While most 19-year-old college students are still in their beds at 6:45 a.m., Lydda Eli Gonzalez, 19, is already at her job in a Honduran maquila factory surrounded by high walls, metal gates and armed guards.
Gonzalez, another maquila worker and a Honduran union leader presented their testimonies and described their lives to a large, silent crowd in the Swing Space activity room at a Pierson College Master’s Tea Thursday. The group then called on students inspired by their stories to take action by writing letters to the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras.
The group, led by National Labor Committee Executive Director Charles Kernaghan, came to the University as a part of a national tour seeking to expose the unfair treatment of sweatshop workers, especially in factories such as theirs that produce clothing for hip-hop artist P. Diddy’s new fashion line, Sean John.
With NLC Senior Associate Barbara Briggs as translator, the women said they carried out a two-day work-stop demanding to talk to the owner of the factory where they work about the poor working conditions and the bank surcharges on their wages of $33 per week. Although the owner promised to improve conditions, they were fired only days later and then blacklisted, preventing them from finding new jobs elsewhere.
“He promised not to take reprisals against us, but now the 40 people can’t work anyplace else,” maquila worker Martha Iris Alberto Lorenzo said.
Kernaghan said after the group held a press conference in New York CIty on Fifth Avenue in front of Sean Combs’ future store, the Honduran media attacked them as “traitors and terrorists.”
Gonzalez described the overall atrocious working conditions in clothing factories in Honduras.
“It is very hot in the factory and you are sweating all day,” Gonzalez said. “There is also a lot of dust in the air. You breathe it in, and you go into the factory with black hair, and come out with hair that is white or red or whatever the color of the shirts we are working on.”
Forbidden to talk and not allowed to use the bathroom during working hours, the employees were also required to take pregnancy tests. They said pregnant workers were fired immediately. Gonzalez said workers were often required to work overtime, and those who could not were also fired.
With such hard work and meager wages, Lorenzo said maquila workers have no money to spend on things other than food or shelter.
“Our children don’t have toys,” Lorenzo said. “We can’t buy them what they need to go to school.”
Without power to invoke change as individuals, the women said they found it necessary to create a union.
“Because of the mistrust and humiliation, that’s what motivated us to start the union,” Fabia Gutierrez, the union leader, said.
Lorenzo described the union as “the only organization that can defend our lives.”
Many of the students who attended the talk said they left touched by the worker’s testimonies.
“It put a live face on a really important issue,” Noah Dobin-Bernstein ’06 said.
Some students said they had cursory knowledge of sweatshops but did not know all the details behind them.
“While I was aware of the horrible working conditions in sweatshops, I had no idea that employers would work together so that ‘rebellious’ employees could not find any form of employment,” Jared Enriquez ’07 said.
The group is scheduled to meet with P. Diddy in person today.