Nicaragua: Korean firm accused in attack on maquila workers

According to a report by a US-based labor rights monitoring group, the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), managers employed by the major Korean apparel firm Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd orchestrated an attack on laid-off Nicaraguan unionists and their supporters on March 4 at two of the company’s plants in a “free trade zone” in Tipitapa municipality, Managua department. Sae-A supervisors reportedly promised workers 100 córdobas (about US$4.04), a production bonus and a free lunch if they broke up a rally and leafleting that about 30 workers were holding outside the two factories, EINS and Tecnotex, at the start of the workday. Some 300-350 workers came out of the plants and attacked the protesting unionists with metal pipes, belts and scissors, the WRC says, while police agents and plant security guards on the scene did nothing to stop the violence.

The two Sae-A factories are maquiladoras, assembly plants that benefit from tax and tariff exemptions while producing for North American retailers; the plants’ customers include Gear for Sports, Kohl’s, J.C. Penney, Target and Wal-Mart. The rally was sponsored by two newly formed unions, the United Effort Union at EINS and the Carlos Fonseca Amador Union at Tecnotex. The unions say plant management fired 16 of their officials and members between July 2012 and January 2013 in retaliation for union activities. (WRC report, March 8; The Nation, March 18) (Warehouse Workers United, a project of the US union federation Change to Win, has posted a video of the March 4 incident on YouTube.)

On March 13, leaders of three major Nicaraguan union confederations charged that the Solidarity Center–which is operated by the main US labor confederation, the AFL-CIO, and receives funding from the US government–was forming new unions that were being used to create instability in the maquiladoras. The general secretaries of the Sandinista Workers’ Central (CST), the United Confederation of Workers (CUT) and the Confederation of Union Unity (CUS) blamed Solidarity Center activities for the violence outside the EINS and Tecnotex plants on March 4. The US unionists were “trying to get brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Levi’s to stop contracting work to Nicaraguan factories and return the jobs to the US,” CST general secretary Roberto González said. The leaders of the three confederations said they were prepared to do what was necessary to preserve the 105,000 jobs in Nicaragua’s FTZ factories. (Nicaragua News Bulletin, March 19)

Sae-A is also active in Guatemala and Haiti. It’s the lead tenant in the Caracol Industrial Park, a 617-acre complex in northeastern Haiti which opened for business last Oct. 22; promoters said it will bring as many as 65,000 jobs to the country. The US government, which gives special trade preferences to apparel assembled in Haiti, contributed $124 million to the Caracol project. According to an article in the New York Times last July, Sae-A began moving its operations to Nicaragua after being pressured in 2010 to let workers form a union at its Guatemalan maquiladoras. A Sae-A adviser told the Times that the company was making plans to move that production on to Haiti once US trade preferences for Nicaragua expire in 2014.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 21.