Enslavers or Saviors?
Kurt Ver Beek ’86, Director of the Semester in Honduras program
Our closets are
full of the results of the new global economy. We can walk down an aisle
in Walmart or Target and find tennis shoes made in Vietnam, an electronic
keyboard assembled in China and a Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt made in
Honduras. And it’s not just t-shirts and VCRs—everything
from the nails that hold together our houses to the cars we drive is
being produced internationally. Is this good or bad? What are we to
think about this globalization?
including transnational corporations and many economists, argue that
globalization results in lower prices for consumers, bigger profits
for corporations and stockholders and more jobs for the less developed
countries (LDCs). They argue that we should buy the best quality product
at the lowest price and that the “free market” will eventually
raise everyone’s living standards. The "Cassandras,"
including trade unions and human rights organizations, claim globalization
results in a loss of U.S. jobs as well as horrible working conditions
and below poverty-level wages for LDC workers. They encourage us to
boycott companies like Nike and The Gap and countries like Honduras
and Vietnam that allow their citizens to be oppressed. Which of these
perspectives is the right one?
As Christians we
have the additional responsibility to be Christ-like consumers. When
we buy a company’s products, we support them and share in the
responsibility of how they treat their workers. The worker making our
tennis shoes or computers, whether in the U.S. or abroad, is made in
the image of Christ. She deserves to earn a living wage and to be treated
with justice and respect. At the same time the company owners need to
compete in a global market and make a fair profit. So what factors should
we consider when we buy?
It was questions
such as these that led me to coordinate a study of the maquila
industry (also known as “sweatshops” or “off-shore
factories”) in Honduras. The maquilas in Honduras largely make
clothing—like T-shirts, jeans and underwear for companies such
as Hanes, Levi’s, Victoria’s Secret and The Gap. The cloth
they use is made and cut by machines in the U.S. and then shipped by
boat to Honduras were it is sewn, packed and shipped back to U.S. stores.
This same process is going on in many poor countries including Mexico,
the Philippines and Vietnam.
Honduras is a very good place to look at the effects of global
production. First, it is a country that badly needs jobs, especially
ones that will help people get out of poverty. The per capita yearly
income is $600 compared to $26,980 in the U.S. Half of the population
lives on less than $1.00 a day—not even enough to buy their minimum
daily food needs with nothing left for housing, clothing or medical
care. While nearly everyone in Honduras works (there is no government
unemployment or welfare program) 30%-40% of the workforce is underemployed
and 84,000 young people join the work force each year. Second, the maquilas
are already a powerful force in the Honduran economy. Honduras has over
100,000 maquila jobs—over 27% of the manufacturing workforce.
The maquilas’ production is almost 30% of all Honduras’
exports. By studying maquilas in Honduras we can begin to understand
the impact of buying a Calvin College t-shirt made in Honduras or another
Much of the bad press about the maquila industry relates to
their treatment of workers: poverty wages, forced overtime, sexual abuse
and child labor. Critics often attack the industry by comparing wages,
hours and treatment to U.S. standards. Supporters of maquilas defend
the industry by stating that their workers enjoy wages and treatment
better than the legal minimums and often above national averages. In
my study, I decided to look at two questions: first, how do maquila
workers’ lives compare to those of a similar group of non-maquila
workers and second, should we as Christian consumers be satisfied with
the wages and treatment of maquila workers? (This research was partially
funded by the Calvin Alumni Association.) To answer these questions
our team interviewed a random sample of 270 maquila workers and 149
people who were applying for a job in the maquila but had never worked
in one before. We then compared the two groups to see who was better
off. The answers to those questions were thought-provoking.
We found four areas
in which maquila workers are worse off than non-maquila workers:
- Health: 41% of workers vs. 11% of applicants had had a health problem
in the last month that affected their work. The actual health of maquila
workers is probably worse since the sickest workers would have been
fired or quit.
- Crime: 17% of workers vs. 9% of applicants had been the victim
of a crime in the last six months.
- Education: only 8% of workers vs. 14% of applicants were continuing
their studies despite the fact that 66% had not studied beyond 6th
- Unionization: 8% of workers vs. 11% of applicants (in their previous
job) worked in unionized shops. This statistic also hides a more severe
problem since many of the applicants worked as maids or in small shops
which are never unionized but all of the maquila workers work in shops
of 100 or more employees. Maquila managers will openly admit that
any worker who starts to organize to improve their pay or conditions
is fired despite the fact that this is illegal in Honduras.
