CIUDAD SANDINO—In a country where 43% of the people live below the poverty line and 70% of the working population are part of the “informal economy,” zona francas—or free-zone factories—have become a leading source of formal employment for poor women across the country.
The foreign-owned free-zone companies now employ more than 100,000 people—nearly one-sixth of the country’s entire formal sector workforce, who toil long days for the lowest wages in Central America.
While the labor conditions are not ideal, many free-zone employees are happy just to have work. Yet some women are fed up with what they say are unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and are opting to become entrepreneurs with the help of microfinance programs.
“We want personal development. When you have your own business, you can make your own decisions, manage things on your own and have control and respect,” says 29-year-old Belkys Guillen, of Condimentos El Carrizal, an aspiring cooperative of women who make locally produced jam in Rivas. “My daughter will see that women can do things for themselves.”
Breaking from the old model
Despite the government’s efforts to improve labor conditions in free-trade zones, the situation is hardly exemplary, according to those who work there.
“We have to produce 500 to 2,500 pieces of clothing per day and get a 15 minute lunch break. This is the only place where I found work, but the pay is very little and the work is very hard,” says Daniela del Socorro Silva, a 34-year-old mother of two who works for a textile factory and earns less than minimum wage. Silva is paid 90 cents for every 100 pieces of clothing she makes; if workers fail to make the quota, they work overtime with docked pay to meet the mark, she says.
Salka Somarriba, who was responsible for human resources at a free-zone near Masaya, says Nicaragua is “losing a generation” with the factory jobs.
“It’s profitable for the investor since the labor is the cheapest in Central America, but it’s a high cost to our country,” she says. “Our young workers are losing time that they could be using to study or prepare for better opportunities.”
Somarriba said the factories’ assembly-line working conditions are destroying the wellbeing of women who work a 72-hour work with no sick days.
“It’s not healthy. They’re worn out after performing repetitive motions in one place with the pressure of a quota and of having problems with their hands, posture, allergies from breathing in lint, and their ears hurt from the loud noise,” she said. “Often the supervisor won’t even let workers get up to drink water or use the bathroom.”
Just getting to work alone is dangerous, she said. About 120 exhausted workers are crammed like cargo into a 72-passenger capacity bus, she said. Many accidents occur while loading and unloading for work.
The Nicaragua Dispatch attempted to gain access to a free-zone company to verify the conditions, but the government’s National Free Trade Zone Commission declined the request.
“It’s becoming difficult to get into the factories now because brands such as Gap, Levi’s, Polo Ralph Lauren or Osh Kosh insist on not letting anyone in during production,” said Mauricio Abaraca, who works in the commission’s investment promotion office.
Women take control
Free-zones are not the only way to find a job in Nicaragua. Even in the most economically depressed communities, women are coming together to employ themselves by forming cooperatives with the help of microfinance programs.
In Ciudad Sandino, a group of women who used to work for free-trade zones have founded the country’s only worker-owned free-zone, which operates as a cooperative. Cooperativa Maquiladora Mujeres de Nueva Vida imports and exports like any other factory, but with 30 to 40 worker-owners, the company has distinct working environment.
“Traditional free-zones mistreat the workers. Here it’s more personal. We have meetings to discuss production goals, overtime is double pay, and we can move around freely,” said Veronica Calero, who is responsible for quality oversight.
The women are proud of the quality of the shirts, bags, pajamas, shorts, pants, and dolls made of organic materials for export to the United States and Germany. When there is an order to fill, the women produce about 1,000 shirts a day and are paid 3,740 cordobas per month (153 cordobas—more than minimum wage), Calero said.
Mike Woodard, a U.S. expat who helped establish the cooperative, says it is a unique model for other organizations to follow.
“To me, it’s nothing short of amazing for people who couldn’t read or write to be operating an international business,” he says. “It turns the neoliberal model around; here you’re working for yourself.”
Woodard said he believes co-ops will be a major force in Nicaragua’s economy in the future; there are already some 4,000 cooperatives, most of which are agricultural, operating throughout the country. Though the size of most co-ops doesn’t rival the larger factories, they can still be “extremely competitive,” Woodard says.
The cooperative model, which was big here in the 1980s, is resurfacing in various parts of the country. In Diriamba, a group of women who used to work for others came together to produce honey from beehives. “It’s completely changed my life to work here. It’s been much easier to earn money to support my family,” said Sobeyda Eugenia Rosales.
The initiative was started with help from a microfinance project called Centro Social Vega Baja, which works to empower women by teaching practical skills, including cooking, art, baking, and computer technology.
Suenia Carolina Mendieta, 18, one of six children raised by a struggling single mother, says selling the food she learned to cook in the center has allowed her to support herself while studying English.
“Learning how to use computers and cook has helped me a lot and really helped my personal growth,” she said. “Learning these skills helps us as women to become more confident and rely on ourselves, to show that we are powerful.”