These Jeans Are a Steal
Matt OttoWork sucks. But Mexican factory workers who produce clothes for OC-based The Wet Seal, Inc., actually like their jobs—so much, in fact, that for months they worked 24-hour shifts without overtime pay, and without ever getting profit-sharing bonuses required under Mexican law. And they did all this for wages of between $40 and $70 each week—roughly the cost of a pair of Wet Seal jeans and a T-shirt.
And then, the workers allege, Wet Seal's contractor fired them when they tried to form a union to fight for better working conditions.
A factory official says the charges are nonsense: the workers were fired because his company was losing business to Chinese competitors. Gerard Guez, president of Tarrant Apparel Group, said global competition led to the closure of five of Tarrant's six Mexican plants last year—and to the mass layoffs at the Tarrant-Ajalpan plant. He added that the Tarrant-Ajalpan plant is likely to go out of business within the year.
"I think its clear for anyone looking at our financial statements that our problems in the Mexican operation have nothing to do with any retaliation," Guez said. "[The layoffs] were very unfortunate. We were unable to keep up with capacity and were constantly waiting for a better day. It's really a matter of financial survival."
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Whether your sympathies lie with management or labor, one thing is clear: Wet Seal's factory workers—and managers—are caught in the same global race to cut costs that's hitting factories from Africa and Asia to Latin America.
Retailer Wet Seal is in the race, too, but it's cost-cutting tactics have already raised questions about the company's commitment to quality treatment of workers. Last year, a group of sweatshop workers in Los Angeles sued the Foothill Ranch firm. The workers charged they had labored more than 60 hours per week without overtime pay, and that a Wet Seal contractor that employed them had closed its doors still owing them thousands of dollars in wages. That lawsuit is still pending.
The new charges concern the Tarrant-Ajalpan plant, located in Puebla, Mexico. Until the mass firings last year, 1,400 workers produced clothing for some of the biggest clothing companies in the world: Tommy Hilfiger, Express, the Limited, Calvin Klein, DKNY, Wal-Mart, Polo/Ralph Lauren and Kmart, as well as Wet Seal.
Nineteen-year-old Maribel Ramirez is one of the seven workers who formed the original bargaining committee at the plant and who subsequently lost her job. "They made us work all night until eight in the morning with only one day of pay," she said in a recent telephone interview. "We also got no benefits even though we had worked there a long time. So we stopped working for three days and said we wouldn't come back until they improved our conditions."
On June 10, 2003, more than 800 workers held a work stoppage and elected a seven-member bargaining committee. On July 8, the committee presented the workers' demands to a local labor board, which promptly ruled against them.
Just days later, a supervisor at the plant ordered Ramirez to go to human resources.
"They talked to me and said that if I left the union and didn't keep helping my fellow workers, I could stay," Ramirez said. "I told them all we wanted were our rights, so do what you want. I told them I wouldn't betray the workers and that they should respect us."
Eight days later, all seven members of the bargaining committee, including Ramirez, were fired; several allege they were told they could keep their jobs if they gave up the union campaign. Two hundred more workers lost their jobs in the next two months. The plant currently employs only 450 workers.
Peter Whitford, chief executive officer of Wet Seal, failed to respond to requests for an interview. But Katie Otto, a spokesperson for San Francisco-based Levi Strauss, said her company quit doing business with the Tarrant-Ajalpan plant after ordering the plant to meet Levi Strauss' corporate code of conduct, which prohibits retaliation against unionizing workers.
"We conducted an immediate investigation and spoke with workers and tried to get management to agree to an audit by an independent, nonprofit organization," Otto said. "They were uncooperative with our request and unwilling to comply with our code of conduct. As a result, they decided they no longer wanted to do business with us."
Ex-worker Ramirez says she and other fired employees don't want American consumers to boycott companies like Wet Seal that have no similar code of conduct. "The more clothes they buy, the more work we have," she said. "But we want them to demand that the companies who sell the clothes don't violate the rights of the workers who make them."
Donations to the Tarrant-Ajalpan workers can be sent to Sweatshop Watch/CAT, 310 Eighth St., Suite 303, Oakland, CA 94607. For more information, go to www.sweatshopwatch.org.
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