Twelve Days In a Concentration Camp
The experience of 12 days working in a textile export assembly plant provides an impression of how employees work, live, think and feel in the free trade zones sprouting up all over Nicaragua that will supposedly bring us economic development.
Yanina Turcios Gómez
Is pent 12 days working in one of the export assembly plants—known as maquiladoras or maquilas—in Managua’s Las Mercedes industrial park. Although I was there for a short time compared to the months and years that thousands of mainly female workers spend in these modern-day concentration camps, this interesting and exhausting experience gave me the chance to find out first-hand about a sealed-off world that is increasingly characterizing Nicaraguan life.
At the entrance gateThe entrance to the free trade zone resembles the tumultuous streets of Managua’s Eastern Market on a Sunday after payday. It is truly impressive to see thousands of women and men squeezing through the main entrance, which is little more than an alleyway. Over 20,000 people enter and leave the industrial complex through here every day, while another 5,000 use another entrance.
Makeshift stalls have been set up along both sides of the entranceways where you can find anything from a sound system to an aspirin. This small space—little longer than a neighborhood block—is always packed at the beginning or end of the working day. On their way in, people tend to mill around vendors offering coffee, bread and butter or making tortillas to be eaten as they are or with a traditional kind of cottage cheese. Others prefer something more substantial, like meat served with a rice-and-beans mixture known as “gallo pinto.” Still others only have enough for a biscuit and a cup of coffee that they buy on the run. Those with more time to spare eat inside the factories in the company dining halls or some other place where they can sit down.
Looking for workThere is an even greater crowd milling around the gates of the industrial complex on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when a multitude of people turn up looking for work. Some will be lucky enough to be chosen right away, while others will have to keep turning up for months, in the constant hope of “maybe tomorrow…” The most important requirement is for the applicant to hold an identity card.
At around 7 a.m., several minibuses and pickup trucks are parked around the entrance to the free trade zone, ready to transfer those selected by the representatives of the different companies that need more labor. Some of the admission supervisors—as the girls responsible for choosing the new personnel at the entrance are known—make a random selection, while others look for people whose papers are in order. The representatives of one of the maquiladora companies selected me along with 33 others, most of us women. From the main entrance to the plant where I was to work, whose name I have omitted, you have to go down two long blocks scattered with factories. Only one of them, Rocedes, had a sign displaying its name. Once in the vehicles, we all looked at each other uncertainly. Although I had been recommended and was certain I’d be given a job, I found myself infected by the general sense of nervousness.
The pickup stopped outside the big installation where we were to work. It looked to me like one of the concentration camps I’d seen in the movies. Although located in a big complex with its own security, each company takes its own precautions as well. The one that was offering me work was completely surrounded with wire hurricane fencing, topped with rolls of barbed wire to provide an extra defense against even the most daring thieves. Its main entrance has a garden area with grass lawns and dwarf palm trees to pretty the place up. According to figures for 2001, this factory has a surface area of over 10,000 square meters and employs some 1,300 workers.
Working hours andThe company’s working hours and “ten commandments” are displayed at the two entrances in big letters.
the “ten commandments”
Work shifts: 7:00 a.m. – 5:15 p.m. and 12:40 a.m. – 7:15 a.m.
1. Respect the starting and finishing times. You must not leave your work post without permission.
2. Absence from work is strictly prohibited. You may only leave your work post with the authorization of your immediate superior.
3. It is strictly prohibited to gamble, drink alcoholic beverages or fight in the factory and its surroundings.
4. It is strictly prohibited to take materials or objects from the company without permission or to damage company property.
5. It is strictly prohibited to spit or drop rubbish on the floor.
6. The factory and its surroundings should be kept in a healthy and clean condition.
7. A MINSA [Ministry of Health] note must be presented when requesting permission for medical treatment.
8. Carrying firearms and other dangerous objects in the factory is prohibited.
9. Great care must be taken to vouch for your own safety and that of your fellow workers.
10. Regarding work regulations, we observe the company’s corresponding provisions.
Lists and warningsBy around 7:05 a.m. the workers were already at their posts and the two doors were closed. One of the girls told us to get into five lines. She talked like the loudspeaker voice that calls for doctors in hospitals or passengers in airports. She walked as she talked and repeated everything without looking at us.
