Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 273 | Abril 2004



Sébaco’s Sweatshop: Dreams, Realities and Frustrations

They come full of dreams: a fixed wage, a chance to study, to live better... But time and reality in the maquila turn all their dreams to smoke.

Jon Ander Bilbao, Olga Rocha and Magdalena Mayorga

The only thing that makes maquilas different than the sweatshops producing for their home market in any country is that maquilas are offshore. Making use of a much cheaper labor force in the host country, they assemble imported pieces for re-export without paying duty in either direction—hence the term “free trade zone,” which Nicaraguans have converted into a synonym for a single maquila, or assembly plant. The maquila in the municipality of Sébaco, which is currently suffering deep economic crisis, is the only one established in rural Nicaragua so far. As a member of the Sébaco indigenous community put it, “Free trade zones are the only thing that will grow here, given the state of Nicaragua, of our economy, of our government and even of our communities.”

His analysis is as true as it is simple. For some years now, the lack of jobs has represented the most serious problem felt by the Nicaraguan population. National private enterprise and even the government are incapable of generating employment and are leaving everything, or almost everything, to the initiative of foreign investors. And most foreign investors see Nicaragua as little more than an attractive place to set up maquilas.

The advantages that the past three Nicaraguan governments have offered the free trade zone plants have been so attractive that maquilas now supply over a quarter of all the country’s job posts—thousands of direct and indirect jobs tht thus benefit thousands of families. Despite paying badly and frequently being abusive, these jobs are preventing an even greater wave of emigrants and helping stem the violence that the country’s economic stagnation might otherwise trigger. According to official data, more than 47,000 Nicaraguans were working in free trade zone plants in 2003, guaranteeing a fixed weekly or bimonthly wage that is often the only thing ensuring their families’ survival.

The biggest source of employment in Sébaco

We spent six months investigating a percentage of current and former Sébaco maquila workers and their families to get a better picture of the dynamic between the expectations and realities that revolve around a maquila.

With a population of some 30,000, Sébaco is the strategic intersection point of an imaginary geographic cross linking four central points of Nicaragua: Matagalpa to the northeast, Managua to the south, Estelí to the north and León to the west. Since 2000, it has also been home to the Presitex Corp., a Taiwanese textile maquila that specializes in producing jeans, currently employs some 2,000 people and is seen by the local population as the largest and most stable source of employment.

The crisis triggered by the fall of international coffee prices, which meant the end of thousands of temporary and some full-time jobs, stripped the coffee workers of the only work they knew. This also affected peasant subsistence farming, since many agricultural day laborers financed their own crops with what they earned on the coffee haciendas, thus guaranteeing their family the maize and beans that are the basis of the peasant diet. The unemployment, malnutrition and greater poverty generated by the coffee crisis further aggravated the years of governmental neglect in productive rural sectors that have had to struggle just to make ends meet with no financing or other support. To make matters worse, the yields from their small plots have been falling due to erosion, limited application of conservation and soil management techniques and overexploitation.

The structural and current situations are so critical that the arrival of the textile plant in 2000 sparked great dreams, particularly among the populations in the municipalities adjacent to Sébaco. Three years later, however, the factory has not expanded its installations or generated the jobs and production expected, in part due to constant labor conflicts and changes of supervisors, line bosses, directors and even the company president. In addition, Sébaco was unable to provide the projected work force because the city already had its own life and commercial independence. Today, over 60% of the workers come from outside the municipality.

The great dream: Working for a fixed wage

When Presitex began to remodel Bulgarian installations originally built for a promising agro-export industry during the revolutionary years, hopeful rumors began circulating in communities near and far: the abandoned buildings would become a huge factory, there would be lots of work, it would pay good wages, opportunities would multiply… As one former maquila worker described it, “Even before the factory’s inauguration, company people were feeding the rumor that they would pay good wages. Now we can see that that was only the first of many lies they told us.”

