Ocean Sky Sweatshop In El Salvador: Women Paid Just 8 Cents For Each $25 NFL Shirt They SewNational Labor Committee]
Table of Contents
At the Ocean Sky Apparel Factory in El Salvador
- Women are paid just eight cents for every $25 NFL T-shirt they sew, meaning their wages amount to just three-tenths of one percent of the NFL’s retail price. The workers are trapped in poverty. But it does not have to be like this. If the NFL doubled the women’s wages to 16 cents per shirt, their wages would still amount to just six-tenths of one percent of the shirt’s retail price. The NFL/Reebok should be able to afford this.
- The 1,500 mostly women workers at Ocean Sky are locked in a Free Zone, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by guards armed with shotguns.
- Ocean Sky also produces garments for Reebok, Puma, Old Navy (GAP), Columbia, Talbots and Penguin (Munsingwear). The clothing enters the U.S. duty-free, despite the fact that El Salvador is in blatant violation of the labor rights standards in the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement.
- Workers report being drenched in their own sweat, since afternoon factory temperatures reach 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Workers are constantly cursed at and humiliated. Supervisors hurl garments in the workers’ faces. A manager recently told the workers: “You might as well stick your heads up your asses.”
- Factory drinking water is filthy and contaminated with fecal coli which can cause diarrhea, intestinal illness and infections. Six workers were fired for daring to alert their colleagues that the factory water was unsafe to drink.
- Security cameras inside the factory monitor the workers’ every move.
- Illegally, all overtime is mandatory. Under constant pressure to meet excessive production goals, many women arrive early to start working before their shift begins and work through most of their lunch break-unpaid.
- Workers earn a base wage of 72 cents an hour, and 92 cents counting the attendance bonus. No one can survive on such wages. Even the Salvadoran Ministry of the Economy puts the workers’ wages at one-quarter of a family’s basic needs.
- Anyone daring to even mention the word “union” would be immediately fired.
- The U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement has lead to a race to the bottom, where workers are stripped of their rights, paid below-subsistence wages and trapped in poverty.
- Corporate codes of conduct and company audits have failed miserably. In fact, the Ocean Sky workers have no idea what a corporate code of conduct is or how it could help them.
- The Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights and Women Transforming are calling upon U.S. and Salvadoran government officials, along with representatives from the NFL, Reebok, Puma, GAP, Columbia, Talbots and Penguin to meet with the workers in the Ocean Sky factory to explain to them-for the first time-that they have rights and should be treated with respect.
|Ocean Sky factory|
This report is the result of a collaborative research effort by Mujeres Transformando (Women Transforming), a Salvadoran women’s rights advocacy organization, and the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights office in Central America (formerly the National Labor Committee).
We became aware of the serious labor rights violations at the Ocean Sky apparel factory when Ocean Sky workers began attending training seminars at Women Transforming. For seven months, April through mid-October 2010, Women Transforming, the Institute and-most importantly-the Ocean Sky workers themselves, conducted research into factory conditions, including extensive interviews with workers, visiting workers’ homes, smuggling labels and pay stubs out of the factory, conducting lab tests of the factory’s drinking water and providing workers with thermometers to accurately track scorching factory temperatures.
|About Mujeres Transformando- MT.
Mujeres Transformando is a nonprofit women’s organization that organizes, trains and assists maquila workers to defend their labor and human rights. MT is based in the town of Santo Tomas, El Salvador, near some of the country’s largest Free Zones including the International Free Zone, where Ocean Sky is located.
Calle Masferrer # 161, Barrio Las Mercedes, Santo Tomas, El Salvador
|About the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights
The Institute for Global Labor & Human rights (formerly National Labor Committee) is a nonprofit human rights research, education and advocacy organization whose mission is to promote and protect worker rights in the global economy. Over the last 20 years, the Institute has led many of the major anti-sweatshop campaigns across the United States. Recently the Institute was asked by the world’s first global union, Workers Uniting, with over 2.5 million members in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Ireland to provide solidarity to some of the poorest and most exploited workers in the world. Workers Uniting was formed through a merger of the United Steelworkers union in North America and Unite-the-Union in the U.K.
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Paid Just Eight Cents for Each $25 NFL Steelers Women’s T-shirt They Sew
Workers’ wages amount to just three-tenths of one percent of the NFL’s retail price of $25 for the T-shirt.
If the NFL doubled the workers’ wages to 16 cents for each T-shirt they sew, the women workers could climb out of misery and at least into poverty. The hoped-for 16-cent wage would still only amount to six-tenths of one percent of the NFL’s retail price of $25.
What is the problem? Are we missing something else? Why can’t the women earn at least 16 cents for each NFL shirt they sew? Would the sky fall in and the NFL go under?
