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Bread and Politics Organizing El Paso’s Garment Workers BY ELLEN HOSMER El Paso EACH TUESDAY dozens of garment workers line up at the doors of Mujer Obrera, in central El Paso, for bread and politics. Many are the discarded victims of El Paso’s new sweatshops, but others are simply garment workers who want to begin the task of organizing for better conditions. At a session conducted by a former garment worker, they are told their rights as workers and residents, legal or otherwise, in the United States. They are then led out of the seminar into a makeshift food bank where they are given two loaves of bread and an opportunity to buy tortillas and milk at discount prices. It’s part of the strategy of Mujer Obrera, a local workers’ organization, to fulfill both the roles of organizer and of support group for working women. Workers in much of El Paso’s garment industry have long labored under sweatshop conditions. In the city’s aging garment district, workers contend with low wages in decrepit buildings which often offer neither adequate air conditioning nor heat. Benefits are all but nonexistent. But recently the workers have had to deal with a new problem: employers who don’t pay wages owed. Thousands of El Paso garment workers are owed tens of thousands of dollars in back wages as a result of a new trend that has swept through El Paso. The M.O. is invariably the same: Small garment companies with small contracts from major New York manufacturers open for a month or two to fulfill a contract. When the work is done, they close down, leaving their workers unpaid, only to reopen a few days later under a different name, with a different contract, and usually in a different location. But always, there are the same managers, owners, and machines. It’s the ultimate cost-cutting measure. In some cases, companies have been traced back through five different reincarnations. The result is always the same: When the names change workers are left without pay. “It’s plain old theft,” said District Attorney Steve Simmons. “These people work very hard under the worst conditions you can imagine, and they’re not getting paid for their work.” Simmons’s office is investigating dozens of companies in the region, but the paper trails are long and confusing and he says it might Ellen Hosmer is an editor at large of the Multinational Monitor. She lives in El Paso. require months to get to the end of it. In testimony gathered by Mujer Obrera for a grand jury investigation, workers tell of both abuse and substandard conditions. Many of the small plants operate like mini-fiefdoms: The employer is the only arbiter of conditions. According to Eustolia Olivas, a garment worker for the past 15 years and now an organizer with Mujer Obrera, the workers are cursed at, refused time off when family members are sick, and required to ask permission to use the bathroom. “List the labor laws and most have been in violation,” said Cindy Arnold, development supervisor for Mujer Obrera. “They don’t pay overtime. They don’t pay minimum wage. Often, they don’t pay wages, period. They employ child labor. They have completely unsuitable buildings. There’s harassment and discrimination based on citizen status, as well as sexual harassment. The attitude in the industry is that these are workers that can be done with as they wish and thrown away.” The U.S. Department of Labor, in a surprise sweep through the El Paso garment district, found that of the 39 small shops investigated, 20 owed workers money, others were hiring underage workers, and still others had failed to meet basic occupational health and safety standards. In those 20 shops alone, 1,000 workers were owed $85,000 in back wages. Critics contend that the Labor Department’s action was too little, too late. “The lack of attention to your working conditions by the Department of Labor in the last decade has been a disgrace to all of us,” Congressman Ron Coleman told El Paso garment workers. The Reagan and Bush Administrations have put workers’ rights on a back burner, the El Paso Democrat said. It is this lack of enforcement of the minimumwage and overtime laws that has allowed unethical companies to proliferate, said John Ferriter, legal assistant to Coleman. The action by the Labor Department, coming only after high-profile actions by Mujer Obrera, was merely an effort by the Department to avoid adverse publicity, Ferriter claimed. Other enforcement agencies, namely the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, however, have not yet been shamed into action. IT IS UNLIKELY that anyone would have paid much attention to the garment workers if it were not for the work done by La Mujer Obrera. In the past few months Mujer Obrera has demanded that El Paso pay attention to what is happening in the garment district, and the group’s work has forced lo cal, state, and federal leaders to take action. When workers at Diana’s Fashions were sent home without wages, and the owners moved the shop to another location, workers organized by Mujer Obrera chained themselves to the sewing machines. Although the police carted them away, the workers were not deterred. In August, after no movement on the issue of back pay, workers went on a sevenday hunger strike. “We have made the condition of Mexican-American immigrant women an issue in El Paso,” said Cecilia Rodriguez, director of Mujer Obrera. Not only has the group brought the issue of garment workers to the forefront of debate in El Paso, it has encouraged workers to stand up for their rights. According to Rodriguez, the organization is also forcing labor unions to do some careful self-examination. “There are unions that have given up on doing anything in Texas,” she says. “They have written off the immigrant workers, but we’ve shown them what workers are capable of.” Although Mujer Obrera \(as its name, working women, it is increasingly focusing its efforts on improving conditions for workers in the beleaguered garment industry. For the last several years the garment industry in El Paso has faced hard times, in part as a result of the U.S. garment and apparel industry’s loss of almost half a million workers in the last decade, as plants were moved to lowwage havens in the Caribbean, the Far East, or Mexico. The U.S. government’s “encouragement of outsourcing to low-wage, repressive countries creates tremendous pressure for firms in this country to duplicate those conditions,” said Damon Silvers of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers As large garment manufacturers depart, El Paso’s smaller companies have jumped at the chance to duplicate the sweatshop conditions of the Third World. Farah, which once employed 7,000 workers in El Paso, has reduced its workforce to a little over 700. Others, like Billy the Kid, which in its heyday employed over 2,000 workers, have closed down completely. In their place, a new breed of garment factory has sprung up. They are small, mobile, and in many cases operate beyond the reach of the law. According to Cecilia Rodriguez, these are the companies that present the most problems for El Paso workers. They offer neither health benefits nor any other benefits 8 OCTOBER 12, 1990