Meet Maria. She has been working in a Free Trade Zone for 6 years now in her community of Niquinohomo in the department of Masaya. Ironically the town of Niquinohomo means “valley of the warrior” and is also the birthplace of Augusto Sandino, who stood up to the U.S. occupation of his country in the 1920’s. Today we get the privilege of meeting a warrior, who is an example of the ongoing struggle as a result of foreign involvement that continues to be a reality here in Nicaragua.
Maria has six children; two who are already married, three who are studying and one who also is working in a Free Trade Zone. Her typical day starts at 4am when she gets up to start making breakfast and washing clothes. Sometimes she doesn’t even get a chance to eat breakfast herself as she is off to catch a bus to work at 6:10 to arrive in time before the gates to the factory close at 6:45. There she works with three different types of machines, putting the hemming, cuffs and tags on clothing along with 800 other workers in this particular textile factory. At noon workers get a 15 minute break to quickly go outside and eat before coming back to work until 5pm. Sometimes they don’t even have time to use the bathroom and food is strictly forbidden and will be confiscated if they are found with it inside of the factory. Some people have even passed out from hunger and exhaustion.
Maria herself has been taken out unconscious various times because of high blood pressure problems which she never had issues with until starting to work at the Free Trade Zone. There is a lot of pressure to work quickly to fill large orders which causes not only high blood pressure but also accidents. Just last week she had a coworker that had the needle of the machine go through her thumb as she was rushing to finish a shirt. Although some Free Trade Zones have Unions that help workers with medical care, unfortunately the one Maria works at does not. Therefore there is no paid sick leave or worker’s compensation for injuries. Even to come to speak with us today Maria had to get permission to say she was going to a health clinic and she will lose one days earnings.
Not only do workers have issues of high blood pressure, but also hearing problems from the loud machines and lung problems from the dust and thread which gets into their lungs. Maria has had serious lung problems for the past two and a half years, which require her to go to get monthly treatment of a spray and medicine which she has to pay for out of her own pocket with what little she makes. Which right now is 1,914 cordobas (about $72) every 15 days, the equivalent of about $4.80 each day. And that doesn’t even account for the masks that they have to pay 4 cordobas (15 cents) for each day since the factory doesn’t provide them.
There is an opportunity to earn incentive pay for working more productively or working extra hours when big orders come in. For example right now Maria told us they just got an order for 250,000 shirts that need to be made in two weeks. So instead of working until 5pm she is working until 7pm, six days a week, even though the Ministry of Labor’s standards only allow workers to work from 8-5 Monday through Friday and 8-12 on Saturday. And when Maria arrives home after a long day of work, her work really isn’t finished. She also has to make dinner for her kids and clean up around the house, preparing for another day ahead which usually means not going to sleep until 10 or 11pm.
To some people, Maria’s daily routine might sound unbearable, but in reality she’s thankful to have a job to support her family. Before she was working as a maid in someone’s house and earned even less money. With the opportunity to work in the Free Trade Zone she can now support at least part of her families basic needs, but not all of it. Her husband and her son also contribute to the costs for their household of six.
So you might ask how does she keep going?
“Some days I wake up and say, ‘I’m really tired’ or ‘I feel sick’, but when I think about how much I would lose from not working one day, I find the energy to go. [When you’re on sick leave] it’s awful looking at your paycheck at the end of the pay period and knowing it won’t cover your expenses you need for your family to get by”
When I asked her what her opinion is on the Free Trade Zones from her experience and what she hopes for the future of her children, she told me a story of her son who works at a Free Trade Zone who just got his first personal order to make some outfits for a dance group in the community. After arriving from working all day at the factory he excitedly sits down to begin working on the order. He hopes to one day be able to pay off the sewing machine he’s using and possibly one day start his own business along with his mom to make clothing.
Even though these aren’t ideal conditions for Maria and her family, for now she said her opinion is that they can be a good thing. “This is a way to support us while we find the means to reach our dreams”
Maria is just one of many men and women who work in one of the four Free Trade Zones in Niquinohomo. I hope by sharing her story to give a face to the post I wrote a few weeks ago on the impact of CAFTA in Nicaragua. This post didn’t even come close to all of Maria’s story and all of the wealth of information there is on Free Trade Zones in Nicaragua, so if you have any more questions or comments feel free to post a reply or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope to continue to meet and share stories of other Free Trade Zone workers in the near future.
In peace and solidarity,
*A special thanks to Casa Ben Linder for inviting Maria to speak today at the weekly gathering. To learn more about Casa Ben Linder click here.