Why can’t we be a little more decent to the sweatshop workers who sew our clothing?
|Here’s How the System Works
Each sewing line, or module, has 14 workers who must complete a mandatory production goal of 1,500 T-shirts in the standard nine-hour shift. Management sets the goals and the workers have no say whatsoever. Each hour, the assembly line must complete 167 shirts, which means, in effect, that each worker must complete 12 T-shirts in that 60 minutes. The workers are allowed just five minutes to complete each shirt. That five minutes is just 8.4 percent of an hour, which means the women earn just eight cents for each NFL T-shirt they sew.
(1,500 T-shirts ÷ 9 hours = 166.66 T-shirts per hour; 166.66 ÷ 14 sewers = 11.93 shirts per worker per hour; 60 minutes ÷ 11.93 T-shirts = 5.03 minutes per shirt; 5.03 ÷ 60 minutes = 0.084, or 8.4 percent of an hour; 0.084 x 92 cent wage per hour = 7.7 cents per shirt.)
Ocean Sky Apparel S.A. de C.V.
International Free Zone
Phone: (503) 2302-9988
President: Mr. Edward Ang Boon Cheow
VP & General Manager: Ms. Ho Miew Leng
Secretary: Mr. Tai Fuey Chian
Chief of Human Resources: Ms. Isabel Sibrian
Ocean Sky International Limited, established in 1995, is headquartered in Singapore. It has manufacturing hubs in El Salvador, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Madagascar and Singapore.
In 2001, Ocean Sky began production in El Salvador under the name Hoons Apparel International, and in January 2008, changed its name to Ocean Sky Apparel. In 2008, Ocean Sky expanded from two plants to three.
In 2008, the Ocean Sky facility reported producing 1.2 million units-mostly T-shirts.
Currently, Ocean Sky is sewing cotton T-shirts, sweatshirts and sweatpants for the NFL, Reebok, Puma, Old Navy (GAP), Columbia, Talbots and Munsingwear’s Penguin labels.
There are approximately 1,500 workers at the Ocean Sky factory in El Salvador, the vast majority-upwards of 75 percent-of whom are women.
Organization of Production
Ocean Sky Apparel occupies three plants inside the International Free Zone. Plant #1 houses the main production lines and the packing department. Plant #2 contains the cutting section, two small sewing lines to produce samples and a storage warehouse. Plant #3 houses the printing and embroidery departments where NFL, Reebok and other logos are silk screened or embroidered onto the garments.
Plant #1 has 18 production lines, which are each divided into two modules where the garments are sewn. Each module has 14 sewing operators and a “team leader.” If they are sewing special styles, the size of the module can either grow or shrink.
The packing department has approximately 180 workers, who are organized into 18 groups, one for each sewing line. Each packing group has nine workers and one leader. As in sewing, most of those in the packing warehouse are women.
|“Free” Trade Zone?
The International Free Zone, where Ocean Sky is housed, is anything but free. The Free Zone walls are topped with razor wire. Armed security guards carrying shotguns are posted throughout the Zone. Workers must show their ID cards in order to enter the Zone. Unlike other factories, Ocean Sky management does not even allow its workers to leave the Zone to take their lunch outside.
In June, a former maquila worker who is now an activist was able to slip past the security guards when a large number of Youngone factory workers were returning after taking their lunch outside the Zone. She quickly walked about 100 yards to the Ocean Sky plant and took several pictures with her cell phone, trying to disguise what she was doing. Just as she was turning to leave, an armed security guard stopped her asking: “What are you doing? Are you a worker?” She responded she was a former worker at the Youngone Factory and she was looking for her friends, hoping she could get work there again. She asked the guard, “Why are you asking me all these questions?” He responded that “my co-workers have been watching you and you looked suspicious walking to Ocean Sky and then turning around.” He went on, “In the Free Zone it is prohibited for outsiders to be walking around and I must hold you and take you to my boss who may call the police.” Luckily, just at that moment, some friends she knew in Youngone came by saying hello to her. The guard then said, “OK, go, please.” and accompanied her to the gate carrying his shotgun.
It is possible that she was being watched by surveillance cameras inside the “Free” Zone.
According to Ocean Sky’s website, its “Vision-Mission-Values” include “Fun and Warmth.” Ocean Sky strives: “To provide a happy and caring environment. ‘Find a job that you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.‘” Ocean Sky is all about “teamwork.” “We encourage employee involvement and participation, and respect the individual contribution to our success.” Ocean Sky management is also committed: “…to enhance the quality of life and protect the environment of the communities in which we do our business.”
“Find Work You Love”
(Ocean Sky Management)
“We’re treated like animals. I tolerate working at the factory only because of my children.”
(A sweatshop worker at Ocean Sky)
Mayra, a supervisor in charge of the Inspection Department, holds a short daily meeting five minutes before each shift to help motivate the workers. Recently she motivated the workers telling them:
“You should pay attention to how many bootlickers are at the gate waiting for work. You are well paid here and you should take care of your job. Years ago people worked for a colón (11 cents) a day.”
