Free trade zone workers in Nicaragua are without rights
Havana Times | 16 January 2023
Free trade zone workers in Nicaragua are without rights
New unions cannot be formed, and those that already exist cannot – or do not want to – protect workers’ rights
By Iván Olivares (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – Zoila Caceres, a resident of the Batahola Norte neighborhood in Managua, began working in 2010 at a free trade zone company and continued to do so for twelve years, until the large amount of lint from the fabric that accumulated in her lungs made her sick to such a degree that she had to seek medical attention to try to regain her health.
A week after a doctor approved her second health leave, she was fired from the factory where she had worked for the past three years. “This is what happens in these free trade zones: as long as you don’t fail for a day, you are a good worker, but if you are absent due to illness, you are no longer of use to them,” she reflects.
Among the workers of companies operating under the free trade zone regime there is a collection of stories that have as a common denominator: an employer attitude of “complain wherever you want”, and “you already knew what to expect when you started working in a free trade zone company”. Such is explained by the absence of independent unions, or a Ministry of Labor (Mitrab) that serves as a counterweight.
“The unions authorized by Mitrab, tied to the governing party, are not responding to the demands of the workers,” says human rights defender Carlos Guadamuz, a member of the Nicaragua Nunca Más Collective, who has collaborated in the preparation of various reports on labor rights. and social security in Nicaragua.
A former union adviser adds: “What we see is the corruption of some union leaders, who bend to the search for money and perks at the expense of the workers whom they betray.” The specialist, who spoke to CONFIDENCIAL on the condition of anonymity, noted that trade unionism in Nicaragua “lacks political and ideological independence.”
“Expendable” people: “We are replaced, relieved or fired”
The companies that operate under the free trade zone regime constitute one of the largest sources of employment in the country, and are the source of multiple complaints by workers, who denounce the violation of their labor rights. They are practically defenseless because neither their unions – where they exist – have the capacity or a will to confront employers, nor does Mitrab show interest in supporting them.
The entry into force in 2006 of the Free Trade Agreement between Central America, the United States and the Dominican Republic (Cafta-DR, for its acronym in English), represented a notable boost to Nicaraguan exports of products made in companies that operate under the free trade zone regime, which required the hiring of a lot of labor.
The fact that job seekers are far greater in number than jobs available represents a big advantage for employers, who can, without much difficulty, get rid of any employee they consider annoying, sick, or insufficiently productive, with the incentive that neither the Ministry of Labor, nor the unions, represent a reason to worry.
Ana Gómez, former promoter of the now illegal Movement of Working and Unemployed Women, assures that the regime chose to side with the businesspeople and protect the textile industry and franchises to the detriment of the workers, ignoring labor rights, without concern whether there are violations of labor legislation.
She knows it because she lived it, like Zoila Caceres, and many other women and men who work in those companies. In her case, she recounts: “I came out with a cervical hernia, from working there day and night” and she was fired when her employers considered that she was no longer useful to them.
“When we no longer serve their interest, we are replaced, relieved or dismissed permanently,” she revealed.
Dictatorship above, dictatorship below: “Work as long as they want”
Guadamuz believes that the passing of the years has not served to improve the situation from the perspective of the workers, but that “rather it has worsened”. This, in reference to compliance with labor rights, working hours, overtime pay, or maternity leave (there have been many reports of dismissal of pregnant women), despite the protection given to them by law, which at the time was understood as part of the “marriage” of the Ortega government with private Nicaraguan companies.
Once that relationship was broken in 2018, the persistence of worker defenselessness is explained because “in Nicaragua, all the resources of the State, be it for issues of security, labor, health, etc., are aimed at keeping Ortega in power.” Therefore “the suppression of other rights, including the right to elect and be elected, can be the subject of negotiation”, when the time comes.
This has generated a situation in which employers feel completely free to dismiss someone without consequences, while workers react with an attitude of resignation. They know it is not worth filing a complaint with Mitrab.
Jemima Ticay, an operator fired from the company she worked for, recounts: “I was fired unjustly, because some people didn’t like me. I know this because it wasn’t the Human Resources people who fired me, but the order came from one of the offices. They only told me: “Sign. Sign, and there we will call you for the severance pay.”
