Ruth Mena was never well off. She lived in a squalid shack with no plumbing on the shores of Lake Managua. As a single mom, she supported her children by working long hours in a sweatshop, sewing clothing and making less than the minimum wage.
Life couldn't get much harder - until Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998. She lost her home and all her possessions.
Almost three years later, Ms. Mena lives and works in a community known as Nueva Vida (New Life). The name couldn't be more apt. She's still sewing, but she's making more money than ever. Last month, Mena became part of a new all-female worker-owned sewing cooperative - or maquila - that's emerging as a model for US clothing companies looking for labor suppliers.
It is the first worker-owned sewing shop in Nicaragua that exports clothes, say the founders of the new maquila. And it hopes to qualify for "free-trade" tax breaks in two years, making it the first worker-owned maquila to attain that status in Central America.
"Because this is worker-owned, there are better conditions, fairer wages, and more appropriate hours," says Mike Woodard, who works for Jubilee House Community Center for Development in Central America, a US-based non-governmental organization which helped the women start their maquila. "My idea is to put the other traditional maquilas out of business."
The maquila, called Nueva Vida Women's Maquila Cooperative, or COMAQNUVI for its Spanish initials, is starting small, with 25 women, including Mena. But the women have plans of expanding their numbers to 400 within the first two years. When COMAQNUVI has 40 members, it will be eligible for free trade status.
The worker-owners will make at least $45 a week, roughly what Mena made in a month. The wage is well above the roughly $65-a-month legal minimum wage for maquila workers, but still low enough to attract foreign companies. When debts are paid off, the women will also start sharing profits.
All of which is a far cry from other places women such as Mena say they've worked. According to government statistics, just over 38,000 people, 85 percent of whom are women, work in Nicaragua's maquilas. Labor expert Melinda St. Louis, who works for faith-based human rights organization Witness for Peace, says the workers have common complaints: They aren't paid for all the hours they work, and some have been locked in a factory for up to 36 hours straight to meet a deadline. Many complain of respiratory problems caused by the dust of the fabric, and when they go to hospital for treatment, they find that the health insurance deducted from their salaries has not been paid. They're then turned away.
The idea for the worker-owned maquila was born after Hurricane Mitch, when 12,000 people were relocated to a cow pasture near the headquarters of Jubilee House. Now their homes are one-room cinderblock palaces, compared with where the used to live. Jubilee House helped these unemployed victims to come up with ideas for worker-owned businesses.
Soon after the maquila was formed, representatives from Jubilee House met Bena Burda, the owner of Maggie's Clean Clothes, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based wholesaler that specializes in clothing made with organically grown cotton. Ms. Burda had been finding the garment business increasingly difficult. In recent years she'd lost her contracts with four sewing houses that went bankrupt in the face of competition from off-shore maquilas.
"I wanted to go off shore, but I didn't want to be involved in these factories where women are being abused," she says. "When I heard about the people from Jubilee House and what they were trying to do, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for."
Burda is committed to sending enough work to COMAQNUVI for it to be self-sustaining. She says that since she made her relationship with COMAQNUVI public, representatives from other garment companies, including one well-known clothing company long accused of using sweatshop labor, have expressed interest in signing contracts with the worker-owned maquila.
"Everyone in the garment industry is nervous; they want to know how to avoid the labor abuses and clean up their image," says Burda. "I think they all want to be the first on their block to say 'we have found a solution.' "
Getting to the point where the COMAQNUVI women are ready to sew Maggie's Clean Clothes has been a long haul. They have had to build their factory from the ground up, in addition to attending courses in sewing and business.
"I am excited ... not just for us, but [also] to be able to create new jobs for other women who need help and want to get out off poverty too," Mena says. "Just like we got help from Jubilee House, we have to help others too."