Constant Shouting, Threats and Abuse
Pressure to Reach Excessive Mandatory Goals
According to the workers, the worst supervisors are Fredy and Marta Arbizu, who constantly shout at the workers to go faster to reach their goals.
Talking during work is prohibited. If workers are caught talking they are shouted at and threatened: “You shut your mouth and keep working.”
Supervisors who perceive some slight flaw in one of the T-shirts will grab it and hurl it in the sewer’s face, yelling “God damn you, why don’t you pay attention?”
“When I started in the factory, the group leader would hurl the garment in my face. I told her that I was not a dog and I didn’t like what she did. She responded: ‘You can’t say shit to me. Keep working.'”
|Ocean Sky’s commitment to “fun and warmth.”
Picture courtesy of Ocean Sky.
Another worker told us: “I feel my hands shake because of the constant pressure we are under. There is a man that is constantly measuring the time we spend on sewing a garment. Supervisors and group leaders are the ones that mistreat the workers the most. They tell us to quit if we don’t like the work.”
“We feel humiliated when the supervisors shout at us in front of our co-workers,” a worker told us. “Hurry up you idiots,” they shout, “You’re good for nothing; you better make the goal.”
Even the general manager of Ocean Sky insults the workers who cannot reach their goals. “You’re like shit,” she says, “because you won’t hurry up. You’re just shit.”
In October 2009, workers making samples were humiliated when the manager from Singapore-where Ocean Sky is headquartered-told them: “These samples that you made are like shit. They are useless. You might as well stick your heads up your asses.”
Another common refrain is: “You have to fulfill your goals or there’s the gate if you don’t want to work.”
“We are told that we have no right to demand anything, ‘because you’re in the factory to obey and work. If you want us to respect you, earn that respect, and don’t ever contradict what we say because we are your boss.’”
|Former Senior Worker Describes Abuse
And Exploitation at Ocean Sky
“It was an awful experience, working at Ocean Sky,” Ms. “B” told us late Friday afternoon, January 21, “because there was so much pressure and too much shouting.” She went on:
“We faced injustice because if we didn’t finish our [production] goals, we were punished as if we were children. They took away our time for lunch… and if we didn’t fulfill the goals, they kept us until 6:30 p.m. without any paid overtime.”
We asked Ms. B about the price of the shirts she worked on and she replied:
“At the factory we used to laugh to see that the cost of a single shirt is enough to pay for fourteen days of work, and a very tough fourteen days.”
Asked how the American people should feel about buying the shirts they made at Ocean Sky, she said:
“What I would tell them, in their conscience, that they should not buy these garments because of the exploitation and maltreatment all of us women workers suffer. We sweat there [in the factory] so that the shirt can be sold for so much and we are so exploited.”
We were surprised. Did she really want the production at Ocean Sky to be cut? Wasn’t she afraid of the loss of jobs? Ms. B was very smart…
“They always say that if we complain, no one will buy the shirts. But they are always sold, because there are people who are not with us, who don’t care and those people always buy. I think maybe the people who know how we are exploited will refrain from buying these shirts. Management always tell us, ‘if that doesn’t sell in there in the U.S., here we are going to be left without work and with nothing to eat.’ But in truth, we are always hungry anyway. If someone has a conscience in the U.S., they should feel guilty to be wearing such an expensive shirt while they don’t understand what it costs us here, being exploited.”
April through Mid-October 2010
According to the workers, beginning in April 2010, they began sewing Reebok’s NFL women’s cotton T-shirts with three-quarter length sleeves for the Steelers, Colts, Cowboys, Bengals, and Broncos. Steelers’ and Cowboys’ NFL women’s T-shirts retail for $25.00. Reebok also produced NFL women’s sweatpants for the Patriots, Bears, Packers, Broncos, Bucs, Bengals, and Browns. The logos were printed just below the waist of the pants.
Reebok also produced basic short-sleeved cotton T-shirts for men and women in various colors including white, grey, black, light blue, green, yellow and pink, with brilliant “Reebok” lettering across the front of the T-shirts.
Heavy black sweatshirts for men and women were also produced by Reebok. In May 2010, Reebok-including NFL-accounted for two production lines, which surged to six lines by September.
NFL garments were sewn at the Ocean Sky factory for at least four months-April, May, June and July, 2010. It appears that Ocean Sky has been producing NFL clothing for years. The workers were able to smuggle NFL production documents out of the factory from as early as July 2008. (See Addenda B for orders in May 2010 and July 2008)
Old Navy for GAP may account for the majority of production at the Ocean Sky factory. It is also the label that has been in the factory for the longest period, at least for the last five years. In May 2010, Old Navy T-shirts were being sewn on six production lines. In September, Old Navy production was cut back to three lines. Workers sewed Old Navy basic T-shirts for men and women in two styles, a V-neck and a round neck. The Old Navy label is stamped on the back inside of the T-shirts, which were produced in white, black, brown, and other colors. The workers told us that Old Navy representatives always demanded “very good quality for their products.”
