Textile companies that make clothing for transnational brands in El Salvador are accused of forging alliances with gang members to make death threats against workers and break up their unions, according to employees who talked to IPS and to international organisations.
Workers at maquila or maquiladora plants – which import materials and equipment duty-free for assembly or manufacturing for re-export – speaking on condition of anonymity said that since 2012 the threats have escalated, as part of the generalised climate of violence in this Central American country.
“They would call me on the phone and tell me to quit the union, to stop being a trouble-maker,” one worker at the LD El Salvador company in the San Marcos free trade zone, a complex of factories to the south of the Salvadoran capital, told IPS.
She has worked as a sewing machine operator since 2004 and belongs to the Sindicato de la Industria Textil Salvadoreña (SITS) textile industry union. Some 780 people work for LD El Salvador, a Korean company that produces garments for the firms Náutica and Walmart.
“They told me they were homeboys (gang members) and that if I didn’t quit the union my body would show up hanging from one of the trees outside the company,” she said.
She added that LD executives hired gang members to make sure the threats directly reached the workers who belong to SITS, on the factory premises.
The warnings have had a chilling effect, because only 60 of the 155 workers affiliated with the union are still members, she said. Many quit, scared of falling victim to the young gangs, organised crime groups known in Central America as “maras”, which are responsible for a large part of the murders every day in this impoverished country.
This is all implicitly approved of by American trade policy and of course by Walmart and the other developed world corporations contracting in El Salvador. Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership would double down on this global race to the bottom. Today is the 104th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. That fire happened in part because the Uprising of the 20,000, 2 years earlier, failed to force sweatshop owners to improve working conditions. One reason for that was that those sweatshops hired prostitutes to start fights with striking workers, giving the police an excuse to bust the heads of the strikers. Very little has changed except that American companies have shifted the nation of production away from the U.S. None of this will change until we create a global legal system that holds these corporations accountable for the actions of their suppliers, giving workers in El Salvador and other nations legal recourse in the national home of corporate origin to fight against these horrible things. Right now, unlike in 1909 and 1911, it’s all out of our sight. That has to change if we don’t want Walmart suppliers employing murderous gangs to keep wages low.