Many women believed the factory would change their lives by finally offering them a much dreamed of fixed bimonthly wage. They contrasted it with what the men earned as coffee workers, or what they themselves earned as domestic workers in Managua or other cities. And they were spurred on by the belief that they could turn that dream into reality. Most women went looking for work in the hope of fixing up the house, financing the crops on small family plots, paying for their children’s studies...
But soon enough, the new workers began to see that they could never make their dreams come true with the wages they were paid. Nonetheless, continuing to work in the plant did offer them some compensation: it was the surest way—the only one available, in fact—to guarantee a fixed income every 15 days. Be it ever so humble, it allowed them to survive. The alternative was beyond grim: total unemployment or ever scarcer temporary work in the area. “It’s true that the wages are barely enough to eat on and when payday comes I grab all the money they pay me and, well… The 300 pesos [at the time of the study 15 córdobas = $US1.00] they pay me every 15 days is nothing, but if I didn’t have it I don’t know what I’d do,” explained a young mother of two, who receives no support from their father and lives at home with ten relatives. The family scrapes by on her meager wage plus what her stepfather earns planting maize and beans and what the children’s grandmother gets raising pigs and hens to make nacatamales.

“Now I don’t spend even a day
away from my daughters”

Some 1,970 people were working at Presitex in February 2003, 90% of them women, 60% from rural areas, 45% single mothers and 66% between 18 and 30 years old.

The workers in the Sébaco plant can be divided into two main groups: those who have family responsibilities and those who don’t. Single mothers and separated women who provide for their children without help from the father abound in the first group. There are also some women who are either married or in established relationships and some male heads of family.

The main reason these women, especially the mothers, sought work in the new factory was to avoid leaving their children, their homes and their communities. Many previously worked as domestics, which forced them to go to another city, returning home only once a month. In addition to ensuring them a steady income, the factory allowed them to live at home.

This desire to “be at home” or “go back home” is explained by the great significance of the concept of home in Nicaragua, especially rural society; the profound feeling of family, which is very rarely just a nuclear family; and the value assigned to family coexistence. Home is the roof that covers you, the walls that sustain you and provide the moral support to raise your children and cope with the many difficulties that arise. According to one 24-year-old mother: “Even if I work in the factory all day long, it doesn’t matter, because I can go back home every evening and not be separated from my daughters even a single day.” Her mother supported her in that desire: “Before, when my daughter worked as a domestic in Managua, she had to leave her little girl and sometimes didn’t see her for a month. Then it was hard for her every time she came to visit and had to return, because her daughter was left sobbing. She was pregnant and was always telling me she didn’t want to be far away from us.”

“I want to make my own life”

Many of the single mothers from the factory that we talked to had never had a paid job before and had previously depended entirely on the economic and sometimes moral assistance of fathers, siblings and other close family members after being abandoned by their partners. For some, working in the free trade zone has meant an unimagined form of economic and personal independence. The maquila quite literally changed their life. Having their own money allows them to cover their own expenses, those of their children and often even those of their parents. And that is training them in an autonomy they had never even imagined.

The maquila helped 29-year-old single mother María Rosa move out of her mother’s home. She and her two children, an 8-year-old boy and a 2-year-old daughter, lived with her mother, her mother’s partner, a younger sister and a niece. When she started working in the maquila, she was the only person with a regular source of income, bringing 450 córdobas into the house every 15 days. She used that money to pay for the bus that took her from her community to the factory, buy the whole family’s basic food on credit and buy some clothes, shoes or cosmetics. “Before working there,” she explains, “I worked as a domestic in Managua. My mom always looked after the children for me and helped me when I had no work. But now I provide for my children and am even building my own little house. I’m doing that because I have lots of problems in my mom’s house. She’s upset that I’m moving out, but I’m thinking of continuing to help her. I need to live apart from her because she’s jealous and doesn’t want me to be with anyone, any suitor who might come around. But I want to build my own life and be able to buy my own stuff.” By the time we had finished our investigation, María Rosa and her two children had moved into their new house, built of adobe and sheet metal roofing, and she was still meeting her pledge to help her mother economically.

“I’ve learned to accept my situation”

Ramona is a separated mother with four children who lives some 65 kilometers from the plant. Her bimonthly wage of 680 córdobas, including the extras, represents the main income for a 13-person family. Her sister contributes another bimonthly income—200 córdobas—working as a domestic outside of the community and leaving her two small children back home. The third income is from the father, who does agricultural work when he can get it, but never earns a fixed amount.

Ramona married when she was 18 and had four children in 15 years of marriage. About three years ago she had enough of her husband’s infidelities and left him. After working as a domestic in Managua, she decided to try the free trade zone. After two years of intense work, she didn’t think that the wages received had significant changed her economy or permitted the family coexistence that she and her children longed for. To earn 680 córdobas she has to spend the whole week at a friend’s house in Sébaco, only returning home for a day and a half on the weekend. If she traveled the 65 kilometers home every night, she wouldn’t be able to work the overtime that bolsters her pay. Despite everything, she does all she can to keep that job, as she has no other real options either far away or closer to home. She consoles herself with religion: “I decided to accept Christ as my savior, I’ve learned to accept my situation. I only pray to God for a healthy family and the strength to work and have enough to feed them.”

