Looming and Laboring

The Lives of 'Fruit of the Loom' Workers in the Manufacturing Industry of Honduras

Honduras_map.gif

Figure 1: Honduras is located in Central America and borders Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
Image obtained from< http://www.gfmer.ch/Medical_search/Countries/Honduras.htm>.

 

 

Figure 2: Tegucigalpa, the         capital of Honduras.  http://home.no.net/bfalling/honduras.htm

Figure 3: Fruit of the Loom shirt used for Dance Marathon 2004 at Miami University.

Introduction

The planners of Miami University 's annual Dance Marathon in 2004 all wore recently purchased green t-shirts (Figure 3) to publicize their upcoming event. When looking at the t-shirt one does not realize the path that it has traveled and the hands that it has passed through. Each shirt has an incredible story to tell. This particular shirt, made by Fruit of the Loom, was assembled in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where workers have quite different conditions than the factory workers that one pictures in the United States. In this paper, I present the typical environment in which these Fruit of the Loom workers live, along with their customs, religion, and struggles in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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Context of Honduras

In the isthmus of Central America, between Nicaragua and El Salvador and Guatemala, lies the nation of Honduras. Figure 1 shows the geography of this country and its borders and coasts. It is a mountainous and coastal region about the same size as Louisiana, 43,270 square miles (Profile 2002). In 2004, there were 6,823,568 people living in Honduras, with a 2.24% rate of population growth (Honduras 2005).

Since independence, Honduras has grown and developed tremendously. The country currently is a democratic republic, and has had an established constitution since 1982 (Honduras , 2005). Despite a variety of past rebellions and political changes, the current government has proven to be politically stable and involved in many international organizations. This includes being a member of the United Nations and World Trade Organization, just to name two (Honduras 2005).

Honduras was under Spanish rule until 1821, when they gained their independence (Profile 2002). There was a vibrant Maya culture prevalent until the early 1800s (Profile 2002), but since then, there has been a drastic decline, with a much smaller percentage of living Maya still present in the area. The decline of the Maya civilization, according to Diamond, is a result of the climate of the land they inhabited—composed of a dry and rainy season (Diamond 2003).

The climate of Honduras varies from region to region. Rather than having climate vary with latitude like in the United States, in Honduras it mostly changes with differences in elevation (A Country Study 2004). Honduras can be split up into three main areas: the Caribbean lowlands, the Pacific lowlands, and the land in between. Each of these areas has distinct characteristics that make the climate different than the other two. The Caribbean lowlands and the Pacific lowlands are known as tierra caliente or “hot land” because of their altitudes of less than 1000 meters, and therefore have year-round temperatures of 28-32°C (A Country Study 2004). The middle region is more mountainous, and has lower temperatures at higher elevations. While rain is seasonal in the mountainous regions and the Pacific lowlands, the Caribbean lowlands rain continuously (A Country Study, 2004). The country as a whole is generally classified as a tropical to subtropical environment (“Honduras” Wikipedia 2005).

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Brand: Fruit of the Loom

Fruit of the Loom became a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway in 2002 (Colbert 2005). In November of 2001 the two parties reached an agreement, and later, Warren Buffett agreed to buy Fruit of the Loom for $835 million in cash (Berkshire Hathaway 2002). Fruit of the Loom has always been a large company, with markets all across the globe. They produce men's, women's, and children's clothing, activewear, and underwear that are sold and made world-wide. Brand names that are used for marketing purposes by Fruit of the Loom include BVD, Fruit of the Loom, Loteez, ScreenStars, Best, Cumberland Bay, Pro Player, Big Dog, Planet Hollywood, Liquid Blue, Out House Designs, Sonoma, and VOLCOM (Colbert 2005; Confecciones 2005). These are primarily sold in North American department stores (Colbert 2005).

Fruit of the Loom has not been without flaw, however. In 2001 the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation (Carter 2001) issued a press release stating that a Fruit of the Loom factory in a Moroccan factory that has 1200 workers was not allowing workers to meet to form unions (Carter 2001). This “union-busting campaign” was highly criticized, and in the press release, it was stated that, “The problems in Morocco follow a long history of virulant [sic] anti-union activity by the company in the United States and its mass dismissal of workers in Ireland” (Carter 2001).

