workers when they have demanded an end to the violence.

Under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) legislation, Guatemala enjoys duty-free treatment of many of its exports to the United States–and the U.S. market is Guatemala’s most important. A special clause within GSP states that if countries under investigation for worker rights abuses do not make substantial progress, GSP privileges can be terminated.

Supporters of Guatemalan unions, including US/ GLEP, the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, the UNITE union, and the United Electrical Workers (UE) have used the worker rights clause to pressure U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor.

Because of their efforts, since 1992 the U.S. government has kept Guatemala’s GSP status “under review,” a sort of probation. The Guatemalan government is required to show progress by the end of each review period–but progress, except on paper, has not been forthcoming. Because of continuing pressure–and despite vigorous lobbying by the Guatemalan government–the “review” has been extended several times, with the support of the Guatemalan labor movement.

On a November, 1995 trip to Guatemala, USTR officials told business and government leaders that the review had gone on long enough. If progress was not evident within six months, either the review would be lifted or GSP benefits would be terminated. Apparently, in looking to the 1996 elections the Clinton administration wants something to point to as evidence that it takes seriously the workers’ rights provisions in its trade agreements.

Portable Production

The GSP threat, however, has as yet had little or no effect on maquila owners, who remain intransigent when faced with union organizing. Only five maquila unions exist at all, and none has a contract. At one, INEXPORT, the owner is threatening to shut down. Half a dozen other maquilas where workers have started unions have already closed.

In fact, the highly portable nature of the maquilas is one of employers’ greatest weapons. Closing down and setting up elsewhere under another name are standard operating procedure, as are threats to move to Mexico. At this point, the existing union federations lack the strength to mount an industry-wide organizing campaign, responding instead to requests for help as they come up.

What You Can Do

To contact Guatemalan maquila unionists, write to Julio Coj, UNSITRAGUA, 11 Calle 8-14, Zona 1, Guatemala City. Phone 011 502 2 22801 ext. 55. Fax, preferably in Spanish, to 011 502 2 51 41 56.

At this point the maquila union closest to achieving a contract is UNSITRAGUA’s affiliate at L&L, which makes flannel shirts for Montgomery Ward. Getting a contract there would set an example for the rest of the maquila sector–especially after the violence experienced by Debora Guzman.

Write to the Korean Ambassador, asking him to urge Korean maquila owners to respect worker rights, especially the right to negotiate a contract at L&L. Jae-Hwan Kim, Avenida La Reforma 1-50, Zona 9, Guatemala City. Fax 011 502 2 34 55 17.

Then write to L&L’s owner, Mr. Lee, L&L Modas, Callejon El Silencio 5-451, Canton San Lorenzo, Amatitlan, Guatemala, indicating how positive it will be to see a contract at L&L.

For information on future actions in support of Guatemalan workers, or to receive a newsletter, contact the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project, P.O. Box 268-290, Chicago, IL 60626; phone 312/262-6502; fax 312/ 262-6602. E-mail:

In California, contact California Trade Unionists in Support of Guatemalan Labor, (510) 869-2270.


Interviews with Guatemalan unionists and US/GLEP staff; documentation and correspondence from US/GLEP; Maquilas in Guatemala: Ladder to Development or Over-Exploitation?, Centro Exterior de Reportes Informativos Sobre Guatemala; El Significado de la Maquila en Guatemala, AVANCSO (Association for the Advancement of the Social Sciences in Guatemala); “Guatemala’s Maquila Industry,” Bay Area Trade Unionists in Support of Guatemalan Labor; plant tour, L&L Modas.

ATC 61, March-April 1996