She told us about the starting times and the strict punctuality, and about clocking in and out and the color of the card: we had to punch the blue side for the first two weeks and then the red side for the next two weeks. She repeated the part about the two colors several times, asking if we understood. “If the card gets lost, it’s the worker’s responsibility not the company’s. If you come to work and don’t mark the card because you lost it or can’t find it, the day will be deducted because the card is the only record of whether or not you came to work and there are no replacement cards.” She explained that there were lockers where you could keep your things and that if you wanted to use one you had to bring your own padlock. What she most stressed and repeated was the respect that had to be shown to the two supervisors, one Nicaraguan and one Taiwanese. We had to go to either of them for any permission that we needed. Having received all of these warnings, we were ready to enter the factory.
Being shouted atAs we entered the factory in single file, the workers looked us over curiously. We were made to go up to the second floor and into a room with old sewing machines, an old ventilator fan and some posters on the walls with drawings explaining the skill tests. Like a tape recorder, the girl repeated everything she had already told us. The only novelty was that she explained the different kinds of permission we could ask for.
There are two kinds of permission: for resolving any kind of personal problem, which counts as holiday time, and to go to a medical clinic. If you take more than two hours going to the clinic, it’s counted as permission for a personal problem. There are special times for requesting authorization for any kind of permission and it is not possible to ask at any other time. In the morning you have to ask before 8 a.m. and in the afternoon between 1 and 2 p.m.
In the same room they asked me for my documents. The supervisors talked politely among themselves, but only shouted when they addressed us. My reaction was to look them straight in the eye. They always address people looking for a job discourteously. They shouted at us, making us think we were incapable of understanding or learning anything, as if we had turned up with a begging bowl.
The questions were the same for everyone: Where do you live? What experience do you have? Why did you leave your old job? Is there any reason you can’t get home late or work overtime? Do you have a husband? How many children do you have? I had to lie to fit in with my future workmates: I didn’t pass third year at high school. I’m a single mother with no help from the father. My mom looks after the kid. It’s the first time I’ve worked. I don’t have any experience working in maquilas and if you give me a job I’ll be able to support my household... I was the oldest in a group that averaged about 18.
The main papers they ask for are your identity card, your social security card, your birth certificate and two photos. They give you an extra month to get hold of the other documents: two letters of recommendation, a police record and high school grades and diplomas.
Destination: The packing areaAfter attending several other people, one supervisor called me over gruffly and asked for my documents. She took them away with her and came back after a while. “Miss Fidelina wants to see you.” I went down an endless corridor filled with the noise of sewing machines. Miss Fidelina, the director of human resources, asked if I had a social security card or a pay slip. “No, I’ve never worked before; this is my first job.” “Well, we’re screwed,” she threatened, then sorted it out by saying, “The only solution is not to register you in the factory as covered by social security. But the condition is that you don’t tell anyone and you really take care of yourself inside the factory and on the way here, because if anything happens to you, the company won’t assume any responsibility and we’ll say that we know nothing and that nothing happened.”
I was to work in the packing area, which according to Fidelina was the least dangerous area and required the least experience. By then I had a headache. Listening to those two women repeating the same thing over and over without saying who was staying and who was not going to be admitted made for a very tense atmosphere.
I signed the contract. It was for a month, with a basic salary of 960 córdobas (under US$70) a month, plus overtime. I was to be paid on the 15th and 30th of every month. They contracted 28 of the 34 of us originally selected, generally preferring the youngest with the least experience. There were 6 of us in the packing group, 4 of whom had never worked at all. The others were chosen as folders or sent to the washing area, while 3 were placed on the different production lines.
We left that room in single file and each person was deposited at his or her respective work post. The other workers generally just stared at us, although of course there was no lack of men who whistled at us or made what they believed to be flattering remarks. Those of us in the packing group had to go all the way through the factory to the back. Most of the girls from the packing area stopped working and started whispering. Some smiled at us, some signaled to us with their eyes and others just ignored us. We were introduced to the Nicaraguan supervisor, a man called Leoncio. He again insisted on some of the norms that had already been repeated by the admission girls.
The main thing he explained to us was that unless we had transport problems we’d keep working after the normal working hours (5:15 p.m.). “Here in packing, we work every day until 7:15 p.m., and sometimes we stay even later. That means two hours of overtime. The hours you work on Saturdays and Sundays also count as overtime.” And there was another warning: “One of the main recommendations is that you don’t mix with the workers who’ve been here longer, because they’ve got a lot of vices.” He asked us all if we had children and who looked after them, seeking to ensure that there wouldn’t be any problems with people asking to be excused. He reminded us that we were on a month’s probation and would only stay on if we worked well.