In May, basic cotton T-shirts for Puma were being sewn on three production lines. The Puma T-shirts for men and women came in different styles-short sleeve, sleeveless and long sleeves-in white, black, blue, and red. The Puma T-shirts were shipped to the retailers Marshalls and T.J.Maxx. By the end of September, Puma production was down to two assembly lines.
Talbots sleeveless T-shirts for men, women and children in white, yellow and grey were being sewn on four production lines in May 2010, and continued to use four lines through the end of September. The workers commented that the Talbots T-shirts were especially difficult to sew because of a “binding” or reinforcement in the cotton.
In May, two lines were sewing men’s, women’s and children’s basic cotton T-shirts, some with long sleeves, in various colors for Columbia. At the end of September, two lines continued sewing Columbia T-shirts, some printed with various design and images including flowers and two fish forming a circle. Nor were the Columbia T-shirts cheap. A Columbia hangtag which was smuggled out of the factory showed a retail price of $36.00.
Penguin for Munsingwear
From May through the end of September, Penguin short-sleeve T-shirts for men and women in blue and black were being sewn on one line. The shirts sported a small figure of a penguin on the left breast.
An Appeal to the U.S. Government and the Labels
To Meet with the Ocean Sky Workers
We invite the United States Trade Representative’s office and representatives of the NFL, Reebok, Puma, Old Navy (Gap), Columbia and Talbots to meet with the workers in the Ocean Sky factory.
This is all we ask: Officials from the United States Trade Representative’s office (USTR) should explain to the workers that there is a U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement and that there are enforceable laws to guarantee that the government of El Salvador and the apparel companies respect the legal rights of Oeaan Sky workers. This will come as a great surprise to the 1,500 workers, who have never heard that there are laws to prohibit forced overtime, that they are to be treated with respect and paid correctly, and that they have the right to organize a union, bargain collectively and negotiate a collective contract. The Ocean Sky workers will be shocked! This will be the first time they have heard such words.
Representatives from the labels can explain how they have good practice codes of conduct that also guarantee the workers’ legal rights and that they carry out surprise audits to guarantee those rights. This too will surprise the workers who have never heard of any such codes of conduct by the companies.
The Fair Labor Association is welcome as well to address the workers as Ocean Sky is a “participating supplier” of the FLA. Moreover, “participating suppliers take ownership of their compliance programs and assume a leadership position by directly committing to implement in their facilities the same standards as FLA participating companies.” And two of the companies sourcing production at Ocean Sky, Reebok/Adidas and Puma, have also been accredited by the FLA for their good practices. This will be another shock to the workers, who have no idea how many rights they have and how many people, organizations, companies and government offices are advocating on their behalf.
We offer a special appeal to the Salvadoran Ministry of Labor to participate in this meeting.
The Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights’ (formerly NLC) office in Central America and the Salvadoran women’s rights NGO Women Transforming (Mujeres Transformando) will host the meeting. The research documenting working conditions at Ocean Sky was done by Women Transforming and the Institute, and both organizations are accompanying the workers in their struggle to gain their legal rights.
This is what we know: If the U.S. and Salvadoran government officials refuse to participate in the meeting with the Ocean Sky workers, then we will know that the labor rights provisions in the U.S.-CAFTA are meant for show only, with no intent to concretely implement any of the worker rights. It is similar with the companies: If they will not participate in the meeting with the workers sewing their garments, then we will know that the over half dozen corporate codes of conduct and attempts to monitor are actually designed to fail.
It is possible that the labor rights provisions included in the U.S.-CAFTA and all the corporate monitoring efforts are, in effect, just a smoke screen behind which the corporations run the show lock, stock and barrel.
The Salvadoran workers and the U.S. consumers have the right to know. After all, the garments sewn at Ocean Sky enter the U.S. duty free. This trade privilege must come with some qualifying conditions.
Afternoon Temperatures Routinely Reach 98 Degrees
Despite tropical temperatures year round in El Salvador, Ocean Sky management has had all factory windows sealed shut and insists on closing all doors once the workers are inside to begin their shift. According to the workers, the factory has dust extractors but no ventilators to circulate fresh air.
We asked several workers to carry in small thermometers and record factory temperature every hour. We did this for four days from Tuesday through Friday, April 20 to 23. In El Salvador, the period from the end of February to May is the hottest season of the year. When the rainy season begins in late May, temperatures moderate slightly. Workers’ records show that afternoon temperatures in the factory routinely reached 98 degrees in late April. Even at 8:00 a.m. in the morning, the factory temperature had already reached 90 degrees. Attempts to continue monitoring factory temperatures at Ocean Sky had to be stopped when management began increasing the number of body searches of workers entering and leaving the factory. Workers were afraid of being punished or fired if security guards found them carrying thermometers.
