GUATEMALA CITY — CHAIRS with no backs. Less than $2 for 16 hours of work. Stifling warehouses with few fans and locked exits. Physical and sexual abuse.
These are just a few of the conditions that United States labor groups say workers face every day in Guatemalan clothing assembly plants, or maquiladoras, where more than 70,000 men and women stitch clothing for JC Penney, Van Heusen, Levi's, The Gap, Sears, K-mart, and dozens of other marketers.
These charges - which are designed to persuade Washington to remove tariff reductions for Guatemalan goods that helped spark a proliferation of maquiladoras in the first place and are disputed by Guatemalan officials - have failed to prompt US action for almost a decade. But this year may prove to be different.
The office of the US Trade Representative must decide by July 15 whether to launch an investigation into labor conditions in Guatemala, a move that could spell trouble for that country's booming apparel sector.
The decision will be in response to two petitions filed with the trade office last month - one by the AFL-CIO and the other by a diverse group of 10 labor, human rights, and religious groups.
"The petitions are better-written this year than in years past," says one US labor official here. "There's an accumulation of evidence over the last few years that the government is not taking the steps it has promised to take. It is my opinion that the petitions will definitely be accepted this year for review."
If they are, the subsequent series of hearings could lead to the yanking of preferences for Guate-malan products under the Carib-bean Basin Initiative and the Generalized System of Preferences by next April. These products are valued at approximately $500 million a year. This worries Guatemala's business community, which has accused US labor groups of filing petitions with the trade office to keep investors from locating here, thereby holding on to US jobs.
Annual apparel exports totaled less than $1 million six years ago, but today they are nearing $100 million, pushing apparel to Guatemala's second leading export to the US, after coffee.
"It is a distinct possibility that we could lose a lot of investment," says Paul Weaver of the Guatemalan Development Foundation, a private-sector group. "We realize there are human-rights and labor-rights problems here but we need time to correct the mistakes of the past. Thousands of jobs would be lost if we lose investment due to these petitions."
At the heart of the petitions is the Guatemalan government's inability, or unwillingness, to keep promises it has made to improve conditions for workers. The petitioners charge a variety of labor abuses continue to occur in Guatemala, ranging from death threats against union organizers to overtime forced by locked doors and physical intimidation.
Guatemalan officials have repeatedly portrayed such charges as political maneuvering intended to dissuade US firms from moving jobs abroad. "In no case that the government is aware of have illegal acts gone uninvestigated...," Guatemalan Foreign Minister Gonzalo Menendez Park insisted in statements to reporters shortly after the petitions became public.
Last year, the government of President Jorge Serrano Elias promised to reform its cumbersome labor code, hire more labor inspectors to monitor working conditions, and raise the minimum wage, now at $85 a month. As a result, the US trade office refused petitions from US labor groups last year, saying Guatemala was making substantial progress on the labor situation.
But this year, according to petitioners, a bill to reform Guatemala's labor code is dead, there are still just 15 inspectors monitoring 14,000 enterprises, and the minimum wage remains too low to support a family.
"The government is apathetic toward any labor-code reform, and will not take serious and effective steps until the problem is perceived in more urgent terms," said the AFL-CIO's petition.
Particularly disturbing, US labor groups say, is the inability of workers in the apparel sector to organize. Last month, police forcibly removed hundreds of protesters from the central park outside the National Palace who had camped there for three months, demanding their jobs back after they were fired from clothing assembly plants for trying to form unions.
The workers are not interested in closing off the US borders to Guatemalan products, or in losing jobs, but "we are not willing to permit the violation of our rights in the manner that the private sector is trying to," says Francisco Alfaro, secretary-general of the Guatemalan Federation of Trade Union Unity.
While Guatemala's Constitution enshrines the right to organize, "if the president doesn't feel like it, he simply won't approve the union by-laws," says one union organizer. Requests to form unions have been pending for up to two years; there are no fully sanctioned unions in the apparel sector. Even so, many maquila-dora owners say Guatemala has received a raw deal from US labor groups and that abuses occur in a very small percentage of factories in a very large industry.
"We teach these people what a needle is and how to thread it ... a trade.... We bend over backward to keep our people happy," says US businesswoman Sara Hill, who owns Primatex, S.A., where more than 100 workers sew clothing for US firms like Ocean Pacific. If investors leave, "how many illegal aliens will you have going into the United States because they can't find work here?"
She says she pays her employees between $2.50 and $6 a day, depending on their level of experience. The petitioners are "expecting things here to meet US standards," she says.