Skip to main content

Coronavirus Outbreak Roils Guatemala Textile Plant Where 200+ Test Positive

More than 200 workers at an export-focused textile plant in Guatemala have tested positive for COVID-19, in what could potentially be one of the nation’s largest outbreaks.

Zulma Calderon, the health prosecutor for Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor’s office, said the department began receiving reports in early May that infected workers were continuing to work at the K.P. Textil plant in San Miguel Petapa even though the company wasn’t taking protective measures, the Associated Press reported. Calderon said she had asked authorities to establish a health barrier around the plant to try to avoid further contamination, but the spread has likely already occurred.

K.P. Textil plant manager Francisco Reyes denied that authorities told him workers had tested positive before he decided to close the plant on May 12 for two weeks.

Mynor Morales, the mayor of San Miguel Petapa, noted the factory’s outbreak worried residents, particularly as the town is home to other export-oriented factories. After hearing of the positive results, health workers tested people at some of the small food stores near the plant and received other positive results for the virus. Morales was evaluating with his lawyers whether to file a complaint against the factory’s owners to establish whether there was negligence on their part.

The closure of the plant is one of a few instances that has thrown a wrench into the ties between American retailers and their manufacturers. U.S. goods and services trade with Guatemala totaled an estimated $13.8 billion in 2018, but textile manufacturing has played a major role in their relationship, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. In fact, knit apparel is the U.S.’s second-largest import from Guatemala, with $1.2 billion worth of merchandise entering the country in 2018. Woven apparel is the fourth-most imported, at $290 million.

Related Stories

Like their counterparts in Southeast Asia, Latin America’s textile and apparel makers are struggling to cut losses as fashion brands canceled or postponed orders at the start of the pandemic. Apparel lobby group Vestex’s president Alejandro Ceballos estimated earlier this month that Guatemala had been hit especially hard. “In Guatemala, we have lost $400 million of orders of $1.6 billion in total annually,” he said.

At least seven Guatemalan factories are set to shutter this week amid the sharp decline in orders and social distancing restrictions in the warehouses, according to the Central General de Trabajadores (CGT) of Guatemala. As many as 60,000 workers are expected to be laid off across factories nationwide. Labor activists have accused the owners of “maquiladoras” in other Latin American countries including El Salvador and Honduras of using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to slash wages, lay off workers and repress unionization efforts.

One sportswear and knitwear manufacturer, Startex, was initially set to halt production for two months due to $10 million in unpaid payments from retail customers Nautica and Tommy Bahama, but the company reneged and remained open due to a sudden demand spike upon retailers reopening stores in the U.S.

Overall, Guatemala has reported more than 3,760 confirmed infections and 59 deaths, according to World Health Organization data current through Wednesday.

Outbreaks at other export-oriented plants have been reported elsewhere in Latin America, especially Mexico where border assembly plants tried to continue operating during the pandemic.