In addition to the 98-degree factory temperature, the workers explained that the assembly lines were so closely packed together that they could feel the heat on their backs thrown off by the sewing machines behind them.
“We feel dizzy from the heat” one worker told us. Others complained of headaches and being exhausted by 2:00 p.m., and if it was not for the loud music blasted throughout the factory many workers would be dozing off due to the extreme heat.
One sewing operator explained: “We can feel the sweat running down our legs. We sweat so much our shirts stick to our bodies. It feels so uncomfortable. When I get onto the shuttle bus I am ashamed because I smell so bad every day.”
Rather than install sufficient ventilation, let alone air conditioning, Ocean Sky management blasts loud music-Reggaeton and Bachata-with a deafening beat to keep the workers awake. In addition to the music, workers are surrounded by the droning roar of hundreds of sewing machines as the workers race to meet mandatory production goals.
Not Fit to Wash with Let Alone Drink
The workers get their drinking water from taps inside the factory. The workers carry small plastic bottles into the factory, which they fill up at the tap and take to their workstations. This helps them avoid being scolded for getting up too often to drink water. However, the workers have often complained that the water has a “bad taste” and thought there was something wrong. When the workers asked about the water quality, supervisors always responded that “the water is filtered and is good to drink.”
We provided the workers with sterilized lab bottles so they could gather water samples, which could then be tested and analyzed at a quality control laboratory. We did this in April 2010 and again at the end of August.
The lab results showed that the workers were drinking water containing fecal coli, which means the water was polluted with sewage that can cause diarrhea and salmonella. Two other bacteria were also found in the water, the Pseudomona aeruginosa and heterotrophic bacteria.
|Water test results of April 2010|
The laboratory reported the following regarding the drinking water at the Ocean Sky factory:
“We have found a large amount of bacteria in the water, and it is serious. The water is totally polluted, and can cause sickness in humans such as diarrhea, stomach pain, stomach infections, nausea, vomiting, and can foster conditions for parasites and amoebas. The Pseudomona aeruginosa bacteria can grow in small cuts in the skin and can cause skin infections even for workers who have small cuts on their hands if they wash with this water.”
“We recommend an investigation of the water pipes, a cleaning of the pipes using chlorine, and to check and clean the filters, or install new filters.”
Six Workers Were Fired
for Daring to Mention That
the Factory’s Drinking Water Was Seriously Contaminated
A woman in the packing section was aware of the results of the water tests and gave her co-workers the heads up to avoid drinking the factory water, which could make them sick. She suggested they bring bottled water with them into the factory.
Somehow management found out that a handful of workers in the packing department were aware that the factory’s drinking water had been tested in a lab and found to be polluted and unsafe. Fearing word would spread throughout the factory regarding the unsafe water, management fired six workers from the packing department.
On Monday, May 17, at 4:25 p.m., a staff person from the Human Resource office went to “Ms. A.’s” work station and told her:
“‘Ms. A’ come with me to the Human Resource office and bring all your personal belongings.” When she arrived the chief of Human Resources, Ms. Isabel Sibrian, told her: “We know you are a good worker but unfortunately we’re cutting the number of workers. Here you have your check with the complete amount we owe you.” She received her yearly severance check of $188.00. She was fired. The following day five more workers on her line were also fired.
After firing the women, management took to the loud speaker telling the workers that management was going to improve the quality of the drinking water and install new filters as well as cleaning or replacing defective pipes. Workers did observe that work was done on the pipes and filters.
Ocean Sky is run pretty much like a minimum security prison where the workers, or “inmates”, are prohibited from speaking or questioning anything regarding how management runs the factory. Under such a system, doing the right and natural thing-to alert your friends and co-workers to beware of the factory’s drinking water because it is polluted and can make them sick-must be immediately stopped and punished by firing the workers without cause.
In the last week of May, management announced that new filters had been installed and that “the water was now purified and 100 percent safe to drink.”
In August, we decided to test the drinking water again to see if management was telling the workers the truth. Unfortunately, the lab results received on September 2 showed that the water was still laced with bacteria and is “too polluted to be used as drinking water.” The Pseudomona aeruginosa bacteria was still present which can cause diarrhea and stomach pain. The lab recommended that the filters must be periodically checked and water samples taken every month to see if the pollution continues. If bacteria persists, some of the pipes may need to be thoroughly cleaned and replaced.
“Ms. A”, the first worker fired for revealing that the factory’s drinking water was dangerously polluted, told us she never wants “to return to the hell-hole at Ocean Sky.”
|Water test results of August 2010|
Ocean Sky management has installed surveillance cameras throughout the factory, in the locker area where workers enter; on the production floor; in the packing department; and even outside the workers’ bathrooms. Workers say they constantly feel pressured and intimidated knowing they are being monitored at all times. They also try to use the toilet as little as possible knowing that even their trips to the bathroom are being recorded. If they use the bathroom too often they are chastised.
