Gildan T-Shirts are a Tight Fit for Workers in Honduras

Protest outside a Gildan plant in Honduras after a worker gets fired.

San Pedro Sula     ACORN in Honduras has almost one-hundred members in the town of El Progresso, one of the many maquila centers for out-of-country manufacturing companies on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula and this area which is the industrial heart of Honduras.  Since the biggest employer is Gildan, the Montreal-based t-shirt and textile company with a 1300-worker factory in town, not surprisingly some of our members work there.

After some chaos with directions, I found the union offices of FUSEP Sindicato SITRASTAR that represents workers at the El Progresso Gildan plant.  Of the fifteen Gildan plants in Honduras, I learned that the El Progresso plant was the only one with an independent workers’ union.  There are three others that were described as having company unions, leaving eleven with no representation.  Gildan has 24,000 workers in Honduras of its 42,000 globally, so this is a huge center of their production.

Wikipedia makes the comment – without sourcing – that Gildan’s practice of fast lines and low pay allows them to undercut Chinese factories.  Maybe so, maybe no.  Gildan’s global footprint seems to map the textile industries race to the bottom for wages with plants elsewhere in Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Haiti.  Abuses at the factory in Haiti has attracted the attention of the Workers Rights’ Consortium (WRC) in several reports.

Union officials told me that they had recently signed a new four-year agreement.  Their situation was better than what they understood from talking to workers in other plants in Honduras, but there was no bragging about the contract.  They clearly had felt like they had signed the contract with a gun to their heads and the threat of the plant closing if they didn’t accept the terms.  Unless I misunderstood, they had ended up with a reduced and conflated piece rate, mandatory overtime, and a line speedup, much of which was imposed unilaterally. Heads were shaking without smiles over these developments.  Carpal tunnel and repetitive motion problems were rampant from everyone’s reports.

And, these were the workers that had it best in Gildan Honduras!  We spent a long time in the meeting hearing about reports from other plants in the north, partially around Rio Nance, where Gildan had an even larger concentration of factories and workers.  There were rumors that WRC was in contact with the company about these conditions and waiting for a response concerning various abuses.  It almost goes without saying that I heard numerous reports of plant activists being fired for beginning to organize in the factories.

This is the devil and the deep blue sea in lower wage worker exploitation.  24,000 jobs is huge in a country like Honduras.  A threat to pack up and move to even lower wage countries is impossible to ignore, because that has been the sordid tale for most of the textile industry, not just Gildan.

For our own members and these workers, ACORN and our allies will have to see how we can stand in solidarity here.  In a month when ACORN Canada is meeting in Montreal, this will be on the agenda.  Nonetheless, it’s a stacked deck with few good cards to play in our hands.

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“The Organizer” a Big Hit at the Festival des Libertes

mural on National Theater commemorating the Festivale and a critique of the war

Brussels      Perhaps the most interesting question I have gotten at a screening of “The Organizer” in a long time came from Professor Philippe van Parijs of the University of Louvain in Belgium, a noted scholar long recognized over many decades as an expert and advocate of universal basic income.  He asked a several part question, as many did, but the second half was the unique part of his inquiry.  After watching the movie and living along with the audience the ups, downs, and ups of ACORN and the victories and defeats I had experienced, he wanted to know how I managed to weather the storm and seemed “so relaxed and happy” as I stood to answer questions after the showing?

My answer was my usual.  My perspective on the work – and life – as a struggle to be met every day in a battle to resist, persist, and sometimes prevail.  Perhaps in fairness, he might have observed what should have been obvious to the audience.  It was hard NOT to be relaxed and happy.  There was a full house for this first ever showing of the film with French captions on the biggest screen I felt I had ever seen, partially perhaps because I had ended up after a TV interview sitting on the second row on the aisle feeling like the whole film was sitting in my lap.  The hosts had been prepping Adrien Roux of ACORN’s affiliate, the Alliance Citoyenne and me, about the details since shortly after noon – six hours before, so it was great to finally have this part over and hear the repeated and appreciative roar of applause from the audience.

Somewhere in the heat of the experience was also just the wonder and adventure itself, and my feeling of pure luck at getting to be a part of it all.  Not knowing what to expect from moment to moment, but being open and ready to accept the experience, enjoy it, and even learn from it, is part of the key.  The Festival des Libertes was not your usual film festival.  It was a multi-media kind of event that focused on empowerment and social change.  I had not realized it until the afternoon, but the “debate” listed on the program was not another word for question-and-answer period, but after the screening and the Q&A, it was actually a back-and-forth about the value and impact of community organizing.  How great is that?  No matter what rocks might be thrown, the fact that the film and the story of ACORN’s experience had triggered a discussion already proved the fact that community organization was steel plated.  Opinions had to be registered and weighed.  Organizing and building organizations, unions, and social movements was serious business and had to be considered soberly as a subject of inquiry and engagement.  Debate?  What debate?  From the opening bell, we had already won any possible argument, leaving the rest to naysayers and back-benchers.

More than 100 people had saddled back up for this second session and, unbelievably to me, they hung in until after 10pm, way past the point of common sense and good judgement.  I was tired and hungry, but I couldn’t have had more fun or been more honored to have been able to participate and in such a great event.

the crowd filling up the seats for the screening

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