Noise, lint and heatThe supervisor sent us to different places. Two went to the table where they put transparent stickers with sizes on the shirts; one at the bottom of the pocket and one on the collar. The price and the brand name label are also attached at that table, then they put the garments into bags. I was sent to quality control along with three others. Leoncio asked a girl to explain what we had to do. The work consisted of checking jackets that were part of an order for JC Penny: “It can’t have any threads hanging off; it has to be well pressed; there can’t be any chalk marks in the lining; you should carefully check where the seams join to be sure the stripes are lined up.” The jackets were made of a stripy material and the stripes had to run in the same direction and meet up at the joins. If not, they didn’t “pass” and were marked as faulty goods. Problems with the pressing, washing or sewing could also mean that they failed the test. The girl who explained all of this to us was very friendly.
The noise in there was unbearable and I developed an immediate allergic reaction to the lint that infested the atmosphere from the cotton, eiderdown-lined jackets. One of the three production lines was in front of quality control. Only four of the girls working there used a protective mask. I asked if the company provided them. “You must be joking!” they said. “If you want one, you’ve got to buy it.”
The factory worked in a chain, starting with the production lines, then the pressing area, then quality control and finally packing. We had to go to get the jackets from the pressers. The pressing was done in pairs, one pressing and the other folding, and they gave us the jackets in batches of six. The supervisor noted down how many jackets they gave us in order to work out each employee’s production level.
Going to collect the half dozen jackets was dangerous in itself, because you had to pass through a very narrow space and could end up getting burnt. The heat was unbearable because of the steam expelled from the presses and the concentration of people. The pressers are separated by just four floor tiles (1.20 meters), a space transited by people from quality control looking for pressed items, people taking dirty items to the washing area, those taking items to be repaired—or “back to machine” as it’s known—and the area supervisors. It was particularly noteworthy that a manufacturing center in an earthquake zone with thousands of people and a large amount of chemical and explosive products has no evacuation plans for earthquakes or fires and no fire extinguishers or emergency brigades.
The quality control and packing tables have two employees at the end of the pressing belt who do the quality control check. Next along another two attach prices to the shirts with a small price gun, followed by two more sticking the size letters onto the pocket and collar. Then another two pack the shirts into bags by size. Finally, the workers at the end of the table place the bags into boxes by size.
The packers have to check that the size is right and those placing the packed item in the boxes have to check that both the bag and size are right. If not, they are sent back to be changed. The different workers agree that if a shirt is wrong it should be returned immediately, without waiting for more to accumulate, because if several turn out wrong those responsible will be docked their production incentive and have to come in earlier. Anything not done correctly results in an admonishment and a wage deduction for the cost of the mistake.
The old, the new and the fear factorThere are actually three power groups in the factory: the foreign (Taiwanese) supervisors; the national supervisors; and the employees, divided in turn into old and new workers. The most frequent conflicts are over work issues, followed by emotional conflicts, mainly among women over men. The relations between new employees and those who have been working in the company for longer are strained. You’re coming in to win a space and they’re going to defend theirs. The first days are hard for the rookies, who find themselves up against both the old workers and the supervisors.
Rookies are constantly being undermined. During the first days the more experienced workers help you learn when the supervisors are around, but the minute the supervisors turn their back they change their attitude and ignore you. When you try to get involved in the work hands on, they tell you to keep to one side, because if something goes wrong they are the ones who’ll get the blame and have their production bonus deducted. So because they won’t let you do anything, all you can do is stand there and keep quiet. But gradually the fear starts to kick in, because next they tell you, “It’s not a good idea to stand there because the Chink doesn’t like that and if he sees you’re not working, you’ll be out in a flash. They don’t like idle women; they’re going to give you a good talking to.”
They say these things to scare you. There’s no doubt that some of them are true, but others are not. It adds up to a chain of damaging messages that are started by the old workers and passed on to the new ones, who gradually repeat them to the next lot of new workers that turn up. The result is a vicious circle of lies and half-truths. I was able to see many of the lies and truths for myself, along with the half-truths and the half-lies. As a rule, the group of longer-serving workers has specialized in a range of dirty tricks that get the new workers reprimanded, particularly if they are showing an aptitude for the work.
Being the same; being acceptedWhen new girls first arrive at these factories, they have to figure out how to survive, and about the only way is to be accepted by the dominant group. This changes the way they are, the way they treat others and often even they way they think. They often assume the predominant tricks, gestures and even style of talking in order to fit in with the majority. A clothes fashion imposes itself and everyone wants to wear the same kind of jeans and blouse, the same sandals and the same make-up. Shirts are bought and sold in the same style—often even the same color—by the dozen and everyone ends up in a kind of uniform.
