Thursday, August 06, 2020

Guatemala's Sweatshops and the Pandemic

A garment factory supplying Gap, American Eagle and Amazon was at the centre of one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Guatemala. Ironically, At the time of the outbreak, the factory was making masks for export to the US.

200 people tested positive for Covid-19 at the KP Textil factory, exposing the dire working conditions inside the country’s maquila system of free trade zones. The virus outbreak went on to cause the death of at least one KP Textil garment worker. There were two deaths of relatives of people who work in the maquila.

Human rights activists said that KP Textil, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, lacked adequate health and safety measures to prevent an outbreak, despite the management saying it had closed the factory on 12 May after the first case of Covid-19 was detected.

The following day, the factory denied full entry to inspectors from the health ministry and the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGGS) on the grounds that the premises were private property and that testing would interfere with productionAlthough clothing production was not classified an essential service, Guatemala’s maquilas have been allowed to remain open since March with permission from the ministry of the economy.

When an inspection went ahead on 14 May, 26 out of a sample of 32 workers tested positive for Covid-19. The local mayor, supported by the municipal court of San Miguel Petapa, shut the factory down indefinitely and declared a state of emergency in the municipality. Homero Fuentes, from local NGO Coverco, has documented conditions inside the maquilas since the virus appeared in Guatemala. He said of the 89 factories investigated in the country, just two had followed all the safety protocols.

Zulma Calderón, health inspector at Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, said control measures should have been implemented around the factories “not just as a control measure to identify cases and contacts, but also as a protective measure for the rest of the community”. But, she said: “That did not happen. The country never had economic closure as such, and neither vigilance or control measures by the state or the ministry of labour.”

Maquila companies operate in free trade zones, where taxes and wages are kept deliberately low to attract foreign investment and multinational fashion brands. The zones are hubs for manufacturing industries exporting to North America.

Stephen Wishart, Central America programme director at the Solidarity Centre, said government and factory owners must take responsibility for their workers, and so must the brands buying the products. “During Covid, the brands continued to put orders into these factories – the government wasn’t doing anything to ensure that health and safety mechanisms were being enforced.”

Across Central America, the Maquila Solidarity Network estimates that 390,000 people work in free trade zones, about 60,000 of them in Guatemala, where the workforce is nearly 60% women, typically aged between 15 and 35.

Despite the billions of dollars generated in the zones, Guatemala’s garment workers have been left particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, and are unable to save for times of sickness or unemployment. The minimum wage for the sector is 2,831 Quetzales (£330) a month, although unions report that some workers are paid as little as £181. The living wage in Guatemala is £680.

Only two maquilas in the country have trade unions as attempts to organise have been met with violence and dismissal. The pandemic has exposed the brutal conditions workers have to endure.

“It has become a butchers’ shop for the poor maquiladora people,” said Luis Armando López, general secretary of the Central Guatemalan Workers Confederation (CGTG). Most maquilas have not followed health measures imposed by the government, he said, adding that workers are having to buy their own masks and hand sanitiser.

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