Machista gender roles create resentment

Many women in an established relationship who work in the free trade zone do so because their husbands were forced into unemployment by the closure of the coffee processing plants and bankruptcy of the plantations. This has turned the tables and it isn’t easy on the couples.

Macho culture, which is more accentuated in rural areas, often makes men uncomfortable with this reversal of the traditional roles in which they are the providers and the women take care of their children and husband and the other domestic tasks. While women do support their husbands in agricultural tasks at the busiest times of the year, they always do so under his control. Now everything has changed: the women go out, return at night and have a new boss they have to obey for many hours of the day. Their husbands only get to be the boss for very brief moments.

Martina, a 24-year-old wife and mother of four who lives in conditions of extreme poverty, decided to apply for a job in the maquila. Her husband could only get work for a few days at a time and sometimes half a month would go by with nothing coming in at all. “I remember that sometimes we didn’t have as much as a mouthful of food to give the kids,” she said. “You’re not going to believe me, but we didn’t even have enough to buy them a piece of candy.”

Hired in the factory at the beginning of 2000, Martina was her family’s only provider for nine months. But while the hunger diminished, the problems with her husband mounted. There were daily arguments as he accused her of abandoning her obligations as a mother, being no good and having changed... The complaints and admonitions only grew when several of their children got sick and she couldn’t stay home to take care of them. If she had, the factory would have docked her a day and stripped her of her bonuses and incentives.
This created a dilemma for Martina: either put up with the constant griping from her husband or stay home and take the salary cuts; either tolerate the shouting or give up the money to pay the debts at the local grocery store so they could continue getting food on credit.

“It’s not right to neglect my husband for a job”

Martina says that in an attempt to calm her husband, she would get up at four in the morning so she could leave food prepared, everyone’s clothes washed and the house cleaned and tidy, as well as the school-aged children ready for school. Then, after nine hours in the factory, she would go back home to continue her household chores…and “fulfill her duties” to her husband. “I often refused to let him touch me because I was so tired from working all day,” she comments with embarrassment, “but he would get annoyed; he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t interested in him.” But all of Martina’s efforts came to naught. Her early morning departures and late night returns only made him angrier. Every day he charged that “you’re ignoring your obligations to me and my children! This work is taking the life out of you. I didn’t send you off to work! I can provide for you with the little I earn.” After thinking it over, she decided to resign the same week that her husband found fixed employment. Martina returned to her household chores.

Her relations with her husband improved, but the family’s economic crisis continued. “This is my work,” she explained, referring to her housekeeping, although there was a hint that she wasn’t really convinced. “He was right, because even though I’ve always wanted to work, it’s not right to neglect him and my family for a job.” Many other women like Martina have also abandoned their new work and their precarious economic independence to “save” their marriage, because they were educated to serve and obey others and never imagine that they have the right to their own plans and personal dreams.

“I wanted to help my husband”

In other cases, the woman’s family accepts her work because there’s no other choice: it’s their only chance. One former maquila worker recalled: “When Bencafé closed in Sébaco, my husband lost his job and thought about looking for one in the maquila. But they hire more women than men there, so I told him it would be better if I went and he could look elsewhere because it was easier for me to get work being a woman.”
Still other couples consider how beneficial it would be for the family to have two salaries. Many women, aware of the importance of their contribution to the family economy, have sought out the maquila as a way to complement the family income. As one ex-maquila worker explained, “Before, I did the household chores and my husband worked on his father’s land, but the rainy season hasn’t been so good in the last few years and we didn’t even recover what we invested. That’s why I went to look for work in the free trade zone, to help my husband with the food costs and to buy shoes and clothes for the kids.” Reality soon showed that her machine operator’s wage at the plant was barely enough to put food on the family table, although by really stretching it once in a while she could get those shoes and clothes that she dreamed of buying for her daughters.

“They paid us the same
when we were laborers”

Only 10% of the nearly two thousand Presitex workers are men. In many cases, they follow their partners or other female relatives or friends, whose new contacts in the plant provide them with information about the need for male personnel. It’s the women who orient them and encourage them to apply for jobs, and it’s through them that the men get hired. Most of these men have been forced to abandon agricultural activity. They anxiously seek work in the plant to have a fixed and stable income. As one told it: “My work as a day laborer was awful. The rainy season had been bad and my family was in really bad shape. Here you never know how much rain there will be, if you’re going to come out ahead or lose everything, so the factory is a relief: you get that little pay packet every couple of weeks.”

