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Central American Factories Accused of Exploiting Workers During COVID-19 Crisis

Labor activists are charging the owners of “maquiladoras” in El Salvador and Honduras of using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to slash wages, lay off workers and repress unionization efforts.

Employees at these largely foreign-owned and duty- and tariff-free Central American factories, which assemble raw materials into products for export, are expected to work as usual despite government edicts designed to stem the spread of the contagion, according to the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO-aligned international worker rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

In Honduras, most factories halted operations after the government banned groups larger than 50 after March 15, yet several outliers, including a Gildan plant that employs 2,400 workers to make T-shirts and sweatshirts for overseas market, refused to comply, Tula Connell, senior communications manager at the Solidarity Center, wrote in a blog post on Friday.

It was only when workers threatened to alert the media of the plants’ illegal activity that they were finally released, she said. A similar scene unfurled at Fruit of the Loom factories, where workers united in protest before they were allowed to go home.

“Workers need to demonstrate their collective power at the workplace—and that’s what we saw here,” Eva Argueta, coordinator of organizing maquila workers for the General Workers Central (CGT) union confederation, told Connell. “That’s what we need to see everywhere, because people can’t be exposed. It’s a matter of health and lives.”

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Argueta, who negotiated with the Maquila Chamber of Commerce to ensure workers would be paid during plant closures, said employers wanted workers to swap in their vacation for the week the factories closed, though they ultimately agreed to pay them. Negotiations are still ongoing, however, to ensure that workers receive not only the minimum wage but also the pay they were allotted before.

“Workers are not responsible for their employers’ business losses, and it shouldn’t be taken out of their wages and benefits,” she said.

In neighboring El Salvador, where the government shuttered all public and private enterprises on March 16, managers at plants where unionization efforts were taking place asked their workers to sign “severance agreements” that provided immediate payment on the one hand, but also ensured they would not be rehired on the other, Connell wrote.

“The employers hope to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to close factories rather than negotiate with workers,” she said.

Although the government requires employers to pay garment workers for the time closed, FEASIES, a federation representing maquila and domestic workers, anticipates that many workers will not be paid or even rehired.

“Garment workers have struggled for decades to form unions, which for many years were repressed with violence,” Connell said. “Today, workers seeking to form at maquilas face strong opposition from employers, and do not have collective bargaining rights.”