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People

The “exotic” and “tropical” way that some people in the United States picture Honduras does not match up with many aspects of life there. Conditions in Honduras are much worse than in the United States. The typical person will probably only live just over 66 years, which is the average life expectancy (Honduras 2005). This is due to various issues, including high infant mortality rates and AIDS (Honduras 2005). Poverty is a huge issue in this area. Recently, many families have gone through hard times—a result of a drastic increase in poverty was because of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which greatly affected rural areas in particular (Replogle 2004).

 

Workers' rights have been becoming a large global issue over the past decade. With the new establishments of free-trade zones in the area in 1997, cities in Honduras grew at rates of up to 80% per year (99% Perspiration 1997). Although manufacturing resulted in 20 percent of Honduras ' $5.9 billion GDP in 2000, only 15.4 percent of the workforce belongs to the manufacturing industry (Profile 2002). Despite these numbers, Honduras still has the second largest maquiladora sector in the world, with over 125,000 factory workers (Profile 2002). Maquiladoras are assembly plants owned by non-domestic companies with a purpose to make high quantities of items to export (Knox et al. 2004; Gates 2002). Rosa, a name that I will give to a typical worker involved in the production of garments in Honduras , is a 20 year old Spanish-speaking mestizo that was born into poverty in the rural areas of the country (Honduras 2005). She, along with the vast majority of her friends and coworkers, practices Roman Catholicism (Honduras 2005). Rosa speaks Spanish, which is most common in this area, but she knows of some other small areas that speak tribal languages (Honduras 2005). As stated previously, the population of Honduras is nearing 7 million. Rosa , along with 90% of the population is mestizo , which is the name for the mixed Amerindian and European population (Profile 2002).

 

The “rights” that Rosa and her coworkers have in the maquiladora that they work in are very limited. Despite the high temperatures in the area, the factory has no air conditioning (Marquez 2005). When Rosa gets hot, she can not even get a drink of water without asking for permission from her supervisor (Marquez 2005). There are no records of how often Rosa is allowed or denied a drink. With such intense heat, it is only humane to allow these women to drink water. The bathrooms are another issue. Rosa could show you the bathroom pass she is given so that she will not go too often, which would affect the quantity of garments she produces (Marquez 2005). Even then, these bathrooms “were dirty, lacked toilet paper, and were cleaned onlywhen executives came to visit the plant (Marquez 2005). Also, the fabric that Rosa works with causes a large amount of lint to hover in the air. This lint is commonly ingested, which can cause asthma, bronchitis, chronic allergies, and bronchial hyperactivity (Austin 2005). Without the factories providing masks for workers, Rosa has to do the best she can to avoid breathing in these particles (Marquez 2005).

Confecciones Internacionales S.A. De C.V ., a factory that sews for Fruit of the Loom, is located in Tegucigalpa (Figures 1 and 2). This factory is greater than 70,000 square feet, and it contained in three buildings. This factory has over 750 workers like Rosa in the factory, and most sit at one of 650 sewing machines (Confecciones 2005). When one is curious as to how the company is run, one can look on their website at their mission statement:

     To be a world leader in the apparel industry and its related services accomplished               through the development and maintenance of strategic alliances, to offer our                     customers products and services of added value, high quality, and low cost.           Accomplishing consistent on-time deliveries through the integration of highly            motivated and multifunctional work teams within a dynamic and efficient                          organization, reaching the highest levels of profitability, and contributing to the           improvement of the local labor development and in the quality of life of our                         community. (Confecciones 2005)

Nowhere in this mission statement does the company mention the rights of workers. The last line of the factory's mission statement suggests that they are helping their neighborhood, but it is the typical wording of corporations that sets out no ways or specifics for doing so.

Despite the fact that wages available to workers in maquiladoras are often criticized, the maquiladoras in Honduras were successful in beating out the competition of small Honduran companies involved in manufacturing due to their higher wages of close to US$4 per day ( A Country Study 2004). However, the living wage in Honduras is $0.79 per hour (“Sweatshop Alert” 2002). One estimate puts the average hourly wage of apparel workers in Honduras at $0.43 (“Sweatshop Alert” 2002). When compared to the living wage in Honduras , Rosa and her coworkers have to work long hours in order to compensate for the low rates of pay. The majority of these factory workers are young women that end up having to work 50 to 80 hours per week to meet the living wage (Figueroa 1996 ). In order for the $0.43 per hour paid worker to be paid equally as much as one working at the living wage rate of $0.79 per hour, the former would have to work 73.5 hours per week! These workers are required by the social limitations placed upon them to work almost twice as much as a typical American with 40 hour work week. Although the factory conditions may not be as bad as elsewhere, the fact that these workers have to work such long hours is exploitation.