Some say that even though they had their own land to cultivate, they decided to go to the factory to guarantee more income than their harvests provided them. “I worked on my father’s land before going to the free trade zone,” explained one man. “We’d split the purchase of inputs for the crop. We planted onions, green peppers and tomatoes and then sold them in Managua or Masaya. We also planted beans and maize for the family, but as the rainy seasons kept getting worse, we couldn’t produce anything anymore. So I went to the maquila.”

Soon after starting work, many of them realized that the longed-for economic improvement of receiving a fixed wage just wasn’t happening. In the opinion of many, “the wages are just as low as when we worked in the field as laborers.” Nonetheless, a majority decided to stay because at least the work is more stable than that of a seasonal farm laborer. “They pay me almost the same, but the one good thing is that it comes semi-monthly, so I’ll stick it out as long as I can.”

Single men and women:
A clear gender difference

Single men and women frequently assume family responsibilities, even when they don’t have a family of their own to look after. This is especially true of women, who tend to demonstrate greater commitment to the lives and welfare of those who live with them. This gender difference is manifested in many ways. Many single working women dedicate over half of their wage to their relatives, while most single men spend almost everything on themselves: shoes, fashionable shirts, cigarettes and liquor, even a sound system to listen to “their” music.

The majority of the young single women we spoke with said they planned to leave the factory to continue studying, while the men tend to have no defined goal. They want to resolve the here and now, and aren’t very concerned about the future. Working is not a new experience for any of these young men and women. The bulk of them have worked from an early age as construction workers, shoe shiners, domestics in other people’s homes, day laborers, coffee pickers… Some of those we interviewed had already emigrated to Costa Rica or Guatemala in search of work. But the novelty for all of them in the free trade zone was the idea of having a fixed income to achieve some personal dream: to study or continue studying, to become independent, to buy some “luxury” items—those little things that young people like and have always been denied by their family’s poverty or even their fathers’ irresponsibility.

The only requisite is to crank out those jeans

A good 60% of the Presitex work force is between 18 and 30 years old. In fact, the factory’s management set the condition that only those between 18 and 35 need apply. Just a few people—section bosses and experienced security workers, for example—are over 35.

One element that encourages young men and women to look for work in the factory is the ease of getting hired: nothing is asked of them, not even minimum work experience with machines. Nor does their educational level represent an obstacle. As the work consists of just one routine, repetitive and mechanical operation, the only thing the free trade zone is looking for is cheap, unskilled laborers who are anxious to work and desperately need a job. All it cares about are the conditions that facilitate exploitation, the cranking out of lots and lots of jeans. In fact, the only thing that risks cancellation of the contract is when a worker doesn’t achieve a certain production quota after a few weeks of trial.

Some dare not even dream...

A good number of the workers interviewed had barely finished primary school due to the limitations of their rural communities, where schools often either lack the basic infrastructure and don’t have enough human resources to cover the demand for primary and intermediary education, or are too far away.

Many young women thus resign themselves to the idea that they won’t be able to study. “Not anymore, I’m too old,” said one. “It’d be embarrassing to be with those little kids. The only thing left for me now is to look for work, and the free trade zone is the only place they’ll hire me.” The maquila reinforces the apathy of those who think like her or declare that they don’t like school. It doesn’t encourage anyone to take up classes or go back to school; in fact it actively discourages it. All it does is offer a job that requires no education. And the work is so hard and exhausting that there’s no possibility of any other activity than rest and recuperation.

For others, the dreams go up in smoke

With the inauguration of the plant, many mothers were delighted by the possibility of their children working closer to their community so they wouldn’t have to leave or could at least live nearby. Some mothers even urged their daughters to leave other jobs further away and get a job in the maquila instead. Still others, mothers who were too poor to continue paying for their daughters’ education, encouraged them to leave school and try their luck in the factory so they could pay for their own education. “If my daughter had kept on studying,” said one mother, “we wouldn’t be able to eat, so she went to work in the free trade zone in order to keep on studying.”

