Kukdong Crackdown

Your UA sweatshirt may have been made in a sweatshop where the workers were fed rancid meat and paid less than the already low Mexican minimum wage.

Despite suffering a heartbreaking loss in the NCAA championship last week, the UA basketball team returned to town as conquering heroes, greeted by an impromptu parade and a 2,000-fan rally at Arizona Stadium.

The Cats' spectacular drive to the NCAA championship game was more than a cause for celebration in Tucson. It also meant an explosion of local and national attention on the basketball program--which translates to generous alumni contributions, increased television revenues and a boom in sales of T-shirts, caps and other merchandise, which seemed available at every street corner near the University of Arizona.

But for all the media attention the team received in the Old Pueblo, it's a safe bet that workers at the Kukdong factory in the Mexican state of Puebla didn't share in the Wildcat fever. Earlier this year, a work stoppage at the Korean-owned factory, which makes UA sweatshirts for Nike, ended with a violent assault by local authorities. Since then, the Kukdong factory has been in the international spotlight as student activists, multinational corporations and labor monitors have descended on Puebla.

Like most of Mexico, Puebla is no worker's paradise. Most citizens struggle to get by every day. Family farms are failing and sometimes the best-paid jobs are in the apparel factories that dot the region. Rachel Wilson, a UA grad student who serves as spokesperson for the local chapter of Students Against Sweatshops, says the situation is ripe for exploitation by companies like Nike.

"While it's true that people need these jobs--and our group certainly isn't trying to make these factories close down because then they wouldn't have jobs at all--the multinational corporations came to Mexico and other places on purpose because they have lax enforcement of their labor laws and people are willing to work for as little as possible," says Wilson, who recently returned from a trip to Puebla. "Basically, they seek out the most desperate people who are least likely to unionize and put their factories there."

Built in 1999 in the town of Atlixco, the Kukdong shop was featured last year in a Nike tour of exemplary factories. But a recent monitoring report details grim working conditions for the factory's roughly 600 employees. About 85 percent of those workers are young women, typically between 16 and 23 years old. That's a common percentage in Mexican apparel factories, for a variety of reasons--including management's hope that younger women will prove docile workers.

The report reveals everyday humiliations at the Kukdong factory: Workers allege they have been slapped, sexually harassed and cheated of overtime pay. They complain they've been limited to three bathroom breaks a day, and frequently hurried from the toilet, which doesn't sound like a pleasant respite from work; the report notes that "the toilet facilities were not clean and that some had an offensive odor at the time of the audit." Few were stocked with toilet paper or soap.

The factory gates were often locked from the start of the workday until the end. Workers told monitors the doors even remained locked when a nearby volcano threatened to erupt, although supervisors were allegedly allowed to leave.

The workers do have a union: the Confederación Revolucionario de Obreros y Campesinos, or CROC, a most apt acronym. The CROC established itself as the union before the factory even opened, so all employees automatically belong to the organization--and pay union dues. It's a common practice for national unions to get a piece of the action before the shops open and then do little for the workers they represent.

According to international monitors, an estimated third of the workers earned less than the Mexican minimum wage of 46.30 pesos ($4.82 in dollars); two employees reported earning just 38 pesos ($3.96) a day. While it pays low wages, factory management promised workers breakfast and lunch. Breakfast turned out to be coffee and bread, while lunch consisted of soup, rice, beans, vegetables and meat that was sometimes so rancid that it made workers sick. If they left for the afternoon, their paychecks were docked at least a day's pay.

On December 15, the workers boycotted the cafeteria. The factory management responded in early January by dismissing the five workers who organized the boycott. The firing galvanized many of the remaining employees, who initiated a work stoppage on Monday, January 8, demanding that the fired workers be rehired and the that a new union be formed.

The next day, when management didn't respond to the group's demands, the workers continued the work stoppage. Although numbers are sketchy, some estimates had as many as 80 percent of the workers joining the strike, which came to an end after two days when local authorities stormed the factory and forcibly removed the workers.

News of the crackdown spread swiftly. Within days, international monitors were on the scene. In the months since, the international pressure forced the factory management to offer jobs back to the workers who had participated in the work stoppage, as well as to those who had organized the original cafeteria boycott. Most have returned to their jobs.

"The workers told us that had never happened before," says Wilson. "If you're a worker leader and you're trying to organize and you're fired, that's it. It's unheard of to be rehired."

Wilson says one organizer, Santiago Perez Meza, is still seeking to reclaim his former job, but pressure from the CROC is blocking his return.

NIKE HAS RESPONDED aggressively, sending monitoring organizations to Puebla and releasing a remediation plan on the corporation's Web site. At a forum last month at the UA, Amanda Tucker, who works in Nike's Corporate Responsibility department, says Nike can only do so much at the Kukdong factory.

"There's a lot of pressure on brands and people want to use brands for their leverage," says Tucker, "but there are really limits in what brands can do, particularly in the absence of effective local enforcement and effective local law." Tucker argues that pressure needs to be applied to the local government to enforce labor regulations.

The international attention has already brought a number of changes at Kukdong. Management has promised to improve health and safety conditions, as well as curtail sexual harassment. The lunch meat is no longer rancid, and workers now get a gelatin dessert with their lunch.

But a big challenge still looms for the workers at Kukdong: the formation of a new union. Workers are gathering signatures to force a vote on the issue, but they'll need to pass through a complex Mexican government bureaucracy to have the opportunity. The CROC, as you'd expect, will be fighting the effort.

"What needs to take place is the process of an election if that's what workers want," says Tucker, "and there has to be an ongoing vigilance to make sure that the process is handled fairly and in a way that allows those workers to continue working and turn this from what could have been a very negative situation into a case where different groups from different perspectives working together can collaborate to have a positive outcome."

That spin is echoed by Mil Niepold, director of policy and programs for Verité, a non-profit organization that works to ensure consumer goods are made under conditions that meet international standards for human and labor rights. Formed in 1995, the group contracts with the Fair Labor Association to audit overseas factories. Verité is now doing audits in 60 countries.

"If we handle this correctly, it not only will help the workers at Kukdong, it will help workers everywhere," says Niepold.

Wilson agrees that the workers need a chance to form their own union. But she's skeptical that Nike's effort is sincere. "I really doubt that Nike is going to do a lot to empower workers around the world," Wilson says. "That works against their bottom line directly. As much as they like to deny it, that's why they go abroad."

With the agreement between Nike and the UA, the university essentially profits from that exploitation--and Nike profits from its association with the school.

"Our basketball team makes it to the Final Four and that swoosh is everywhere," says Wilson. "That's just more and more advertising and more and more prestige for them. They're using the university's good name to make money and exploit more workers."

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