Magazine article New Internationalist

Life on the Line: It Makes No Difference Whether You're in San Antonio, Texas or Tehuacan, Mexico, If You're a Migrant and a Woman Who Stitches Jeans for a Living You Can Be Sure of a Mean Deal

Magazine article New Internationalist

Life on the Line: It Makes No Difference Whether You're in San Antonio, Texas or Tehuacan, Mexico, If You're a Migrant and a Woman Who Stitches Jeans for a Living You Can Be Sure of a Mean Deal

Article excerpt

Beneath the roller coaster of global styles and markets lies a seismic shift, shaking the lives of the women who stitch jeans together. Women in the developing world, and migrants to the First World, increasingly find themselves working on what feminists have dubbed the 'global assembly line'. Constant restructuring and global integration mean that a ripple at one end of the line can slap women workers like a tsunami tidal wave at the other. The experience of Mexican immigrants working for Levi Strauss & Co in San Antonio, Texas, and indigenous migrants in Tehuacan, Mexico, reveals the perils of life and labor along the global denim line.

Fuerza Unida - 'United Force' - is a women-workers fightback organization baptized when Levi Strauss & Co closed down its Zarzamora Street plant in San Antonio, Texas, in 1990 and relocated operations to Costa Rica. The plant was Levi's largest in the US and was not unionized. As the biggest in San Antonio's history, the closure wrought havoc in the community.

Of the 1,150 workers who suddenly found themselves out on the street, 86 per cent were female and 92 per cent Latinos. Many received less than 24-hours notice. Denied useful retraining and other assistance, they lost not only their jobs but their peace of mind.

Viola Casares, a co-coordinator for Fuerza Unida, recalls: 'As long as I live I'll never forget how the white man in the suit said they had to shut us down to stay competitive.'

Petra Mata, also a co-coordinator, remembers: 'People screamed, cried, fainted. When you lose your job you feel like nothing but trash, a remnant, a machine to be thrown out. They take away your dignity. You get scared. How are you going to pay for the car, the house, the kids to eat and go to school? Hijole! After so many years of working for Levi's overnight we had nothing.'

Viola, Petra and their co-workers were not the first - or the last - victims of Levi Strauss & Co. Between 1981 and 1990 the company closed 58 plants and put 10,400 people out of work. It shifted about half of its production overseas, where the best-paid seamstresses made about a tenth of the wages of their US counterparts. By 1990 Levi's had 600 subsidiaries and contractors in developing countries around the world, including Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Late in 1991 a Levi's contractor in the US Pacific territory of Saipan was accused of keeping imported Chinese women in virtual slavery, confiscating their passports and forcing them to work 84-hour weeks at sub-minimum wages. A contractor in Indonesia who had been given a clean bill of health by a Levi's inspector was found to be strip-searching female workers to determine whether they were menstruating as they claimed and thus were entitled to a day off with pay in accordance with Muslim law. Employees of a former Levi's contractor in Mexico said that at least ten children aged under 14 worked at the plant; workers were laid off for a few days if they went to the toilet 'too often', and rain-water poured through the roof, collecting in puddles and causing electric shocks.

After cutting 1,000 white-collar jobs in February, in November 1997 Levi's announced plans to close 11 of its US plants in Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee and Texas, employing 6,395 workers [Symbol Not Transcribed] of its total manufacturing workforce in the US and Canada. Media reports said the announcement followed a year-long Levi's evaluation of its US plants, yet workers and local public officials were taken completely by surprise. There were union demonstrations in front of Levi's Europe headquarters in Brussels when Carl von Buskirk, CEO of Levi's Europe, said that 'measures - including closures - could be announced in 1998 concerning certain facilities'.

Sylvia Alvarado, a Saint Mary's University student in San Antonio, called her mother to find out how her relatives were taking the closure of the Levi's plants in El Paso. …

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