Topics of conversation at the worktables revolve around household problems and boy trouble, and there’s always some new factory gossip to talk about. As payday approaches, talk switches to how much it’ll be, what they’re going to spend the money on and what debts they ran up due to unexpected household expenses. Most of the girls working in the area I was assigned to were between 17 and 18 years old; the oldest were 25 and had been working in the factory for six or seven years. Most if not all of them already had family responsibilities, and there were 22-year-old girls there with three or four children. Those with just one child when they start are soon going out with one of the boys from the factory and end up pregnant. The same pattern is constantly repeated among the factory workers.
Relations between male and female workers are commonplace, even when the boy and girl in question are new to the factory. And the workers are not the only ones who couple up; the same also happens between female Nicaraguan supervisors and male Taiwanese supervisors from different areas. Workers have all kinds of family and non-family relations in the maquiladoras. With some brought by others or recommended to the boss by relatives, the factories are full of “extended families” whose individual members are trying to support their respective households.
Buying and sellingThere are also trade-based relations among the workers. An extensive black market exists within the company, with cookies, candies, chewing gum, gold plated jewelry and basic medicines all passing hands. The medical supplies include a muscle-soothing balm known as Zepol, a vitamin supplement known as Tiamina, painkillers and band-aids for blisters on the hands caused by certain jobs and on the feet from having to stand for so many hours. There is a great demand for all these products and selling them is a profitable business. Inside the factory a Panadol sells for double its price at the local store. It’s a black market because the company stipulates that no food can be brought into the factory and it is strictly forbidden to buy anything at the snack bar during working hours.
and staving off hunger
Most workers get to the factory at around 6:30 a.m. in order to guarantee themselves the bonus for arriving at least ten minutes before the starting bell. Arriving so early involves getting up at around 4 a.m. to prepare the day’s food and often to leave food ready for the rest of the household. Everyone at the plant is starving by 10 a.m., because there’s no recess until the midday lunch break.
People have found alternative ways of keeping their hunger under control so they can get through the day, which often involves working 15 consecutive hours. Some skillfully conceal small items of sugary food in their clothing to eat or sell, both of which demand a great deal of care. Being seen by the supervisors is enough to get you fired. I asked some of the girls who had been at the factory for a while why they hid under the tables to eat something. In reply they told me of a notorious case: “One girl was sacked by the supervisor for sheer stupidity. She hadn’t pulled the stick out of the lollipop she was eating and the supervisor saw it and sent her upstairs [to the management and administrative area]. And when you’re sent upstairs, you’re on your way home.”
The tables are the silent witnesses of everything furtively nibbled in the factory. Anything from cookies to tortillas with fried pork and cheese brought from home are passed beneath them. The cruelest thing is to see the supervisors drinking coffee and eating cookies in the warehouse three times a day. I was able to confirm this when they had me in the warehouse filling bags with tiny plastic collar stiffeners.
It is the Nicaraguan supervisors who most admonish the workers, although they too participate in the black market. Our supervisor sold bandages and Zepol. The women constantly complain of headaches and have developed the habit of rubbing Zepol into their temples around 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when they have been standing up and working for several hours.
Shouting, violence and a climate of fearThe many reasons for getting a warning include being discovered away from your work post, holding up the set target, arriving late without justification, missing a day’s work without justification, talking too much, going to the rest room several times or asking for permission to leave the factory too many times.
The Nicaraguan and Taiwanese supervisors warn you in much the same way, which invariably involves bawling you out so the rest of the workers can hear the warning and they can impose respect and fear. In my opinion, the Nicaraguan supervisors are worse than the Taiwanese from whom they learned this abusive treatment. This is because the Taiwanese demand such treatment and will sack the supervisors if they don’t act accordingly. In many cases, the warnings were not to improve the work, but just to insult us and devalue our work. The Taiwanese supervisors’ two favorite phrases were “This bad! Donkey, much donkey!” and “Have much chicken head, no understand!” These appear to be the greatest insults they can muster.
The Taiwanese managers who have been in the country the longest have imposed this pattern of maltreatment. One of the girls told me that when new Taiwanese come they don’t treat you like that. They treat you with respect and kindness and even open the door for you. They later change under the influence of the others, who force them to be rude, and in the end they’ll even kick you. I don’t know if Asian culture is violent, but the supervisors race out of their cubicles with unjustifiable violence all too easily. For the most part the errors committed by the workers do not justify reactions such as the supervisor who threw a screwdriver at a young man. Control does not appear to form part of their rationale and they all too easily sack someone on the spot for no reason at all.