When asked, workers said they were aware of just one corporate code of conduct, that of Puma, which is posted on a wall near the bathrooms. Management has never explained Puma’s or any other company’s code of conduct, and ten or more years into the corporate code of conduct frenzy the Ocean Sky workers still have no idea what a corporate code of conduct is, let alone how it could help them. All they know is that surveillance cameras monitor the bathroom area where Puma’s code is posted, and everyone is afraid to be seen “wasting their time” looking at a piece of paper that has never had a practical effect.
There may very well be other codes of conduct posted by the different labels, but the workers we spoke with had never heard of them.
Corporate auditors however appear to regularly pass through the Ocean Sky factory. In a five-month period, from May through the first week of October 2010, auditors from Reebok, Puma, Old Navy, Columbia, and other labels visited the factory. Sometimes the auditors do not speak with the workers but rather focus on inspecting their lines of production, checking for quality control. Other times auditors do try to speak with the workers.
In preparation for the auditors’ visit, supervisors alert the workers to “…Clean your work station carefully and don’t say anything that could hurt your family. If you’re asked something difficult, say ‘I don’t know, you should ask the supervisor.’ Don’t put your foot in your mouth. Because if something goes wrong, the factory could be closed and you need your jobs.”
As back up, Ocean Sky management has trained a group of senior workers in how to respond in interviews with the auditors. Management also selects the most recently hired workers to speak with the auditors. The new workers do not know their legal rights and they are so frightened of being fired that they are easily manipulated by management. Whenever possible, management selects the workers who are ushered into the factory’s administrative offices to meet with the auditors.
When all is said and done, at the end of the day, all that really counts is that the concrete impact of corporate auditing at the Ocean Sky factory remains at the zero level.
In appreciation for workers who exhibit “good conduct” year round, management rewards them with gifts at the end of the year. Workers who do not miss a single day of work in the year, who always arrive on time for their shift, who “cooperate” with compulsory overtime whenever management demands it, who never question their supervisors and always obey, and who do not use the bathrooms or drink water too often will receive a toaster or a set of dishes as their reward.
The regular work week in El Salvador is 44 hours. The Ocean Sky factory operates on a 9 ¾ hour shift, from 6:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with a 45-minute lunch break from 11:15 a.m. to noon. On Fridays, the shift begins at 6:45 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m. There are no breaks other than lunch.
According to Salvadoran labor law, all overtime must be strictly voluntary. Workers cannot be coerced or threatened to remain working, they must volunteer of their own free will. But Ocean Sky management operates by its own set of rules, demanding that all overtime work be strictly mandatory. And to show just how little Ocean Sky management has to fear from the Ministry of Labor and its dysfunctional Labor inspectors, management forces the workers to sign a clause which reads:
“Given the nature of the work carried out, your work shift will be, without further process, subject to overtime work according to the needs of the company, whenever this is required.”
This illegal “contract” obligating the workers to remain for overtime whenever management wants it was signed by Ocean Sky’s general manager and vice president, Ms. Ho Miew Leng. At Ocean Sky, management calls the shots. The Salvadoran Ministry of Labor is not a player, and the workers have no voice. (According to the Salvadoran Labor Code, the Ministry of Labor must receive a copy of any work contract or clauses within one week of its signing by management and workers. Obviously, the Ministry of Labor did not take the time to even glance at the contract that blatantly violates its own labor laws.)
The Salvadoran Labor Code is clear that all overtime must be voluntary and limited. Article 170 stipulates: “Overtime work may only be agreed upon on an occasional basis when unforeseen or necessary circumstances demand it.”
In fact, almost all Ocean Sky workers are desperate to work overtime to augment their regular wages, which fall far below subsistence levels. Often management provides the workers just one hour’s notice before the shift’s end that they must remain working overtime. Especially for families with small children, this creates havoc for the parents. Nor do workers know when they will get out of the factory, as they must remain working however long it takes to complete the production goals.
Women who plead that they cannot remain for overtime that day because they have no back-up care for their young children will be punished and prohibited from working any overtime for the next month.
Real Working Hours at the Ocean Sky Factory in 2010
From April through June, 2010, routine factory hours at Ocean Sky were:
Monday 6:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Tuesday 6:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday 6:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Thursday 6:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Friday 6:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Saturday 6:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
There is a lunch break of 45 minutes and, when the workers are kept until 8:30 p.m., a supper break of 30 minutes. Under this shift, the workers were at the factory 68 ½ hours a week and actually working 62 ½ hours, including 18 ½ hours of mandatory overtime.
|Ocean Sky workers take their lunch outside the factory.
They are not permitted to leave the Free Zone during their break.
