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WELCOME TO THE ARCHIVE (1994-2014) OF THE MAQUILA SOLIDARITY NETWORK. For current information on our ongoing work on the living wage, women's labour rights, freedom of association, corporate accountability and Bangladesh fire and safety, please visit our new website, launched in October, 2015: www.maquilasolidarity.org

Questions about sweatshops

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What is a "maquila"?

Maquila is the short form of the word maquiladora. It was originally associated with the process of milling. In Mexico it became the word for another kind of processing -- the assembly of imported component parts for re-export. The maquilas in Mexico began as a border phenomenon over 30 years ago. With the support of the Mexican government, US firms set up assembly plants on the Mexican side of the border. They were allowed to import components and raw materials duty-free and re-export the finished product to the US.

Now maquilas are found in many parts of Mexico and Central America, and are often owned by multinational companies who manufacture goods for other multinational buyers. For companies, the lure of the maquilas is low wages, a lack of environmental or labour regulations (or lack of enforcement), low taxes, and few if any duties. Products produced include apparel, electronic goods, auto parts, etc.

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What is a sweatshop?

Sweatshop conditions include excessive working hours, forced overtime, poverty wages, child labour, unsafe working conditions, discrimination, verbal and physical abuse. When workers try to organize a union, they are often fired.

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Why do some companies employ children?

See our Child Labour page.

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Won't abolishing child labour just hurt working children and their families?

See our Child Labour page.

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What kind of regulations would protect the rights of children and youth?

See our Child Labour page.

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What seems like a low wage for consumers and activists in Northern countries may be okay in those countries, right? Aren't they paid the minimum wage!

In most countries, including Canada, the minimum wage is not enough to support a worker's basic needs. We advocate a living wage. A living wage enables workers to meet their needs for nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport, as well as allowing for a discretionary income. It should be enough to provide for the basic needs of workers and their families, to allow them to participate fully in society and live with dignity. The living wage is not the same in every country. We advocate for a living wage by the standards of the country where production is taking place. You can read more about wages here.

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Will asking for improved conditions mean the cost of clothing will go up?

Workers' wages are a tiny fraction of the final retail price of a piece of clothing. Making sure that workers sewing the products you wear are paid a fair wage shouldn't greatly affect the price you pay as a consumer. Clothing can be both affordable and made under humane conditions. Retailers should sell clothes sold at the lowest responsible price - not at a price that can only be met by using sweatshops.

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Why don't sweatshop workers just find other work or organize a union?

In Canada many garment homeworkers and contract shop sewers don't have other options for work. Some previously worked in unionized factories that closed down as a result of industry restructuring. Others began to take in homework because they had young children and couldn't find affordable child care. For the vast majority, English is their second language, which makes it even more difficult to find other work.

It is extremely difficult for isolated homeworkers or women working in contract shops employing five, ten or fifteen workers to organize a union. Sub-contracting sewing workshops are often fly-by-night operations, frequently changing names and owners. Some operate for a few months, then close and reopen somewhere else. When homeworkers or contract shop employees complain about conditions or make formal complaints to the Ministry of Labour, they face the very real possibility that their work will be cut off or their contract shop will be closed and the work will be shifted elsewhere.

Twenty-five years ago in the major cities in Canada, about 50 per cent of garment workers belonged to unions. With the movement away from factories to small contacting establishments and to homework, today only about 30 per cent of garment workers are unionized. And none of the homeworkers in Canada have the protection of a union contract.

The workers who produce our clothes under sweatshop conditions in other countries -- in export processing zones in Asia, Latin America or the Caribbean encounter even more severe obstacles to organizing to improve their wages and working conditions. In some countries it is illegal to organize a union in an export processing zone. In most countries, where union organizing in EPZ's is legally permitted, workers who attempt to organize are threatened, intimidated, fired, and sometimes physically beaten by their company security guards or police.

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Isn't it good that these workers at least have a job?

Workers need jobs, yes, but jobs with dignity. The jobs they have are better than many alternatives, that's why so many people depend on them -- but the fact that people are desperate isn't an excuse to exploit them. If the best the industry can offer is a slight improvement over absolute poverty then it is failing in its duties to its employees. Workers aren't getting their fair share of the benefits they are creating for the big companies.

We welcome the fact that millions of people are earning a wage. However, this alone is not enough to lift them from poverty if employers can hire and fire at will; deny union rights; pay low wages that drive people to work inhumane hours just to survive; avoid paying sick leave and avoid observing maternity rights. For many workers, these jobs bring hidden yet devastating costs, such as poor health, exhaustion and broken families, all of which are unacceptable and avoidable. Everyone wants a quality job that pays enough to be able to live on.

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What are garment workers doing to improve their situation?

Garment workers around the world are organizing to win decent wages and working conditions. You can read more about how worker organizing and international solidarity have helped improve workers' lives here.

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Isn't it the government's job to make sure there are decent working conditions?

Yes. Governments should regulate good working conditions and enforce those regulations. Actually, many garment-producing nations have good legislation in this regard. The problem is that it isn't enforced properly. A major reason is that many countries where garments and sportswear are produced try to create an environment that is attractive to foreign investment. Incentives for foreign investors include not only low wages and taxes, but also the suspension of certain workplace and environmental regulations. If a government does attempt to strictly enforce these regulations, many investors will quickly pack their bags for another country that is even less strict and is more accommodating. As a result, all these countries compete against one another in a "race to the bottom." Bad working conditions are an international problem that will not be solved on a national level alone.

But it's also wrong to assume that governments have absolutely no control over foreign investments. And not all companies pack up and leave at the first signs of government regulations. So it is valuable to encourage governments to pressure companies to take responsibility for their labour policies and ensure compliance.
Read more about what governments can do here.

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