This possibility creates an incredible level of fear among the workers. Referring to Yu, our Taiwanese supervisor, one workmate said to me, “I don’t think many of these girls have ever been so afraid of their fathers and mothers put together as they are of this man.” In the end, the workers get used to the shouting, and although some get angry, the most they say is, “Doesn’t he ever bloody stop?”
The rest rooms: A multi-use refugeThe rest rooms are where the workers relieve themselves of much more than just their physiological needs. This is where they meet to eat a cookie or a candy, to smoke a cigarette or to give themselves a break. It’s the area where they can confide in someone, give vent to the anger caused by being warned by a supervisor and even to shed tears of frustration over the constant climate of repression and punishment. Peace can be found in the rest rooms, if only for a few minutes, because there are no supervisors listening and watching there.
The rest rooms are considered a refuge even despite their incredibly unhygienic conditions. The workers’ pain accumulates alongside piles of dirty paper and scraps of material that reach almost up to the toilets, most of which don’t flush. The toilet bowls are thickly coated and the bottoms are dark. The humidity levels are permanently high and the walls, which appear not to have been painted since the factory was built, are covered with insults, declarations of love or confessions of infidelity, in true high-school style.
Attempts are only made to clean up the restrooms when the company is to receive a visit. Then they are washed and rolls of toilet paper and liquid soap dispensers miraculously appear. Even then, the holes in the dispensers are so small, in an effort to economize, that you end up with a smudge of soap smaller than the blister on your hand from the effort of pushing. Our factory had three restrooms, each one with nine toilets. In the twelve days that I worked in the factory, I only saw the cleaning girl washing them once, and that was much to my surprise. Then I heard the workers saying, “Guess who’s going to come!” That same day several officials from the Labor Ministry visited the factory, accompanied by none other than Gilberto Wong, executive secretary of the Nicaraguan Free Trade Zone Corporation—the highest authority in the assembly plant world. Wong’s oriental features meant that he blended in with the Taiwanese supervisors, who surrounded him with great reverence in an unwonted display of humility.
The explosion of pain after 15 hoursNormal working hours are 7 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and the company pays any extra hours as overtime. During times of limited production there is no overtime to be had. Following the pattern in the northern hemisphere—where clothes put together in the Nicaraguan maquiladoras are bought and worn—there are four seasonal changes and a great deal of variation in the clothes that we make. The orders also change a lot and there is often an abundance of new, longer and more oppressive tasks.
The packing section, which clocks out at 7:15 p.m. at normal times, has to leave the tables clear, without a single shirt from pressing. When I was there during June, we worked until 10 p.m. Another group worked all night. Occasionally they give you a day off to rest. Everything depends on the work rhythm or on the orders and deadlines. These 15-hour shifts (7 a.m. to 10 p.m.) cause unimaginable wear and tear on the workers’ bodies. They only have 40 minutes rest for lunch and another 40 minutes at around 8 p.m. for dinner. As night falls, the aches and pains increase and all kinds of groans can be heard. People suffer from massive headaches and swollen feet that can’t stand the weight of the bodies they are supporting. There is an abundance of bad backs, and varicose veins swell up to the point of bursting. In short, everyone suffers a variety of pains, regardless of age or sex. Yet our first aid box contained only Alka Seltzer and cotton.
A time to dreamFaces that were fresh and made-up in the morning are lifeless by the end of the afternoon and tempers are simmering due to fights, mistakes and bad moods. Tiredness generates touchiness and many groups joke around so that time will pass quicker. The most common topic among the women at this time of day is that they’ll end up without a husband because they arrive home so tired that the only thing they want to do is flop down onto their beds and sleep.
They also complain about the condition they were born into: “If I’d been born into another world, I wouldn’t have to do this and I’d be sitting in my house with my children and husband.” Some express simple, but impossible, dreams: “What I wouldn’t give to get home and find hot food waiting for me, the bed made and someone to bring me supper in bed!” And others have more ambitious and even more impossible dreams: “If only I could get in to university and get myself a profession!”
The truth is that many women and men enter the maquiladoras dreaming that this work will get them ahead in life. But it just isn’t possible. The image sold by the owners is that you can earn a lot of money in a very accessible job. Later, the eagerness to work overtime and get more pay turns into an addiction. Much later still, they realize that what awaits them isn’t an improvement in their fortunes, but more of the same routine, stagnation and an almost crippled body.