But it gets even worse. Since many of the workers feel pressured to reach their excessive production goals, they race through their lunch period, taking just 15 minutes and working the other 30 minutes of their break without pay. Moreover, many of the workers come to the factory early and begin working at 6:15 or 6:30 a.m. rather than the 6:45 a.m. starting time just to get a jump on their production goal. This extra 15 minutes to half hour of work is not paid. This means many workers are putting in an extra four and half to six hours a week of unpaid work. These workers would be toiling 67 to 68 ½ hours a week.
In the last week of April, workers sewing large orders for Puma and Talbots were required to work 13 ¾ hours a day, Monday through Friday, which meant they were at the factory 68 ¾ hours, while working 62 ½ hours after deducting the lunch and supper breaks. That week, they were forced to work 18 ½ hours overtime. But even those long hours were not enough to complete the orders on time for shipment. The following Saturday, May 1-Labor Day, which is a major national holiday in El Salvador and throughout Central America-Ocean Sky’s general manager, Ms. Ho Miew Leng, told the workers that, “The 1st of May is like any other day and it is not a holiday.” She went on to comment that, “The only thing the Salvadorans want to do is party.”
Factory management then forced the workers to sign a “bi-lateral agreement” in which the workers “volunteered” to work overtime on the May Day holiday. By law, working on a national holiday must be paid at a 200 percent premium, or $2.16 an hour. Management refused to pay the holiday premium and instead paid the workers the regular overtime premium rate of $1.44 per hour. Not only were the workers illegally forced to work overtime, they were also cheated of their full wages.
Just two weeks earlier, on April 14, 2010, workers on the sewing lines producing for Puma and Talbots as well as the packing department were forced to work a 22 ½ hour shift from 6:45 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. the following morning. Supervisors told the workers that since the shipping deadline was urgent, they “should give a little help” to the company and stay working all night.
In July and August 2010, production slowed down slightly at Ocean Sky and the workers were at the factory 63 hours a week while toiling 58 ½ hours, including 14 ½ hours of obligatory overtime.
Their working hours during this period were:
Monday: 6:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday: 6:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday: 6:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Thursday: 6:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Friday: 6:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Saturday: 6:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
By September and October, production slowed down considerably and the workers seldom worked overtime. This brought its own problems, since the regular wage for 44 hours a week amounts to just $175.41 a month, just a fraction of what a family needs to survive.
The base wage in El Salvador’s garment factories is just 72 cents an hour. However, if workers do not miss any workdays or arrive late, they are paid an attendance bonus, which brings their wage to 92 cents an hour. These are below subsistence wages, trapping the garment workers and their families in poverty.
Garment Workers Wages
in El Salvador
72 cents an hour
$5.76 a day (8 hours)
$31.68 a week (44-hour week)
$137.70 a month
$1647.36 a year
In El Salvador, as in much of Latin America, workers can receive a “Seventh Day Attendance Bonus.” If workers do not miss a day and are not late for work, they will be paid the minimum wage for eight hours a day, seven days a week.
Base Wage Plus the Attendance Bonus
92 cents an hour
$7.36 a day (8 hours)
$40.48 a week (44-hour week)
$175.41 a month
$2104.96 a year
By law, all overtime must be voluntary and paid at a premium. Regular overtime work is paid at a 100 percent premium based on the base wage of 72 cents, which comes to $1.44 an hour. Overtime work on a holiday must be paid at a 200 percent premium, or $2.16 an hour.
Other benefits include an annual vacation pay of $26.05. Workers with one to three years in the same factory will receive a $57.76 Christmas bonus, while those who have been there longer can receive a higher bonus of $86.85.
Ocean Sky workers are paid every two weeks through a direct deposit in an account at a local bank. The workers can access their wages through an ATM machine.
At the Ocean Sky factory workers are not allowed to keep their pay slips. They are allowed to only briefly review their pay slips, sign them, and return their slips to a supervisor. The workers complain that the pay slips are very complicated, with writing in Spanish and English, and many columns and abbreviations. They have no real idea if they are being paid correctly, especially the overtime, as management has never taken the time to explain on what basis the calculations are made.
Instead management allows the workers to keep a tiny pay stub with no details on their regular wages, overtime, or incentives.
Thought no one takes the Salvadoran government’s Ministry of the Economy too seriously, their data is indicative that Ocean Sky garment workers are paid well below subsistence levels. In December 2009, the Ministry of Economy calculated that the typical Salvadoran family of 3.81 people would need to earn $759 a month to meet their most basic needs. (The Ministry of Economy has not yet posted its 2010 data on its website.) The basket of necessities put together by the Ministry includes housing, food, utilities, transport, education, shoes and other necessities.
At Ocean Sky the workers earn a regular wage of $175.41 a month, which is just 23 percent of the ministry’s estimate that a family needs $759 to meet their basic needs. Let’s suppose both parents work at Ocean Sky, earning a combined $350.82, this is still less than half-46%-of what the family needs to survive.
