A co-op member of the Just Garments facility in El Salvador, Photo: Michael Hallahan
The Spanish language doesn't have a concise word for "sweatshop."
Whenever I explain the word to workers in Central America, they ask me how a
sweatshop is different from any other workplace. Nearly every factory violates
local and international labor laws.
Wages are often between a half and a third of a living wage, and yet, since
workers frequently receive no more than 1% of what we pay in the store, minute
increases in price or changes to the supply chain could provide workers a just
Textile companies scour the globe in search of the cheapest production source
without committing to factories in any one place, resulting in job instability
and frequent factory closures.
In El Salvador in 2002, the Union of Textile Industry Workers demanded contract
negotiations with Tainan, a Taiwanese-owned factory. Instead of negotiating,
Tainan closed the factory, leaving 1400 workers without jobs. Due to industrial
collusion, union members were prevented from getting jobs anywhere else.
Union members decided to take a bold step: start up the first sweatshop-free
union-made apparel company in El Salvador. They mobilized an international campaign
against Tainan that resulted in its agreement to invest in the new, worker-created
company, Just Garments. They pressured the government to release the sewing
machines that had been impounded when Tainan closed. Just Garments now employs
around 100 workers, most of whom are women.
Just Garments aims to reach a conscientious consumer market under their own
label without depending on multinationals.
"Much of the maquila work here in El Salvador is done under blows and
threats... But here [at Just Garments] it is a different kind of motivation;
here we work willingly, by our own motivation... It is an investment in our
own future," said Nicsa, a Just Garments worker.
Claudia Huiza, a Salvadoran human rights organizer living in California, reports,
"The women are so poor. They don't have anything to eat when they don't
have work. Many of them lost their homes to hurricane Stan in October 2005.
Some lost family in the civil war, and most of them are single mothers with
young children. Yet they continue to stay strong and keep believing in Just
"The true emancipation of workers is when they do not need a boss. When
they do it for themselves... Just Garments has no managers, it functions without
management. Managed by the women workers themselves, with a bit of help in financial
matters, in administrative matters ñ and there they go. That is a dangerous
message for business owners," said Gilberto García, the factory's
The workers are committed to creating their own economic opportunity. "This
is a work of love, and a work of hope, something that we have worked so hard
to create together. I want to stay to see it through and to see it grow and
succeed," stated Delmy, another worker.
The company is trying to raise money to pay off debts and to purchase large
amounts of cloth in advance to start selling through a distributor in the US.
Just Garments' goal of providing workers a living wage and a healthy working
environment while maintaining an affordable price is a direct affront to the
"free" market system of corporate domination and worker exploitation.
Kathryn Sharpe, an activist from Minneapolis and recent visitor to Just Garments,
noted: "They are offering an alternative and that's threatening to companies
that are dependent on an exploitative model."
"Just Garments has taken a leap of faith and is hoping that the sweatfree
movement will get up to speed fast enough to make it a success," said Sharpe.
As it gains financial stability, the company hopes to transition its ownership
structure from a worker-managed, half worker-owned entity (the former Vice President
of Tainan still owns the other half), to become a fully worker-owned cooperative.
Until they can reach this ultimate goal, their objective is to establish a co-op
that will manage the workers' shares.
It has been important for Just Garments to connect not only with responsible
investors, but also with activists who understand the struggle and want to invest
in the sweatshop-free movement. Just Garments is more than a factory. It is
part of a global movement for dignified production where workers are the decision-makers.
How to get involved:
1) E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
to be included on Just Garments' mailing list. You will be informed of when
and where Just Garments products will be sold.
2) Donate money to Just Garments and their union.
Send tax-deductible checks to: Activist San Diego, 4246 Wightman St., San Diego,
CA 92105. Write "Just Garments" in the memo line. Make online donations
3) Just Garments is looking for organizations and businesses
to pre-purchase large scale orders of 10,000 T-shirts. Pay now and receive the
shirts by the end of the summer. If you, or some institution you know (university,
company, etc.) might be interested, please contact email@example.com.
4) Join the sweatfree movement by organizing in your community.
Liana Foxvog is National Organizer of SweatFree Communities,
For more information on Just Garments, visit www.justgarments.net.