Solidarity with Workers in Guatemala

by Theresa Wolfwood

Rosita Escobar

Jennifer Moore is a bland English name. So why, when I am looking at women’s clothes in a department store and see that name on labels, do I think of Guatemalan women and children bent over sewing machines?

Rosita Escobar came to Canada recently to tell us about these thousands of women and girls who work in sweatshop called maquilas, special export producing factories in tax- haven zones in Guatemala, that produce the garments that end up in our fancy shops with inflated prices. Jennifer Moore is just one of hundreds of labels used to produce clothing for our consumption –crazy society.

Rosita is the director of The Women in Solidarity Organization (A.M.E.S. in Spanish). The group started nine years ago in a city park when women came together on a Sunday afternoon with few resources except their desire and hope to organize. They were given $1200 by a supporter and won a car in a bank raffle. They were soon on their way.

The group now has regular meetings and workshops on Sundays. This is the only day off for the workers who toil a sixty-six hour week. Yet hundreds of women have the energy to be “united in a world of hope” as Rosita says, “this unity gives them hope in the midst of pain and exploitation.”

Although the civil war has ended in Guatemala, the peace agreements with the promise of land reforms, democracy and social security has not been implemented. Just this year there were violent evictions of 500 communities from rural land. The military is still very much in control. The women and children from these rural evictions and other desperate city dwellers, about 150,000 of them, are forced to find work at one of the many maquilas. Although it costs $300 for a family to just exist there, the average maquila worker in Guatemala City makes about $200 a month. So children leave school early and join their siblings and mothers on a school bus that transports them to a dirty, crowded, poorly ventilated factory. In spite of a few gains things are getting worse. Children can work legally at twelve, but many seven and older work in factories. The elderly have little security and few get a decent pension. Even the hospitals that are supposed to serve the poor charge fees.

A.M.E.S. works with similar group in Nicaragua and Honduras where wages are even lower. Unity and solidarity are important; all maquila workers deserve better conditions, not the inevitability of factories moving on to regions of even lower wages and higher profits. Knowing that similar and worse working conditions exist in many countries, A.M.E.S. fosters links and communication with other groups globally.

Every Sunday workers attend workshops in achieving gender equality, labour and human rights. A.M.E.S. gives training in nurse’s aides courses. A small hospital gives the women basic health service. Mobile clinics tour the communities where families live and work. A labour court for workers is in the planning. The group also works in the community giving support and encouragement for social transformation in the greater society.

A.M.E.S. has initiated youth programs, recreation as well as education in human rights and health, including sexually transmitted diseases. Legal advocacy is offered to those in trouble.

Rosita told us that solidarity is important; she observed that we have human rights abuses in Canada and believes awareness and solidarity strengthens everyone. “We get the energy to organize when we build solidarity”, she said. She urged us to work with civic governments, trade unions and institutions here to demand “sweat-free” products and to support fair trade through purchasing regulations as well as through public education. Already many universities in Canada are committed to not buying sweatshop products.

I left the store empty handed. I do not really need a “Jennifer Moore” shirt, but these workers do not want a boycott either, they need their jobs, Rosita told us. So I puzzle about how to reconcile our vast buying power with livelihood of Guatemalan maquila workers. I plan to approach more store owners with information and try to get them to buy “sweat-free” products and to ask fair trade stores to expand into factory produced goods. I decide to send a donation to A.M.E.S., at the very least, the amount of the profit bloated price of the shirt I fancied.

Send donations to the sponsor of Rosita’s tour, The Ecumenical Task Force for Justice in the Americas. Make cheques payable to ETFJA (mark: for A.M.E.S.), P.O. Box 65899, Stn. F., Vancouver, V5N 5L4, BC.