The Ministry of Labor:According to the Nicaraguan labor code, employees can only work up to 9 hours overtime a week. In the packing area, we worked 36 hours overtime in one week. It’s very difficult to keep up a rhythm of 15 hours a day without eating properly.
In with the companies
The Ministry of Labor (MITRAB), which is responsible for protecting worker’s rights and regulating the employers, is perfectly aware of the abuse to which the workers are subjected and the companies’ failure to respect the labor code. The current economic model, however, has turned MITRAB into the protector and ally of the free trade zone’s companies and corporations, so it turns a deaf ear to the workers’ demands. As one girl put it, “The company finds out quicker than it takes you to get to the ministry. By the time you get back to the factory they’re waiting to give you your marching orders, and you’ve got nobody to turn to. The free trade zone and MITRAB are one and the same thing.”
As the entity responsible for regulating both employees and employers, the labor ministry should assume a less political role that is more aimed at arbitration. It cannot continue to blow the whistle on the workers’ actions while safeguarding the interests of the maquiladoras. The ministry should stress the minimum wage and find out what wage system is really applied in the maquiladora sector. The workers’ complaints and comments when they receive their fortnightly wages show that they don’t know the law or how their wages and social security deductions are worked out. In many cases, for reasons similar to what happened to me, they’re not even registered in the social security system.
Forced overtimeThe overtime in my factory was not optional; it was obligatory and we weren’t consulted. If you don’t do it, you get sacked. They pass around the overtime sheet at 2 p.m. and your only option is to sign it. The supervisor locks up the timecards to stop anyone from the packing area leaving the factory even secretly when the end of day bell sounds at 5:15. The only way to get out of doing overtime is to ask the supervisor for permission; he invariably says no and to have any chance of getting him to say yes, you have to have a really good excuse and talk him around.
The overtime rate is 9.92 córdobas ($0.75) an hour, which is twice the standard rate. That’s if they pay you, because the workers said that on certain occasions they didn’t receive any overtime pay for some very tough tasks. Some of the girls who had worked for other companies said that they pay you overtime when they feel like it, and some companies don’t give you a pay slip, just the money, so there’s no way of telling if the income and deductions are right.
In reality, nobody knows how the overtime is regulated or calculated, because sometimes the workers do overtime all week, including Saturday and Sunday, and only get an extra 100 córdobas, when the hours put in should have generated far more income. Some workers get home at midnight or 1 a.m., after being on their feet since 4-5 a.m. There is an incredible level of human wear and tear and many people start taking super Tiamina tablets at 10 a.m. to get through the day.
The rushed lunch breakThe lunch bell sounds at 12 noon by the company clock. It’s a time of chaotic disorder as most workers desperately rush off as though possessed by some spirit. The race is to get to the snack bars first to buy food and a drink to supplement what they brought from home. There are two snack bars as well as a few tables selling enchiladas, tacos and fruit. The snack bars also sell toilet paper, cigarettes, candy and chewing gum.
The bars are not at all hygienic. There are flies all over the place, and as they are located near the warehouses, rats and mice often come to join them. The cooks prepare and serve the food and handle the money without ever washing their hands.
A portion of gallo pinto with a drink costs about 75 cents, while an order of tacos, enchiladas, fried green plantain or fried ripe plantain with cheese sets you back $3.50. The food is almost always sold on credit to be cancelled every two weeks when payday comes around, but as this turns out too expensive, most workers opt to bring their own food from home. Most club together to buy a liter and a half of Coke, which is cheaper than buying it by the glass.
The dining halls fill up with people who are eating and chatting. Those who can’t find any room sit on the grass under the dwarf palms at the factory entrance. You only have 40 minutes to eat, and when the bell sounds for work to start again the food areas are left in a mess, with plates, bags and leftovers scattered everywhere, like the Santo Domingo traffic circle after the rowdy procession bearing the saint’s effigy has passed.
When there’s overtime to be worked, the company assumes the cost of dinner, which they delegate to one of the snack bars. But as everyone is quick to point out, “It comes out of our pockets, from the overtime they don’t pay us.” For one of the many dinners I ate with the girls I worked with we received a packed meal of fried pork. When one of the girls bit into the meat, it was a greenish color in the middle, but she wasn’t allowed to buy anything else at the bar and ended up not eating anything. As you don’t know whether you’ll be let out “early” or late, you don’t tend to take any food to cover dinner. I was unable to find out if the food given to the workers is decided by the bar or the supervisors, but there are constant complaints about the poor quality.