We also found four
areas in which maquila workers are the same or better off than
non-maquila workers but still not treated justly:
- Age and Gender Discrimination: 90% of maquila employees are under
30 and 63% are women. Companies openly discriminate in hiring, including
putting ads in papers to recruit single, young, and sometimes adding
“attractive” women. Maquila workers are not alone in this
problem; this discrimination is legal in Honduras and happens in other
industries as well but it is still not right.
- Salary: workers earned an average of $149 a month ($6 a day) vs.
$89 a month for applicants. While maquila workers earn substantially
more than non-maquila workers do, if she has more than one child,
she is below the Honduran poverty line—not able to meet her
family’s basic needs for food, clothing and housing.
- Hours worked: Maquila workers worked an average of 45 hours a week
and for 46% of them, overtime was mandatory. Applicants worked an
average of 49 hours a week and for 55% of them, overtime was mandatory.
So while the hours worked were fewer and less often mandatory, forced
overtime, which is illegal in Honduras, is still quite common.
- Childcare: workers’ children were more likely to be home
with their spouse (14% vs. 3%) and less likely to be alone (4% vs.
10%). But the fact that 4% of children were left home alone and that
only one company sponsored a small daycare for over 100,000 workers
demonstrates that there is still room for improvement.
We also found four
areas in which maquila workers are better off than non-maquila
workers—without any qualifications:
- Age: there were no minors in our random sample of 270 workers.
- Treatment: 93% of workers felt supported by their supervisor, only
8% reported any mistreatment in the last 6 months and 48% had received
- Support for and from family: 52% of workers gave $40-120 a month
to their family vs. 18% of applicants. 30% stated that their relationship
with their spouse/parents had improved since they started working
in the maquilas, while only 5% said it had gotten worse.
- Participation in Society: workers were slightly more likely to
have voted (50% vs. 42%), more likely to feel that they can influence
government (29% vs. 20%) and more likely to participate in sports
regularly (22% vs. 6%).
What do these results mean for our two questions: how maquila
workers’ lives compare to non-maquila workers, and should we as
Christian consumers be satisfied with their wages and treatment?
On the whole the
maquila workers in Honduras seem to be a slightly better off than non-maquila
workers. The maquila workers are worse off than non-maquila workers
in the areas of health, crime, education and unionization. They are
a little better off but still in unjust situations regarding gender
discrimination, salary, forced overtime and childcare. And they are
better off in regards to treatment, support to and from family and social
participation. So maquilas aren’t all bad. Maybe they are the
best option available in poor countries and we should stop criticizing
But of course it
not that simple. We have to remember what we are comparing. My survey
compared two groups. The first was non-maquila workers employed by small
Honduran businesses which need to make a product they can sell to Hondurans
who earn less than $600 a year and still make a profit. The second group
was maquila workers employed by very large U.S. companies that sell
their product to U.S. consumers making $26,000 a year. U.S. consumers
seem to be both willing and able to pay a little more for a pair of
jeans so that the workers can earn a fair wage and the company makes
a fair profit. So, the question should not be whether maquilas are paying
more than other local businesses but whether they are paying a just
wage for all those who manufacture our products. Workers made in Christ’s
image deserve more than $6.00 a day. But what can we do?
1,000 workers, $7.00 a hour
$7,000 an hour
$56,000 a day
$280,000 a week
$14,560,000 a year
1,000 worker, $.80 an hour
$800 an hour
$6,400 a day
$32,000 a week
$1,664,000 a year
1: Buy only MADE IN THE U.S.A.
One option would be to buy only products made in the U.S.A. This would
allow us to be relatively certain that the treatment of workers producing
our goods met minimum U.S. standards. There are two principal problems
with this option. First, the company manufacturing in the U.S. is competing
with non-U.S. companies, both in U.S. and in other markets, which are
producing at much lower labor costs (see table). As a result the U.S.-made
products will be more expensive, a price some in the U.S. may be willing
to pay but which other countries probably will not. Second, while it
is true that the U.S. needs good paying manufacturing jobs, it is also
true that our brothers and sisters in countries like Honduras with extreme
poverty and high unemployment also need decent jobs.
