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U.S. Stylish Clothing Manufactured at Slave Wages

For several years we have printed in these pages that the average wage in Honduras was $.37 per hour. This included companies (maquiladoras) owned by corporations from First World countries such as the United States. Because of the low wages paid by these companies, people are forced to immigrate to the United States and other countries.

These reports were reaffirmed when the same news about Central America was published in the July 23 and 24 editions of the New York Times in articles by Bob Herbert.

The next time you pick up a safari jacket at Banana Republic, a pair of jeans at the Gap, or an Eddie Bauer T-shirt, Herbert reminds us, give a moment’s thought to the women like Claudia Molina and Judith Viera, teenagers who have had to work under extremely cruel conditions to produce much of this clothing.

Ms. Molina’s last job was with Orion apparel, a Korean-based plant in Honduras. They produce shirts for Gitano, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom. Ms. Molina was paid $.38 an hour in a sweatshop that employs girls starting at 14 years of age, according to the Times.

The work and the work schedule at Orion take one back to the Industrial Revolution in England with chimney sweeps, children being tied to their machines and parents who never saw their children because of long hours–all material for a new Charles Dickens.

According to Herbert, when business is good and the big orders from the American companies roll in, “the schedule changes to a 15-hour shift: 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; and Saturday is an incredibly long shift of 22 1/2 hour shift from 7:30 a.m. Saturday to 6:30 a.m. Sunday.

These youths are transported by school buses (probably bus rejects from the U.S.), but instead of taking the teens to school they take them to the factory where there are strict rules: talking is forbidden, bathroom visits limited to two a day and requests for medical attention are discouraged.

These free trade zones have been a bonanza for U.S. companies, but the Times indicates that the human toll they are taking is unconscionable. Since 1980 the U.S. lost over a half million textile and apparel jobs, And the maquiladora workers are paid so low that they don’t have enough to eat or pay their rent (thus forced to immigrate).

These hundreds of thousands of very young (and mostly female) factory workers in Central America who earn next to nothing and have to live in squalor have been a tremendous boon to company executives who may earn two million a year, according to Herbert. One example is Donald Fisher, the chief executive of the Gap and Banana Republic Empire, who paid himself more than $2 million last year.

The readers of the Times reacted quickly. A professor from Princeton asked us to imagine the scenario: the Gap posts a sign in its store windows announcing that the Gap’s prices are higher than the competition’s because the Gap pays the maquiladoras a humane $2.00 an hour rather than the $.56 paid in El Salvador. (Recent ads in Salvadoran papers entice maquiladora owners with salaries as low as $.38.)

The Houston Catholic Worker (Casa Juan Diego) thinks that this is the way to stop immigration: by paying a living wage–even double $.58 in El Salvador or double $.38 in Honduras.

This plan would be much less expensive than President Clinton’s plans or those of Congress for stopping immigrants.

We think that companies like the Gap, J. C. Penney, Levi Strauss, those who work for them, as well as those who shop there and their stockholders must take into consideration that workers in these clothing factories earn less than one-fifth of the amount needed to meet the minimum cost of living requirements.

Stockholders who are Catholic, Protestant or Jewish have plenty of backing from their Bible and their churches to insist that their companies pay a living wage.

The Editors have a hard time understanding how people who are receiving great earnings from their stock in these companies can receive the Eucharist in good faith.

Let us pray for each other.

And if you find it in your heart to take some action to inform the companies who buy these plants’ clothing that you want them to stop mistreating their employees and support unions for the workers, write or phone the following:

James E. Osterreicher, CEO, J. C. Penney, 6501 Legacy Drive, Plano,
TX 75204-3698, Phone (214) 431-1000; Donald G. Fisher, CEO; The Gap, One Harrison Street, San Francisco, CA 94105, Phone (415) 952-4400; and John J. Shea, CEO, Spiegel, Inc. (Eddie Bauer), 3500 Lacey Road, Downers Grove, IL 60515, Phone (708) 986-8800.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 6, Sept.-Oct. 1995.