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Successful Anti-Sweatshop Campaign Agtainst Nike in Mexico

Successful Anti-Sweatshop
Campaign Agtainst Nike in Mexico

October 8, 2001
Mexican Labor Protest Gets Results
The New York Times
By GINGER THOMPSON

TLIXCO, Mexico, Oct. 3 < At the time, it seemed an insignificant act of
disobedience. About 900 workers at Mexmode, which produces sweatshirts for
colleges in the United States, boycotted the company cafeteria because they
were fed up with finding worms in their salads.

But their defiance set off a combustible chain of protests that led to
negotiations from the wealthiest corners of the first world to the most
impoverished depths of the third.

Marcela Muñoz, 23, a seamstress turned labor leader, still seems amazed by
all the attention. "Eyes around the world have been focused on us," she
said.

Mexmode < an assembly factory, or maquiladora < is a principal supplier of
college sweatshirts to Nike and Reebok. Hearing that Mexmode workers were
fired for their cafeteria boycott, leaders of an activist coalition
supported by students and administrators from about 85 American colleges and
universities rushed here to investigate.

The group, the Workers Rights Consortium, heard complaints about low wages,
verbal abuse and corruption among union officials, then began a high-profile
campaign that threatened the image of the Nike swoosh.

Nike, the world's largest athletic shoe and clothing manufacturer, had
already come under fire for similar conditions at Asian plants. Nike
officials pressed Mexmode managers to abide by corporate codes of conduct
that guarantee fair conditions for workers.

Laura Cano for The New York Times

A group of workers at the Mexmode factory in Atlixco. Changes won there,
including the ouster of a government-controlled union, give encouragement to
Mexico's fledgling independent labor movement.

As a result, workers at Mexmode, most of them single mothers in their 20's
with elementary school educations and no prior work experience, have
received two raises this year. The cafeteria food now seems safe for human
consumption. Some employees even say it tastes good.

Child laborers have been removed from production lines. The 450 seamstresses
and machine operators at Mexmode recently won the right to kick out corrupt
labor leaders and form their own union.

The actions at Mexmode invigorated the American anti-sweatshop movement.
Labor experts argue that the changes here prove that corporate codes of
conduct can reach across borders to protect workers' rights in regions of
the world where labor laws are weak or poorly enforced.

"This fight showed that globalization has another face," said Huberto Juárez
Núñez, a labor expert at the Autonomous University of Puebla. "Companies are
going to be required to do more than abide by weak regional laws. Their
codes of conduct must set global standards that treat workers as world
citizens and guarantee them certain levels of dignity and respect."

The changes won in this scenic city filled with colonial churches some 70
miles southeast of Mexico City, a center of the textile industry since the
1930's, have also provided help for Mexico's fledgling independent labor
movement.

With an explosion in the number of foreign-owned assembly plants since the
North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect seven years ago, labor
organizers hope the movement at Mexmode will inspire workers in 3,400
foreign-owned assembly plants across the country to fight against poverty
wages and unsafe workplaces.

The fight will be a tough one. In recent months, in a tough economy, open
acts of intimidation by government-controlled unions have shut down
campaigns by independent unions and raised concerns about President Vicente
Fox's commitment to labor reforms.

As the first opposition politician to win the presidency in more than seven
decades, Mr. Fox promised to promote workers' rights and to dismantle labor
organizations that had operated hand in glove with the former governing
party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Critics charge that Mr. Fox has so far forged alliances with traditional
union leaders and turned a blind eye to their corruption.

Under the former governing party, unions operated as pillars of the
political machine, looking out for the interests of the employers. Workers
were forced to belong, were rarely included in negotiations with management
and never received a clear accounting of how their dues were spent.

Talking over plates of enchiladas and lemonade, Mexmode workers, who still
earn $4.50 to $5 a day, said that conditions had improved but that they did
not make enough money to support their children, and so they were forced to
rely on their parents. Most of their men, they said, migrate to the United
States.

"How can a man support his family on $5 a day?" asked Josefina Hernández
Ponce.

During a tour of the $25 million factory, which can produce 500,000
sweatshirts a month, Hoon Park, the general manager, pointed out that
workers got free breakfast and lunch, birthday cake and performance awards.

Ms. Muñoz was one of the workers fired after the cafeteria boycott. When
workers turned to their former union leaders for help, Ms. Muñoz said, they
were ignored.

Officials of that union, the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and
Peasants, did not respond to several telephone requests for interviews.

In early January, Mexmode workers walked off their jobs and staged a sit-in.
Police officers forcibly removed workers from the plant, and managers
refused to let protest leaders return to work.

In response, leaders of the United Students Against Sweatshops staged their
own protests outside Nike stores and offices across the United States.
Officials from the Workers Rights Consortium and from Nike conducted
separate investigations of conditions at Mexmode.

"The burning question on U.S. campuses has been whether colleges and
universities can really make a difference in the conditions in overseas
factories," said Scott Nova, the executive director of the Washington-based
consortium. "Now we know the answer is yes."

Sportswear companies including Nike and Reebok have come under fire from the
anti-sweatshop movement for conditions in the factories across Asia as well.
And mirroring the workers' triumph here in Mexico, a new semi-independent
trade union in a tennis shoe factory in China has won new rights for its
workers.

The cross-border campaign prompted Nike to press managers at Mexmode to
reinstate the ousted workers, to create a formal grievance process, to
address complaints of harassment by its managers and to improve cafeteria
conditions.

A Nike spokesman, Vada Manager, said the company takes seriously its power
to make sure that its suppliers adhere to fair labor practices. He said some
50 employees at Nike were assigned to monitor compliance with the corporate
codes of conduct.

"We remain vigilant about these issues," Mr. Manager said. "We have learned
a lot" at Mexmode, he added, "that will allow us to apply new monitoring
rules at other factories."

Two weeks ago, after Mexmode managers revoked the former union's collective
bargaining agreement, workers were granted the right to form an independent
union. Membership is voluntary. Yet leaders of the new union said they have
already signed up 80 percent of the plant's workers.


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