The workers themselves estimate that if they cut every corner and stretched every dollar they could scrape by on $600 a month. But again, even if both parents were working, their combined regular wage would come to $350.82, which is just 58.5 percent of what they need. To hang on by their fingertips, both parents would have to earn $69.23 a week and $1.57 an hour. It is really not too much to ask for. Their demands are incredibly modest.
The surest way to judge Ocean Sky’s wages is to visit the workers in their homes. Garment workers basically have two choices, either rent tiny two-room apartments near the factory for $60 a month, with one bedroom and a combined kitchen and living room, or move outside the city to live in semi-rural slum areas, where you can have a little more space for less money. On the other hand these are often dangerous neighborhoods, with the “homes” built of corrugated metal with “outhouses” for toilets.
|Latrine outside workers’ home|
|Washing area outside workers’ home|
Workers and their families survive on a diet of rice and beans, with cheese and a lot of corn tortillas, which are cheap and cost just five cents. For lunch, to save money, the workers eat just tortillas and cheese.
Whether the tap water is safe or not in the Ocean Sky factory, the workers drink the tap water since bottled water is too expensive.
Workers who sew NFL and Columbia T-shirts for export to the U.S. duty free and cost $25.00 to $36.00, can only afford to clothe themselves and their children in second-hand clothes shipped back from the U.S.
|Sleeping and kitchen area in Ocean Sky workers’ home|
The only thing that saves the workers is overtime. In April 2010, workers were receiving sufficient overtime pay along with production incentives that allowed many workers to earn $50 to $75 a week, or $200 to $300 a month. Those earning $75 a week were only the most skilled and fastest workers.
No matter what they do or how many hours they work each week, the Ocean Sky workers always come up short. They sew expensive T-shirts for the NFL, Reebok, Puma, Gap, Columbia and others but they live trapped in poverty.
It does not have to be this way! The workers are paid less than eight cents for every NFL T-shirt that they sew. Can’t we do a little better than that?
The Missing Link
Where is the U.S. Government?
It took significant pressure over many years, by scores of human and labor rights activists across the world, to convince multinationals outsourcing their work in the developing world not to hire 12-year-olds, allow rape or gross sexual harassment, not to allow workers to be beaten or to be forced to work 100-plus hour work weeks. These are just some of the human rights gains over the last 20 years. Corporations have learned that child labor, rape, beatings are the third rail they never want to touch.
But efforts to further promote and protect human, women’s and worker rights in the global economy have hit a brick wall. Over time, corporations and their PR machines responded by coming up with their own good practice codes of conduct and corporate audits of factory conditions. Corporate monitoring efforts have, by and large, failed miserably. A case in point, in 2001 the U.S. Government signed a free trade agreement with the country of Jordan. At the time, it was hailed as the best FTA ever negotiated since it contained enforceable worker rights protections at the core of the agreement and not in some sidebars as was the case with Mexico and NAFTA. However, over the course of the next five years and in broad daylight, the U.S.-Jordan FTA descended into the human trafficking of tens of thousands of foreign guest workers to Jordan, who were stripped of their passports, forced to work grueling hours seven days a week, while being cheated of their pay, beaten and housed in filthy primitive dorms. The foreign guest workers were treated like indentured servants.
What happened to all those corporate codes of conduct and factory audits over those five years? The sad truth is that nothing happened. The corporate codes existed side by side with slave labor conditions. Nor are we speaking about small players. Among the labels being sewn under criminal conditions in Jordan were Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Sears, GAP, L.L. Bean, Hanes, Gloria Vanderbilt, Wrangler, etc. In other words, over five years, with more than a dozen of the largest U.S. retailers and apparel companies monitoring their hearts out, they could not find a single one of the torrent of violations that were taking place right under their noses.
Corporations of course have a perfect right to their codes of conduct and their self monitoring of factory conditions. All we are saying is that their audits do not work.
All progressive change in the U.S. to protect human, women’s and worker rights has come from either social movements or legislation and government policy. The anti-sweatshop social movement did its job helping to end child labor and slave labor conditions. However, when it comes to the everyday worker rights issues enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ILO’s internationally recognized worker rights standards-decent working conditions, no child labor, freedom of association, the right to organize a union and bargain collectively-the social movement has hit a brick wall. Under the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement, Central Americans sewing garments for U.S. companies-which enter the U.S. duty-free-still have no rights or voice. Workers daring to ask for change are routinely fired and blacklisted. Far from guaranteeing their legal rights, the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement has not resulted in a single gain for the hundreds of thousands of workers in Central America producing goods for export to the U.S.
The missing link in protecting worker rights has been the U.S. government and its agencies-the United States Trade Representative’s office, State, Labor and Commerce Departments and U.S. embassies across the world. What we are finding is that our government has negotiated some very important treaties which, on paper, have expanded core labor rights protections for workers in many countries, especially those we have free trade agreements with. The worker rights standards are there, but they are suspended in space somewhere, unable to touch the ground.
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