Many young women are pushed into the maquila by the idea of going back to school or continuing technical or university studies, but they quickly learn the error of that dream. “I went looking for work,” recounted one young woman, “because when I got out of high school I wanted to keep studying and have a career, but my parents couldn’t spend any more. I thought I could do it with what I earned, but I haven’t been able to.” Although she dreamed of working as a teacher and giving classes in her local school, her only possibility was a job in the plant. “I thought I could pay for a computer course and study Saturdays. That’s what I thought, but…” The reality of the plant, which required her to work every Saturday, sent her dreams up in smoke.

Another young woman explained her dilemma as follows: “I want to keep studying next year, but that depends on the decision I make. If I keep working in the factory, I won’t be able to study at the same time, since this work is so tiring. I’d also only have Sundays to take courses and I don’t know if the high school in Ciudad Darío offers any Sunday courses. And the factory doesn’t give permission to study on Saturdays; I’ve already asked and the answer is always no. And if I give up my job to study I wouldn’t be able to pay for classes.”

Yet another young woman, who has already graduated high school, offered the following picture: “Of the few single people in the factory, most of us come to work because we think it’ll allow us to keep studying. But in the end, we have to give up that dream. The factory doesn’t give permission, and you don’t have time to study anything anyway. We have to decide whether to work or study.”

We learned about some cases in which the women tried to realize their dream of studying, but the impediments and sanctions imposed by the factory managers made them give it up. Those who insisted have been subjected to constant pressures and in some cases even fired. “I asked them to let me study on Saturdays and they didn’t want to,” recounted one. “They told me I should quit if I wanted to study. I decided not to go to work on Saturdays so I could study, but management applied a wage sanction on me—obligatory cuts and all that. I stopped; what else was I going to do?”

Another woman tried a different tack: “When I decided to start studying, the first thing I did was ask permission from the company to leave midday on Saturdays so I could get to class on time. They refused, so the only option left to me was to lose the whole day and accept the wage sanction. You lose the punctuality bonus, the seventh day and the day’s pay.” Her decision earned her the enmity of her line boss in addition to the economic losses.

Among the sanctions the factory applies are warnings, which you have to sign every Monday and they go in your file to justify your eventual layoff. But the strongest and most intensely felt sanction, the one that makes the women drop their plans and forget their dreams, is the bimonthly wage deductions. That sanction reduces by approximately 42% the total wage earned in a “clean” 15-day period, which in Presitex amounts to 516 córdobas. This severe loss immediately aggravates their families’ already precarious economic situation.

The fable of the milkmaid

Whether men or women, all arrive at the factory full of fears as well as dreams: the fear that they aren’t prepared to work in a factory, or that they will be mistreated. “I heard in town that a free trade zone had opened up in Sébaco,” said one girl, “but I didn’t get excited about going because I didn’t know anything about what they did there. I’d never been in front of a machine before and they told me they I would be made an operator. I was also afraid because they said that the Chinese were rude and treated people badly. But I still went.” Reality has taught them all that preparation was the least of it and abuse is part of the landscape in their new job. And it has taught them above all else that the dreams with which they went looking for work are a lot like those of the milkmaid in La Fontaine’s fable of over four centuries ago:

Once upon a time, a very poor young girl named Elisa lived on a small farm. One morning her mother woke her up and said to her, ‘Elisa, go to town, sell all the milk that the cow gives today, and all the money that you earn by selling that milk will be just for you.’ Elisa, who had never had any money, got very excited and began to dream. She milked the cow, filling a huge milk jug, and off she went to town. Along the road, she started calculating what they would pay her for the milk and dreaming of all the things she would buy with the money. ‘First, I’ll buy me a basket of eggs. When the chicks hatch, I’ll take care of them and when they become roosters and hens, I’ll sell them in the market. And with that money, I’ll buy me a baby pig. I’ll fatten it up and when I sell it, I’ll buy a calf with the money. It’ll give me a lot of milk and I’ll sell several gallons a day and soon I’ll be able to have my own farm with a fireplace and I’ll paint it green and put a fence around it and I’ll buy myself dresses and shoes and…’ Elisa was so entertained with her fantasies that she didn’t look where she was going and tripped over a branch and the milk jug fell off her head and broke. She lost the milk, the jug and all her dreams. She also lost her enthusiasm and didn’t know what to do. All she could do was lament: ‘Goodbye my little chickies and my hens and my little pig and my little calf and my farm!’ And that’s the end of the story of the milkmaid...

Jon Ander Bilbao, Olga Rocha and Magdalena Mayorga are researchers from the Nitlapán-UCA Maquila team.

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