Place: Gurabo, Dominican Republic
Organization: Oné Respe
Event: Visit to the Free Trade Zone (la Zona Franca)
Topic: University T-Shirts and Exploitation
Author: Meredith Palmer
We, as a group of US students studying 'community and economic development' were allowed into the Free Trade Zone in Gurabo, called la Zona Franca in Spanish,area and given a half-day guided tour of the compound. We arrived in the growing heat of the morning, 9am at the gates, where we were greeted by a stoic-faced - yet agreeable in nature - older woman of slender build. We would learn that she was a daughter of the original owner, who had received a special loan from the government to fund the construction of the factories and buildings, but who had passed away the previous year. Their motto was proudly posted near the entrance – 'Imagen en la Perfeción', or Image of Perfection translated into English. Our guide quickly informed us that they had recently had huge cut-backs, and had to cut their employee force back from 8,000 to 4,000 people. Half of the people previously employed by la Zona Franca, which is the largest employer of Gurabo, are now out of a job.
We began our tour visiting the areas designated for the worker's lunch break. First we were shown an open-air cafeteria that had only about 150 seats set at tables, and an equal amount of chairs and tables stacked in the back corner. After visiting another small restaurant and garden lounge that could have seated about 30 to 50 people which was filled with well-dressed employees, we moved into the first space that held actual workers. On the North side of the walled-in compound, in a brightly-lit, well-ventilated and air-conditioned building, we were handed over to a young English-speaking tour guide. He would show us around the communications area which held many different projects with companies such as Aegon, Blue Hippo, Viva, and Paragon. Here English-speaking Dominican representatives take both domestic and international customer calls. We were informed that to work in this area you must have at least a high-school degree and a sufficient level of fluency in English, or if you work in the technology sector, then you must have a university degree. Signs around the office were in English, posters of Hollywood films hung in rows on walls and in cubicles. Sales incentive reminders popped up in all corners. After this short and rather bland part of the tour, we moved into spaces of clothing production.
We were shown two floors of the first warehouse, the top one where the shirts were cut into the proper shapes and stacked into colorful piles wrapped tightly in plastic ready to be sewn. Downstairs the shirts arrived pieced and stitched together and ready to be printed upon. Just over thirty workers occupied this space on the first floor, tending the circular machines that layered colors of ink onto shirts four at a time. Michigan State, Illinois, Donna Karen, Calvin Klein. The smell of the ink hung heavily in the hot air. There was no air conditioning, the room was cement walls, ceilings and floors, and employees wore street clothes. In a small back room the pre-determined designs and logos were translated into layers by color on silk screens. Our guide called this the "Art Room" – on one of the walls was written in black ink "life is long when you are lonely."
We moved next into a warehouse where clothing is pieced together in an assembly-line fashion. Walking into this space one is hit immediately with a shock to the senses. The din of hundreds of sewing, pressing, and binding machines fills the large industrial space. Sparse ventilation fans loudly pump out stale air to replace it with that scorched by the mid-day sun from outside. Each row of workers assembles a specific color and piece of a sweat-suit for various companies – Fruit of the Loom, Soffe. Orange, yellow, white, grey, blue, green, purple. Chest and back, pockets, shoulders, sleeves, to cuffs, hoods, drawstrings, and finally inspection. Brightly colored dust from cloth and thread clogs machines, noses, and lungs, as we move between the rows, the process meticulously explained to us by the tour guide. A woman stops to un-clog the small delicate pieces of the machine she works on, attempting to do so with a pencil. We are shown quota lists, and it is explained to us that production is expected to go up significantly from the beginning of a contract to the end, since the workers learn to do things better and more quickly with practice.
Fingers fly, heads look up for a brief moment, to return a smile, or stare ambiguously at this group of US American youth walking through their work spaces. A tour guide let it slip that he estimates that 90% of the workers there do not like it and would rather be doing something else. I feel as if I am invading a private space. We move upstairs. Here many machines lie abandoned, cold, not enough work under the contracts, cheaper labor in China and other parts of Asia. Here Docker's dress pants are being made – navy blue, classic cut. Conflicting labor practice rights signs hang in different parts of the factory. Bathrooms are located in one far corner, near a line of factory overseers. The workers are said to arrive at 8:45 in the morning, and go home at 5:30, with time from 11:45 to 12:45 for an hour long lunch break. The workers in this area alone would not have fit into the dining area we were shown earlier. We do not make conversation with them here in their space of employment for fear of getting them in trouble. We leave this space to conclude the tour with sodas and a question and answer session with our original tour guide, the owner's daughter.
In an air-conditioned conference room we had our sodas served to us by another woman who must have worked for the owner's daughter. The walls were lined with dark blue denim, and the tables were draped with white table-clothes. We brought out our prepared questions, and our professor Alicia asked them and translated back to us. We learned about the effects of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) which had been modeled after the failed and floundering North American Free Trade Agreement and was instated last year in 2007. Our guide informed us that when the agreement was initiated that the administration had parties to celebrate. Today, however, DR-CAFTA is viewed by them as a disaster that has not brought in the business it promised, and has served only to further impoverish the area. It was modeled to attract more foreign investment into Free Trade Zones in the Dominican Republic, therefore allowing more jobs for the people. It would do so by lowering and/or reducing taxes and tariffs on goods shipped in and out of the area, specifically in trade between the Dominican Republic and the United States. It also may serve to encourage lowered labor and environmental standards in the area, which are common incentives for foreign and domestic investors looking for the cheapest method of production. Our guide also admitted to us that the la Zona Franca in general had not brought any kind of prosperity to the area. Her explanation for this was the influx of migrant workers from other poorer areas, which has increased the population of Gurabo with people of a lower socio-economic status, therefore lowering the average status of a citizen of Gurabo.
This is just the middle of the story of our clothing - between cotton production, to US American university students proudly donning their school's logo exists this stage. A stage of monotonous, alienating, low-paid, unreliable, physically trying labor practice. After seeing a few of the communities that many of the assembly-line workers live in, and knowing that this Zona Franca is under a certain amount of vigilance from the various universities which have clothing contracts with them, one must wonder of the circumstances of other workers in Free Trade Zones throughout this and other countries. There must be another way where these people may work with dignity.