Although she is convinced that she has been the victim of an injustice, she refrained from seeking union or legal advice, because “those cases occur in the free trade zone and obviously, one cannot go to complain because they say ‘you knew what you were getting into when you enter a free trade zone’. Sign, and you can work there, as long as they want.”
It is a story very similar to that of Mercedes Castrillo, who worked in the packaging and folding area of a Chinese-owned company, located in the Las Mercedes free zone, where they made jean-style jackets.
She remembers that one day “for no reason” she was fired. “They just called me into the office and told me I had been dismissed,” she recalls. Despite being within her right, she decided not to seek legal help, after she saw how two of her friends who entered at the same time as her were also fired, and although they sought to make their labor rights prevail, none received an answer. So she “didn’t want to look any further; I didn’t want to investigate further,” she said with resignation.
And my Social Security receipt?
If getting sick while working for a company in a free trade zone is a problem, it is even more so when you get sick and go to the hospital that provides services to the rest of the company’s personnel. They ignore you because the company hasn’t given you the Social Security (INSS) receipts, nor have they affiliated you with a health service provider institution.
This was what happened to Estela Medina, a resident in Managua, who began working in a free zone company on September 1, 2020. On December 18 of that same year, when more than three and a half months had elapsed, she fell ill with an appendicitis, but did not get medical care from the hospital that provides services to the company, because she had not been affiliated, and thus had to go to a public hospital.
When making the inquiry, the company told her partner that she was not entitled to sick leave because her contract was temporary. “A lawyer told me that he could take the case and sue the company, but I didn’t want to get into that problem, and I left it that way. I knew that what they had done to me was unfair, but here it isn’t worth fighting for your rights, because you end up losing out,” she lamented.
Antonio Suarez, also from the capital, confirmed on his account that being a man does not make much difference when working in one of these companies, and that “working in free trade zones is always very complicated,” denouncing “verbal and psychological abuse.”
He narrates that several times he saw how some co-workers were rudely criticized for taking more than a minute in the bathroom, “it was not a polite call for attention, but rather strong, treating people very badly.”
“Amelia”, an operator who works in a company located in the “Las Palmeras” industrial park, in Masatepe, explained that some supervisors do mistreat them, and even if the owners do not do it directly, many workers complain about this mistreatment to the representatives of the company, but nothing happens.
“What happens is that the workers are told that it is about staying active; If they don’t put pressure on us, we won’t produce, and they even tell us that it’s for our own good, so that we can earn more. However, the truth is that there is a payment limit. It is not true that if you kill yourself working they will pay you more. There is a salary ceiling,” she explains.
Fired for complaining or giving an opinion
In addition to this limitation, two other women who asked to be identified as “Sofía” and “Ester”, and work in the industrial parks of San Marcos and Masatepe respectively, commented on the annoyance that their colleagues experience when they overexert themselves to work extra and earn more, with the result that half of what they earn in an eleven-hour night shift remains with the State, as labor income tax (IR).
In contrast, another worker who works in a company based in Niquinohomo, and asked to be called “Flower”, shared that she had heard it said that “Koreans yell at you, mistreat you. However, after eight months of working there, her experience is rather positive.
“Overall, I felt pretty good the time I worked there. I never received abuse. Yes, you work under pressure, but the same pressure makes you achieve your goal. If you don’t want to work so much, you lose the incentive and only earn the basic pay,” she assured, recalling that she received a subsidy that covered 50% of her cost of transportation.
Wilmer Martínez worked for seven years in a free trade zone company in Managua. All the time as an operator, “because they never gave me the opportunity to improve my position”, so at some point he decided to leave, until his former supervisor asked him to return to work, because they needed someone with his experience.
On the second day back, they asked him why he had sued the company, which is not true, so he asked them to show him the alleged lawsuit, but they did not, and although they told him to go back to work, on the third day they fired him, based on the alleged suit, which they never showed him.
“That day they fired several people. Some, for having an opinion, for complaining about the supervisors, or for not agreeing with the company administration,” said Martinez. He explained that he did not go to the union, because “not all companies let you form or belong to unions, and the Mitrab is no longer like before, when it supported people. I have an acquaintance – he asserts – who was told that it would be better for him to take advantage of the settlement they were offering him.”