MANAGUA – At 5:30 am the sun is rising over the Las Mercedes industrial park. The walkway into the park is long, at times multiple railings appear as if organizing queues for a theme park. On either side is a tall chain link fence, giving the appearance that those who come this way are being funnelled into the factories beyond. At the very end is a sentry post where workers bags are inspected by guards before they head into the factories.
Along the walkway market stalls are being set up. It’s an instant mall for the workers, where they can buy anything from toilet paper to prescription drugs – no prescription required. The vendors know what their clientele will need over the course of the day.
We are here to hand out small booklets as part of a campaign organized by Maria Elena Cuadra, a women’s rights organization that is pushing for social change throughout Nicaragua. The booklets describe the contents of a new law about violence against women. This is significant in a country where violence against women, including rape, is not only commonplace, but deeply ingrained in the social culture.
The booklets were produced with funding from Oxfam and CIDA and have a little Canadian flag on the back.
The first few workers arrive and are happy to take the booklets. Soon it turns into a torrent as thousands of workers come down the walkway. We are prepared, the members of our delegation working with the women of MEC to get a booklet to everyone.
One man says he likes to hit women. Another man says he wants copies to give his friends and thinks the work MEC is doing in important.
The security guards do not hassle us, only asking that we shoot our video a little further away from the main gate. The new law is supported by the First Lady of Nicaragua, although the government appears to be doing little itself to advance the issue. The companies inside the gates are supportive and ask for their own copies.
MEC has loudspeakers at the entrance playing music in between ads promoting MEC’s campaign. The workers are well aware of who MEC are.
At 7 pm it stops abruptly, that last few workers trickling into the zone. When we see the emptied walkway it’s evident that not a single worker discarded the booklet.
On the way back to our bus the music was still playing and a bus driver was dancing on the steps of his vehicle while finishing the last of his breakfast. All around are numerous buses that have brought the workers here.
The free trade zones were begun in Nicaragua to attract investment. In an age of savage capitalism, the government of the day felt it necessary to get into the game. Free trade zones do not play by the same labour rules as the rest of the economy. Today more than 100,000 Nicaraguans work here for low pay and in often deplorable conditions. Most of these workers will start at 7 am and finish at 7 pm. Many will work longer than that if they have not met their production quota that day.
We are told that while the U.S.-owned factories are the best, it is the Korean factories that raise the ire of the workers. Women who have worked in these factories tell us of the difficulty in receiving the pay they are owed, in getting the factories to honour their state-legislated benefits, of monstrous working conditions including a limit of one visit to the toilet all day long. Another worker is assigned to time these toilet breaks. Some factories do not permit workers to move freely within the factory, insisting that they stay at their post for the full shift.
Later than morning we visit one of the better U.S. factories. The factory has been in existence for 12 years. For the past nine years the factory’s client has been Levis. Today the workers are making Dockers pants destined for the U.S. and Argentina.
It is unusual for us to be let inside one of these factories, but management here have had a good working relationship with both MEC and the local union.
Workers at the plant work from 7 am to 5:30 pm each day. They receive a 30-minute lunch and a morning break of 15-minutes. Minimum pay in this factory is $50 per week – which is high in the free trade zone. Minimum wage in the zone is $70 per month. Keep in mind an average family needs almost $500 a month to be able to afford the most basic of needs.