The time of smellsFive in the evening is the time of smells. Wherever you go the smell of deodorants, body creams, toothpaste and all kinds of perfumes blends in with the less pleasant smells generated by a hard day’s work. In the rest rooms the women crowd around the basins brushing their teeth or putting on make-up. It’s impressive how not even a state of exhaustion can stand in the way of personal beautifying. On Fridays—payday or not—there is even more time for vanity, because that’s when the different couples go out on dates. As a rule, overtime is a rare occurrence on Fridays. It’s said to be a company policy, although when I worked there this wasn’t the case.
When the end of day bell sounds at 5:15 for the production line areas where shirts are sewn and assembled, most of the workers—over a thousand—leave the factory. Everybody reminds each other to clock out and workers get their cards ready before the bell sounds so that they can be at the front of the queue.
Routine inspectionBut clocking out isn’t the only ritual to be performed when you leave the factory every day. You’re also subjected to a body search. A male security guard checks the men and a female security guard and female Taiwanese staff member check the women. On my first day, because I was new, I left at 5:15 with most of the other workers. I punched my card, knowing nothing about the exit gate inspection. I just saw the queue and that the women were leaving through the pedestrian gate and the men through the vehicle gate. As I was absorbed in watching the streams of people flowing out of other factories further down the way, I wasn’t paying any attention to what was happening to my female workmates in front of me.
I was therefore taken completely by surprise when my turn came. The Taiwanese woman, who was so small she didn’t even reach my shoulder, started to touch me, first from my pubis to the top of my buttocks and then from my pubis to the top of my belly. It made me feel nauseous and my hair stood on end. I was flooded with the desire to hit her and scream. I had never experienced anything quite so disagreeable, not even in the streets when morbid, insolent men have tossed some vulgar remark my way. For a second I thought that I was the only one who’d been touched like that and was the only one who had felt like that. But the same had happened to the girls who had started the same day as me, one of whom said, “Ugh! That was so horrible how that Chink touched me!” “I’ve worked in other companies and they never touched me like that before,” said another.
The power of touchingThe Nicaraguan woman touched us in a different way than the Taiwanese woman. I understood this way of violating each woman as a way of demonstrating that the owners could do what they wanted to the female workers. It’s also a senseless form of control. My jeans, like those of most of the girls working there, were very tight. It was quite simply impossible to stuff a long-sleeved shirt down them.
Although this touching becomes part of the workers’ routine, I couldn’t get use to it in the 12 days I worked for the company. Every time I heard the end of day bell, my stomach churned just thinking what I’d have to go through in order to get out onto the street. Some days the thought was so nauseating that I lost my appetite and didn’t eat anything for dinner. I still had that horrible sensation even after I’d gotten home. It was quite clear to me that the girls are subjected to greater violence. When the men are checked, a Nicaraguan inspector just pats their legs. According to the management, the “routine inspection” is to make sure that the workers don’t take any items home with them. The other girls told me that in some companies it’s the men who steal items out of the factories, wearing them like diapers. Most of the girls didn’t see anything wrong with that: “ It’s good that they steal stuff. Anyway, they do it for us, and the company isn’t going to lose anything because of a few items.” Naturally, they’re sporadic robberies and the items are traded among the factory workers.
Anger and humiliationThe inspections are part of a system based on humiliation. One day, before 10 p.m., we were all desperate to leave and the supervisor had the cards under lock and key. When we all surrounded him, each looking for her card so we could get out more quickly, he took the whole bundle and angrily and violently threw them over towards another table. The cards scattered over the floor and we all had to scramble around for the cards on the floor while the supervisor laughed about what he’d done.
Is it the excess workload that these people claim to have that causes them to act so inhumanely, or does the administration demand this kind of behavior from them? Most of those who are now supervisors arrived at the company like the rest of the workers. This was the case with one of the girls who started with us in packing. After a few days she found the work too heavy and decided to give it up, but when she went to the personnel office to hand in her notice, one of the female admission supervisors asked to her hang on for a few more days because our friend Fidelina was looking for a new girl who’d been to school to work as her assistant… and she fitted the bill.
How to change your personalityThe girl who was going to resign didn’t come to work the next day, and we all thought she’d left. But at midday we saw her going to lunch with the company elite from personnel. They have a table reserved just for them and no other employees are allowed to sit there. Because we still thought of her as our workmate, we were happy to see her again, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. She’d changed overnight. She passed alongside us and coldly said “hi” before going over to the select table. “It’s gone to her head,” we commented.