 

In Honduras , 20% of the population is currently undernourished, illustrating just how bad the hunger problem is in Honduras and surrounding countries (Replogle 2004). The lack of money is not only limiting superfluous spending, but also nutrition. When shopping with two female factory workers, representatives for the National Labor Committee observed that these women, who were single mothers, spent the vast majority of their weekly wages on groceries (Marquez 2005). All but $2.05 was spent on large quantities of rice, beans, sugar and cornmeal, lard, and eggs (Marquez 2005). It is no wonder that there is such a problem with malnutrition in this area.

These are only some of the struggles of working-class Hondurans.

 

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Process

Initially, the process for researching this topic was quite frustrating. It was difficult to find websites that offered broad information, so I ended up having to search for answers to specific questions, causing many of my sources to be used only sparingly. I hoped to get information from Fruit of the Loom, but after submitting an e-mail through the Fruit of the Loom website, I received a reply saying that the company did not give out any additional information. This was frustrating because the website mainly shows products that they offer, with absolutely no information on production. I replied to the woman that I got the e-mail from, asking her again for further information or for contact information to talk to someone else that might be able to help me. Her response was similar to the first, saying that she was not entitled to release any further information. Luckily, after that difficulty, I stumbled upon the exact factory website that lists Fruit of the Loom as a company for whom it produces. By bypassing the actual company, I was somehow able to find out where in Honduras they produce anyway.

It was tough to contact someone in Honduras to question them about working conditions. I contacted the woman that is setting up a tour of Honduran maquiladoras through Global Exchange in order to find someone to talk to about this. She gave me the name and e-mail address of her contact in Honduras , but he did not respond to my e-mail. None of my telephone calls were returned, which was what I expected would probably happen. I also was referred by a Honduran tourism company to another contact, but the e-mail that I sent to him was sent back to me.  I was fortunate to find other internet sources that did focus in on the working conditions in maquiladoras in Honduras . I was able to form the personal stories of Rosa from the National Labor Committee's website, which gives the data and research of people from that organization and anthropologists that have studied these workers.

While I did not expect Fruit of the Loom to be particularly open with information regarding their factories, I did expect a better experience than the one that I had with organizations like Global Exchange. It seems that there are so many people involved in that organization that I got was just sent from person to person. The company website provided no useful information whatsoever. While I do not think that it should be required for the company to release the name of the factory, I think that the public should have a right to know the city in which their products are made. It would have given me a better impression of Fruit of the Loom, had they disclosed more information regarding their products.

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Conclusion

The young, female factory workers in Tegucigalpa are only some of the many workers worldwide that are experiencing exploitation in the workplace. The irony is that the areas that house these factories are excited to get them, because they provide so many jobs for Hondurans—yet with wages below the living wage, workers are forced to work long hours in order to make enough money to get by. Although conditions in the Confecciones Internacionales factory might not be as bad as others, the disheartening conclusion is that they cause a way of life that is unheard of in the United States. No one should have to work nearly 80 hours per week just to match the living wage!  It is difficult for consumers to distinguish what items are produced with the workers' rights in mind, and the many brand names that companies use can hinder this even further, but despite the difficulty, it is important for consumers to be educated on the treatment of workers that produce the items that they buy.

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Internet References Cited

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Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • 99% Perspiration.  Economist. 130613.  June 1997.  Vol. 343. Issue 8022

  • Diamond, Jared.  "The Last Americans."  Harper's Magazine.  Vol. 306.  June 2003.

  • Gates, Leslie C.  "The Strategic Uses of Gender in Household Negotiations: Women Workers on Mexico's Northern Border."  Bulletin of Latin American Research.  Vol. 21.  October 2002.

  • Knox, Paul L., and Sallie A. Marston.  Places and Regions in Global Context: Human Geography.  3rd ed.  Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2004.

  • Profile: Honduras.  Background Notes on Countries of the World 2003.  10495517.  February 2002.

  • Replogle, Jill.  "Hunger on the Rise in Central America."  Lancet.  Vol. 363.  June 2004.

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