It is interesting
to note a contradiction here. While U.S. companies argue that they need
to produce in countries with lower wages to compete with cheaper imports,
they are at the same time fighting to lower protections (such
as taxes on imports and quotas) against these imports while U.S. workers
are fighting for more. The reason the companies do not want
more protection from foreign competition in part is because it makes
them more competitive internationally, but also they have learned that
if they also produce overseas—even after passing as little of
the savings as necessary on to consumers, they can still reap much higher
profits than producing in the U.S. That is why a GAP t-shirt, made in
Honduras does not cost $5.00 less than one made in the U.S., and why
Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney, made $205 million in 1996 (about $100,000
an hour) while Disney workers in Haiti were making 31¢ an hour.
2: Boycott Honduran Products
Another option would be for all of us to boycott Honduran-made
products until companies guarantee all maquila workers a living-wage.
This is an attractive and fairly easy response but has serious side
affects that Honduran workers can not afford. First, an effective boycott
would cripple an already weak and poor economy. The maquilas provide
100,000 jobs, 26 percent of all manufacturing jobs and 27 percent of
export earnings. Second, while wages in Honduras are about 80 cents
an hour, they are only 49 cents an hour in Haiti, 20 cents in China
and as low as 10 cents in Bangladesh. So if we were successful in pressuring
Honduras to raise their wages to a living level, we can be certain that
the maquilas would quickly move to another country that can provide
cheaper labor. While focusing attention on abuses in a specific country
may slightly improve conditions and wages, any dramatic changes, which
increases costs for companies, will probably make that country less
attractive to companies and ultimately wipe out jobs.
3: Boycott Specific Companies
A third option would be to boycott specific companies,
such as Hanes, The Gap, Levi’s and Victoria’s Secret, which
are paying less than a living wage. The result of this sort of pressure
is likely to be similar to boycotting a country. Hanes may increase
wages but other t-shirt makers will continue to pay as little as possible.
If successful, this pressure will improve conditions for Hanes workers
but will make Hanes less competitive and decrease its profits and will
do little for the millions of non-Hanes maquila workers around the world.
One clear benefit from these two boycott strategies is that they do
make the general public aware of the problem, which is the first step
to finding a solution.
4: Focus on the System
I believe that for wages and conditions to improve for
the vast majority of workers, the U.S. and other consumer countries
need to address the system of globalized production. The first step
would be to establish voluntary minimum standards for wages and working
conditions for all workers producing for the U.S. market. The wage standard
could be determined based on cost of living and verified by independent
monitors. Products meeting these standards would be allowed to advertise
the fact by using, for example, a “NO SWEAT” label. Concerned
consumers might pay a little more for these products but would have
the assurance that the workers who produced them were treated justly.
After these voluntary
standards had been tested and refined, the U.S. and other consumer countries
could make tariffs and quotas dependent on these standards. In other
words, products that met these standards would have lower tariffs and
higher quotas than products that did not—providing an additional
economic incentive to companies to improve treatment and wages for their
workers. Improving wages and conditions for overseas’ workers
will also help U.S. workers. If they are forced to pay a just wage to
their overseas workers, U.S. companies will have less incentive to move
production jobs overseas and will be less justified in threatening such
a move against U.S. workers seeking raises or better conditions.
Can I Do?
Learn more about globalization and its effects.
2. Support organizations already working on this issue.
the presidential administration or your national government administration
and U.S. companies to pressure them to implement wage and treatment
or form a group (church, school or community) which works on this
and other social justice issues.
web site that can help:
National Labor Commission:
Implementing these voluntary and then mandatory standards could
happen tomorrow, but only if consumers apply pressure. The Clinton administration
began drafting standards in 1997 after Kathy Lee Gifford was targeted
for exploiting the Honduran workers producing her clothing line, but
as public pressure waned, the initiative stalled. However, there is
a growing movement on college campuses drawing attention to “sweatshop”
production of campus wear (see recommended web sites). What is needed
is quite simple (but not easy)—significant and sustained political
pressure to push industry and the government to implement minimum standards
for the treatment of any worker employed by a U.S. company. We need
to insist on what is fair—fair profits for companies, fair prices
for consumers and fair wages and conditions for workers. Wages and conditions
that recognize that all workers are image-bearers of God and our brothers
and sisters. I believe Christians, more than any others, should be at
the head of such a movement.