Mirna Barrientos is tired of waiting.
It’s been nearly two years since Barrientos was fired from the packing department of JNB Global, a factory in Guatemala that makes clothing for Target in the United States. She didn’t want to leave her job. For six years, the 40-year-old had hung tags on garments before they journeyed north to shelves and racks in Jacksonville, Fla., or Alameda, Calif. The pay wasn’t great but it was sufficient by Guatemalan standards. Critically, it allowed her to support her school-age brothers after the death of their mother left them in her care.
In November 2020, however, JNB Global did something to jar the daily rhythm Barrientos had settled into: It demanded that all its employees sign new contracts that would reset the clocks on their employment, meaning they would no longer qualify for benefits such as days of vacation based on their length of service. For Barrientos, those six years would no longer count. Instead, she would be treated as if she was a new hire. If she were laid off, she would receive less severance than she was entitled to.
“I imagine it was because they didn’t want to pay us our accumulated severance for the number of years that we had been working at the factory,” she told Sourcing Journal through a translator. The factory’s management didn’t provide any explanation, and Barrientos dismissed any economic woes in the wake of Covid-19 as a reason. JNB Global also did not respond to a request for comment.
Most of the employees signed the falsified contracts under duress. The factory had threatened to fire everyone without severance if they didn’t do so, she said. But eight refused to cave, including Barrientos.
“I told them I wasn’t going to accept this new contract because it basically erased my seniority,” she said.
A few months later, she and the other seven workers were let go without severance—or just cause. This is illegal under Guatemalan law, which requires companies to compensate non-offending employees for damages, equivalent to one month’s salary, for each year of continuous service. The country also has a legal concept known as ventajas económicas, or economic advantages, that tack on any non-cash benefits granted by the employer, such as health or life insurance, to the total sum owed.
When the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) took up the case on behalf of seven of the workers, it estimated that JNB Global owed them a collective $62,000. Barrientos herself filed a complaint with Guatemala’s Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, which calculated that she was owed $3,248. While the government isn’t always supportive of workers, she thought she could at least trust the legal process.
But the process proved to be a drawn-out one and Barrientos found herself making trips from one hearing to another, from the ministry offices to the factory floor. At one point, the inspector attached to her case died, requiring a new one to be assigned. Finally JNB Global agreed to pay her less than half of that—$1,427—over a period of five months. Her former colleagues came up against similar roadblocks, the WRC found. Altogether, the workers received less than $4,000, broken up into tiny installments.
“I didn’t get a lump sum that I could have used to invest in something or maybe start my own business,” said Barrientos, who had trouble getting reemployed. For a year and a half, the small sums were all she and her brothers could rely on. Until she found a job at another garment factory, she bought and resold clothing and perfume just to be able to cover food and rent.
Target, Barrientos said, is more than aware of the plight she shares with her former colleagues. For more than a year, they have written letters and sent emails, yet “they haven’t fixed the problem,” she said. When the WRC approached the big-box store with the results of its investigation, Target told the organization that it had conducted its own audit, only to find that JNB Global had fully remedied any violations it was guilty of. Target did not respond to emails seeking comment.
When a 34-year-old part-time Target employee named Adam Ryan heard about the JNB Global workers’ situation, he made their fight his own as well. Ryan, who is based in Virginia, founded a group called Target Workers Unite in 2019 to advocate for better pay and conditions for what he calls the retailer’s “rank and file.” And the Industrial Workers of the World’s maxim that “an injury to one is an injury to all” shouldn’t be limited to national borders.
“The main thing we’ve really been doing is just trying to raise awareness that this is even happening because I don’t think most people are really thinking about the hidden costs behind producing the commodities that Target shoppers want to buy and that Target workers in the retail stores and the distribution centers are helping facilitate them to buy,” he told Sourcing Journal. “And these hidden costs that Target is implicitly supporting.”
Target doesn’t own JNB Global, however. Like most brands and retailers, it outsources the work of making clothes and shoes. This tack has resulted in a central quandary for the industry: If a company isn’t responsible for a factory’s payroll, how culpable is it for wage violations not in its direct control?
Ryan doesn’t think the question is even up for debate. Since Target wouldn’t have products to sell without suppliers like JNB Global, then it is, for “all intents and purposes,” the employer of these workers, he said. This isn’t a new notion. For the past year, workers’ rights groups like the Asia Floor Wage Alliance have proposed the idea of joint employer liability. Brands aren’t merely “buyers” of garments, they argue, but rather their “producers,” making them liable for the conditions under which they are made.
Any other stance is “just some legal manipulation by parties that have the resources and the know-how to try to absolve themselves of responsibility for whatever is going on in countries like Guatemala,” Ryan said. Never mind so many corporations’ self-professed codes of conduct, he added. Target’s own code of ethics requires all business partners to provide legal compensation for all hours worked or services performed.
Barrientos has only one request of Target: pay what she and her former colleagues’ are owed—no more, no less. The retailer’s sales grew 3.4 percent year over year to reach $26.5 billion in the third quarter of fiscal year 2022. All she wants is “what is fair.”
“What we are asking Target is just to pay the rest of our severance because we’ve been fighting for this for a long time and we haven’t been paid,” she said. “The problem is still unresolved.”
So Barrientos continues to wait.