Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Gildan, maquillas, model cities and simplistic responses to complex problems

It’s amazing how simple the problems of Honduras seem to some people a few thousand kilometres away.
A handful of slogans, some recycled rhetoric and unsupported claims, and presto, a theory.
A fine example has been the blind libertarian enthusiasm for a plan to create “model cities” in Honduras, effectively independent fiefdoms, run, at least initially, by the investors.
Another was offered in a recent Internet opinion piece on Canadian textile company Gildan’s manufacturing centres in Honduras.
The 20,000 employees, the piece said, “are basically slaves, and their status will likely remain unchanged, or get worse.”
“With a growing number of U.S. military bases of occupation, and the murderous dictatorship of Juan Orlando Hernandez solidified, profits are basically guaranteed for transnational sweatshops in what is essentially a state-sanctioned Slaver's paradise,” the writer maintains.
It’s a good example of a failure to look seriously and critically at a challenging issue.
There are legitimate concerns about working conditions and the barriers to effective union representation at Gildan and other employers in Hondura’s maquilla sector, where tax-free status and other incentives have lured foreign workers.
There is also recognition that the 130,000 jobs are desperately needed and that labour standards and pay both good by Hondurans standards.
The minimum wage for maquilla workers is about $270 a month. That’s not rich, but by comparison, agriculture workers are paid $120 to $180 a month, and work six days a week.
And Gildan employees actually get the minimum wage. Between 70 and 85 per cent of Honduran workers don’t receive the legislated minimum wages. Many, including public sector workers, frequently don’t get paid at all. It’s common for employers to say sorry, not enough money this week.
The article paints a grim and unsupported picture of working conditions, too.
“By age 25, chronic work injuries, coupled with poor medical treatment, often prevent workers from performing their fast-paced tasks,” it reports. “Worse still, once a worker leaves Gildan, she is likely to have irreversible health problems which preclude her from finding alternate employment. Some women need crutches to walk; others can't hold their babies or do housework.”
It would be helpful to let readers know what “often” means in the first sentence, and what the source is for the information. (Hopefully not 'someone from Honduras told me.') 
And is there evidence to show that workers who leave Gildan are all “likely” to be permanently disabled, as the Internet piece claims? 
Workplace improvements are needed. Last year, CODEMUH, a leading women’s rights groups, filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights because the Honduran government had failed to respond to health and safety issues, citing the cases of 47 women who had received disabling injuries. But there is zero evidence that all workers are “likely” to end up disabled.
I haven’t toured the Gildan plants. Those who have suggest that some improvements could be made and piecework incentives can lead to a focus on production over workplace safety. 
But that, on balance, they are not bad workplaces.
The article also states categorically “Unions are not allowed, collective bargaining is not allowed and human rights are not a concern.”
That’s false. The Gildan operations are unionized and there is bargaining. There are serious problems, including documented examples of intimidation and efforts to thwart union activities by managers. Throughout Honduras, exercising labour rights is an enormous challenge, sometimes met with violence. Those points all needed to be made.
But there have also been tripartite negotiations between the three largest national labour confederations, government and industry on wages and other issues for the entire maquilla sector and there are unions.
Maquillas aren’t an unmixed blessing.
The companies were lured by big tax breaks, including a 10-year total tax holiday. It’s hard to run a government without tax revenues. (Though tax exemptions here are out-of-control. American fast food franchises, owned by rich Hondurans, got a 10-year tax break because they supposedly encourage tourism. Teachers have, inexplicably, a permanent exemption from paying income taxes.)
And there is always the risk that some other country will come up with a better deal and the industry will collapse.
But the issues are complex and deserve serious discussion, not hyperbole.
Calling the workers’ “slaves” is inaccurate and insulting. Hondurans make choices about their futures. From a more limited range of options than many - but not all - North Americans enjoy, perhaps, but they are not slaves. 
Calling Juan Orlando a “murderous dictator” is inaccurate. Last month’s elections were flawed, but the consensus of international observers was that the results - at least at the presidential level - were representative. (Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was one of the first to congratulate Orlando.)
And the “murderous” allegation is silly. There is violence and impunity in Honduras. In a six-month period before the elections, 18 candidates or organizers from Libre, the left-wing opposition party, were murdered. But in the same period, 11 candidates or organizers from Orlando’s party were murdered. But there is no basis to call the incoming president murderous.
Honduras is a mess. The government is virtually broke, inequality is staggering and 74 per cent of the population live in poverty, with 47 per cent in extreme poverty. The murder rate is the highest in the world and almost all institutions - schools, courts, police, government - don’t really function. 
But Hondurans, ultimately, are going to have to create their own solutions, with international help.
Superficial prescriptions from North America and Europe, of all political stripes, are contributing nothing to the discussion and look much like another form of imperialism.