Labor Solidarity Brings Change in the Dominican Republic: Workers Use U.S. Law as Leverage Abroad
Berman, Karl, National Catholic Reporter
SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic - Mayra Jimenez, a woman in her 20s, lay in bed in her tiny apartment in San Pedro de Macoris, one of 26 towns in the Dominican Republic where products for export to the United States are manufactured. She winced periodically with pain, interrupting her narrative. Jimenez had just had ovarian surgery.
But, as secretary-general of the United Federation of Free Trade Zone Workers, she insisted on talking about working conditions for some 160,000 Dominicans, mostly young women, who assemble apparel, jewelry and electronic components for U.S. markets.
She had reason to be excited. Jimenez and other union organizations had struggled for years to improve conditions in Dominican assembly plants with little success. In the last half of 1994, however, the unions achieved dramatic breakthroughs. Several assembly firms signed union-recognition contracts or interim agreements to improve working conditions - the first such agreements in the 25-year history of the Dominican export zones.
These achievements are largely due to international, cross-border solidarity that has intensified between workers in response to the globalization of production by transnational companies.
Many Dominican products enter the United States duty-free or at reduced rates under the Generalized System of Preferences or the Caribbean Basin Initiative, programs allegedly designed to help Third World nations grow economically by increasing their exports and attracting foreign investments.
But critics, including labor unions, environmental groups and some development experts, say multinational corporations - not developing countries - are the ones who reap immense profits from these agreements. By setting up assembly plants in places like the Dominican Republic, the companies soak up the benefits of "misery wages," a lack of health and environmental controls and tax breaks given to companies operating abroad. They downsize highly paid, family-supporting jobs in the United States while contributing little or nothing to the economies of the host countries, these critics argue.
The Dominican Republic ships more than $2 billion in products to the United States annually. Among Latin nations it is second only to Mexico in the importance of its export-assembly manufacturing sector.
But, in spite of this profitable market demand, and even with strides made last year, Jimenez said most workers in the Dominican export-processing zones still face deplorable conditions. They earn a mere 50 cents an hour, often working in sweatshop conditions. Not uncommon in factories, Jimenez added, are "lock-ins," where workers are bolted inside buildings to force them to work overtime. Employers, Jimenez said, then cheat workers on overtime pay.
Occupational safety is commonly absent from the workplace, Jimenez said. There are few protective devices and ventilation is deficient; consequently, workers are frequently exposed to hazardous and toxic substances.
When workers get sick, Jimenez said, they are often denied health care because scores of employers in "the zones" don't make the payments required by law.
Another union member, a woman in her 30s who requested anonymity, said companies prefer hiring women in their teens and 20s because they consider them more dexterous, easy to intimidate and less attached to responsibilities outside the factory.
The woman said she operates a sewing machine at Pandora Fashions, earning $22.50 for a 44-hour workweek before overtime.
Pandora is Dominican-owned, but its workers assemble women's garments under contract to U.S. companies - an arrangement that is becoming common as U.S. multinationals seek to reduce their expenditures and liabilities in the Third World to compete in an expanding global marketplace. Such contractual arrangements give corporations more mobility, allowing them to shift operations easily to the cheapest production site of the moment. …