Soon after, I had a chance to talk to her. The poor women explained that “they’ve forbidden me to have anything to do with you. They say I have to remember that I’m on a completely different level to the inferior people.” It’s obvious that the Asian investors are trying to create a class structure in the free trade zone. In their own country, do they really belong to the upper class they like to imitate in Nicaragua? Or are they trying to take us back to the days of slavery, undervaluing us so they can trample on our rights?
Unfulfilled contractsWhen you sign the contract with these companies, your job is a mutual agreement between employee and employer. According to the Ministry of Labor, a mutual arrangement must also be reached for a worker to be removed from his or her post, even if it is only a temporary layoff. You sign the contract based on your experience, if you happen to have it in the area in which they are looking for workers. Many of those who turn up looking for work have an idea of where they’ll end up or say where they want to be placed.
However, the employees have to do work that is not included in the contracts. They put you in any area available so you don’t end up doing nothing. Those of us in packing were sent to other areas because the accessories to be stuck onto the shirts hadn’t turned up yet. First we spent a whole morning in the dining areas, putting together cardboard boxes for packing Perry Ellis shirts. The cardboard was marked so you knew where to fold it to make the box and lid. Each of us was given 5 cartons with 250 items so we had to put together 1,250 boxes. At first sight it seemed like a cushy job, but after two hours you had pins and needles up and down your spine and the cardboard had left cuts in your hands, some of them deep.
Washing daysAfter lunch on the same day, we were sent to the washing area. The work involved washing the parts of shirts that had been marked because they had dirt or grease stains on them. The order that was going out during those days was for white shirts, which we had to whiten up using chlorine and acetone. We spent two and a half days in the washing area, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and then went back to packing until 10 p.m.
Two days in the washing area left our hands covered in cracks. The combination of acetone and chlorine without any protection at all burnt our hands and left our fingers and nails exposed to fungal infections. The heat was unbearable in the washing area, where 28 of us were continuously washing shirts. We were alongside the boilers and the heat and smoke was concentrated in that area. There were also incredibly noisy blowers in washing used to clean items with a lot of lint on them.
You are paid according to production and we had to wash at least 700 shirts a day. If you didn’t make the target, you lost the right to your production bonus. Once you’ve washed a certain amount of items, a worker notes down how many. It seems like a fair enough mechanism, but if the person doing the noting takes a dislike to you she might fiddle the numbers and there’s nothing you can’t do about it.
The girl noting down my productivity obviously didn’t like me, because every time I went over to ask for more shirts, she marked down fewer shirts than I had actually washed. The same happened with other workmates. We evened things up by just wetting a lot of shirts that weren’t even dirty and pretending we’d washed them. During the evening life gets even worse in the washing area. The natural light disappears and you can hardly see. During rainy season the women get soaked because there’s no ceiling over the highest part and the rain pours in.
At risk from the moment you get the busFor the twelve days that my study lasted, I traveled on public buses, just like all the other maquila workers. Getting up very early is the key to getting to work on time. I took the bus at 6:15 a.m. All of the buses were packed, with people hanging out of both doorways. They are old buses in deplorable mechanical disrepair and it is literally a risk to take them. The crowd of passengers provides a rich feeding ground for teams of male and female pickpockets, while men find it easy to feel up women.
One day I was rushing to get to work on time, so I got on the first bus that stopped, which was overflowing with passengers. I got on by the back door, and could only get as far as the first step, hanging onto the door. A few blocks down, the bus driver slammed on the brakes so violently that I fell backwards into the gutter. The fare collector shouted at me, “You go around like idiots, you don’t even grab on and then you blame us!” Nobody helped me get back up. I couldn’t get back onto that bus, but in fact the only option open to the workers is to brush themselves off and get back onto the bus that just left them injured or the next one. In the factory they told me that other companies in the free trade zone supposedly have their own buses that go around certain Managua neighborhoods picking up the workers for free, although I was never able to verify this.
Will they bring development?That’s as far as my experience in the maquiladoras went. My aim was not to destructively criticize the free trade zone, but just tell my experiences so others can imagine what thousands and thousands of women—and men—go through every day for weeks, months and years in the over 40 maquiladoras currently operating in Nicaragua, which everyone tells us will bring “development” to our country and our people.
Yanina Turcios Gómez is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA’s maquiladora team