Tag Archives: Nicaragua

Video: Inside the Nicaraguan Maquilas

OPSEU is engaged in solidarity work that extends well beyond our borders. In February we travelled with Cobourg’s Horizons of Friendship to look at development projects in Nicaragua. Our 9-part BLOG has been well received, and there is a possibility of an unexpected future development partnership arising from it. Meanwhile, after catching our breath, and with the help of OPSEU’s Anna Jover, we have edited some of our material into a short video that focuses mostly on our day in the Nicaraguan Maquilas — the free trade sweatshops. Seldom do activists get inside these factories — we were fortunate that this factory happened to have a good working relationship with the local garment union and the Horizon’s sponsored women’s organization, Maria Elena Cuadra. As such, it is considered a good employer compared to some of the other free trade factories despite its long shifts and $50 a week pay. As the general manager freely admitted on camera, he was only able to take his workers from “misery to poverty” and raised the necessity of an international minimum wage. Maybe the time has come. To watch our video, click on the box below.

Nicaragua Day 9: “From misery to poverty”

This is one of the better factories in the free trade zones.

This is one of the better factories in the free trade zones.

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.

Factory workers make Levis Dockers at one of the better employers in the free trade zone.

Factory workers make Levis Dockers at one of the better employers in the free trade zone.

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.

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Day 5: The other Nicaragua

GAme day at the Puerto Carvaza ball park.

Game day at the Puerto Cabezas ball park.

PUERTO CABEZAS – The lobster fisherman of Puerto Cabezas don’t take boats out and cast traps in into the sea. Instead they take groups of men out in boats to dive into the sea to catch the lobsters by hand. It may be less efficient than their counterparts in Atlantic Canada, but it employs nearly 5,000 in this municipality of 320,000.

The problem is there are too many divers and the lobsters in the shallow waters have become less bountiful. That has pushed the divers into deeper waters. We were told that 1,400 divers have become ill from decompression illness. Some have died.

At the offices of the regional government we were told they were like to change the way fisherman gather lobster, but setting traps would employ many fewer in a region that already suffers from high unemployment. Like all Nicaraguan problems, this is one that will have to be solved over time. A new form of employment is needed for those that would be displaced by changing the nature of the fishery.


Puerto Cabezas is on the northern end of the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. The colonial powers that have come and gone have left the residents speaking both Spanish and a Creole English in addition to the Miskitu language. It has also influenced the housing, a mix of Caribbean and Spanish styles, that is when the four walls aren’t made up of scrap wood and the roof a hunk of tin. Many of the homes here are up on stilts to avoid the flooding from hurricanes that sweep in from the Caribbean.

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Nicaragua Day 2: A sense of persistence against tremendous odds

MANAGUA — The entire Managua tour bus erupted with laughter when the guide suggested that Canada was a balanced country.

The young Nicaraguan was trying to describe how Nicaragua had skittered from the “dictatorship” of Anastasio Somoza to the “dictatorship” of the Sandinistas. Canada was supposed to be a model of what his country truly needed – balance.

Yet he describes Daniel Ortega, recently re-elected in 2011 as Nicaragua’s President, as a champagne socialist who portrays himself as a “practical socialist.”


That practical side is raising eyebrows as the Sandinistas have a new slogan – Christianity, Socialism and Solidarity – a sign that the Sandinistas were finding new accommodation with the conservative Catholic Church. There is even a faith park near the National Palace with an obelisk commemorating the visit of Pope John Paul II.

Managua is an odd city. Scarred and scared by the 1972 earthquake that devastated the Nicaraguan capital, there are few high-rise buildings despite a population of 1.4 million people. The low-rise capital is spread out overlooking Lake Managua and a distant landscape of volcanos. The guide tells us that earthquakes are a regular part of life here, the ground under their feet rattling at least once a month.

The capital Managua.

The capital Managua.

It is also a young city, but different from our own. When wages are so low, the population doesn’t wander around staring at their smart phones. For most, things are decidedly low-tech here.

While the setting is dramatic, the city is far from attractive, much of the historic architecture that most cities exploit for tourism purposes lost to either natural disaster or revolution. While Nicaragua is a beautiful country, Managua is a visual blight in it.

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Nicaragua Day 1: In the flash of this moment

“In the flash of this moment / you’re the best of what we are / don’t let them stop you now / Nicaragua.” – Bruce Cockburn (1984)

MANAGUA – Nearly 30 years ago I had lunch with Bruce Cockburn as preparation for a feature I was to write about the singer-songwriter’s tour of Guatemala and Nicaragua. Having lunch in the old Hotel Nova Scotian, I asked Bruce about his trip, and it was more than an hour before I got to ask the second question, not that I needed to ask any more.

While I did my best to tell his story of witnessing the early days of the Sandinista revolution and the horrors he learned of in Guatemala, he said it best himself with the album Stealing Fire. One minute he’s angrily pounding out “If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” the next stirring hope with “Nicaragua” or “Dust and Diesel.”


Cockburn was not the only pop culture artist to get swept up the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution. Rolling Stone magazine still considers the Clash’s “Sandinista” to be among the top 500 albums of all time. It seemed everyone was watching Nicaragua.

Thirty years on you don’t hear as much about this Central American nation wedged between Costa Rica to the south, El Salvador and Honduras to the north, bordered east and west by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As part of my preparations to come here I spoke with someone at my bank, who wanted to know how one spelled ‘Nicaragua’ and where it was.

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