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Slaves To Fashion It’s A Sweatshop, But At Least It’s Work What Americans Perceive As Exploitation Is A Step Up For Most Hondurans

Each morning, the workers spill off the buses and past the guards at the front gates of the industrial parks here, rushing to punch the clock before the 7:30 start of their workday.

Outside, anxious onlookers are always waiting, hoping for a chance at least to fill out a job application that will allow them to become part of that throng.

With wages that start at less than 40 cents an hour, the apparel plants here offer little by American standards. But many of the people who work in them, having come from jobs that pay even less and offer no benefits or security, see employment here as the surest road to a better life.

“In the countryside, a peon is a peon for all of his life,” said Yensy Melendez, 29, a father of two and former farm worker who migrated seven years ago to this bustling city of 350,000 near Honduras’ Caribbean coast and now has a factory job. “Here, it’s not perfect, but at least you have a chance to improve your situation.”

What residents of a rich country like the United States see as exploitation can seem a rare opportunity to residents of a poor country like Honduras, where the per capita income is $600 a year and unemployment is 40 percent. Such conflicts of standards and perceptions have become increasingly common as the global economy grows more intertwined, and have set off a heated debate about international norms of conduct and responsibility.

The recent controversy involving the television personality Kathie Lee Gifford and a line of clothing made in Honduras that bears her name provides a widely publicized case in point.

To critics in the United States, the apparel assembly plants, known in Spanish as maquiladoras, are merely “monstrous sweatshops of the New World Order,” to use the phrase of the National Labor Committee, the New York-based group that originally accused Gifford of turning a blind eye to Hondurans working for “slave wages.”

The National Labor Committee, a non-profit group, is largely financed by foundations but also receives money from labor unions in the United States.

The debate over what constitutes adequate wages, what minimum working conditions should be required and at what age it becomes permissible for minors to work continues here and in other developing countries that have eagerly welcomed assembly plants as a source of employment for the poor.

Whether workers think they are better off in the assembly plants than elsewhere is not the real issue, argues Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee. Employers, he said, have a moral obligation to pay not merely what the market will bear, but a wage they know to be just.

“The salaries being paid in a place like Honduras amount to less than 1 percent of the price of the garment in the United States,” he said. “That’s a crime.” Companies could easily double their employees’ wages, he added, and “it would be nothing.”

But many of the people who work here and are most familiar with conditions in the plants argue that the situation in Honduras, at least, where about one-fifth of the clothing workers are unionized, is far more complicated than portrayed in the American debate over “sweatshops.”

To make any kind of sweeping generalization is dangerous and misleading, many said during interviews here with more than 75 apparel workers and union leaders and visits to half a dozen plants, including the one that made clothes for the Gifford line. Many here say critics from the north are more interested in protecting jobs in the United States than in improving the lot of Honduran workers.

Yes, workers and employers here say, some companies verbally abuse their workers on a regular basis, insist on compulsory overtime, impose unreachable production quotas or dismiss employees who become pregnant in order not to have to pay maternity benefits. But other plants supply a subsidized lunch and free medical care to employees, are modern and air-conditioned, have agreed to union shops and generally respect workers’ rights.

“You will find varying conditions and outlooks here,” said Israel Salinas, president of the Federation of Independent Workers of Honduras, one of three rival labor groups seeking to organize the approximately 75,000 employees who work in the estimated 160 assembly plants in this country. “It all depends on whom you talk to and where you go.”

The clothes for the Kathie Lee Gifford line were produced by the Global Fashion plant at the South Korean-run Galaxy Industrial Park just north of town, which has been singled out by human rights advocates here and abroad as being especially harsh and abusive to workers.

In an interview at the plant, Paul Kim, president of Global Fashion, acknowledged that his company required compulsory overtime of its employees, had a high employee turnover rate and might demand more effort of workers than some other companies here.

But he denied Diaz’s charge of systematic abuse, and described the regimen here as a form of tough love that works for the good of all concerned.

“Korea used to be a poor country, like Honduras,” Kim said, speaking in Korean through a Spanish-language interpreter, “but we have had a lot of development because we worked very hard. The more you work, the more you earn. That’s what Central America needs if it is going to become prosperous.”

A decade ago, Honduras had virtually no assembly plants, and poor people had few options. Now, the factories have absorbed so many workers that they are creating labor shortages that have helped drive up wages for workers in other sectors, including agriculture, forestry, mining, fishing and even domestic work, traditionally the worst paid and most abusive.

“It used to be easy to get a nanny or a maid, but not now,” said Jesus Canahuati, whose family owns an industrial park and several assembly plants here. “Everybody wants to work in the maquilas, because they represent an opportunity for a better life.”

Another sharp difference of perspective surrounds the issue of teenagers working in the assembly plants. The National Labor Committee and other critics in the United States contend that the practice, widespread here, is “destroying a whole generation of young women” and have called for American apparel concerns to stop doing business with all suppliers who hire children.

But all three of the leading labor federations here, including unions that have worked closely with the National Labor Committee in denouncing abuses of workers, disagree with that position.

Instead, acting in accordance with the demands of members whose own children are already working, they want the Honduran government to enforce regulations that are already on the books.

Under Honduran law, adolescents between the ages of 14 and 16 can be employed for up to six hours a day. To do so, they must first obtain the permission of their parents, which is usually readily granted, and of the Labor Ministry, also easily obtained in a country in which education for the majority of the population ends at sixth grade.

“This country is not the United States,” said Evangelina Argueta, a labor organizer in Choloma, a suburb just north of here with a large concentration of industrial parks. “Very few Honduran mothers can afford the luxury of feeding children until they are 18 years old without putting them to work.”

Nevertheless, responding to complaints from the United States and to the fears of blacklisting that have arisen as a result, the Honduran Maquiladora Association says its members have now stopped hiring any workers under 16. Union leaders and workers say factory owners have also been reviewing their personnel records and dismissing all employees who are minors.

But that does not mean the dismissed youngsters are returning to school. On the contrary, management and labor agree that most of the children have instead sought new jobs outside the assembly sector that are lower paying and more physically demanding or are buying fake documents in an effort to sneak their way back into the apparel plants.

Kernaghan acknowledged that his group’s effort to end child labor had produced unanticipated consequences. “Obviously this is not what we wanted to happen,” he said.

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