AJALPAN, Mexico -- Martin Zacatzi Tequextle can recite the names of trendy jeans like an American mall rat: "Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Levi's, Guess."
He ought to know. Before he was fired this summer, Zacatzi alleges that he and 1,300 other employees at a textile factory in southern Mexico were forced to sew together thousands of jeans a day with little or no overtime compensation to augment base wages of little more than $1 an hour.
Sometimes they were ordered to sew from 8 a.m. on Fridays until 4 a.m. on Saturdays, say former and current workers, at the factory in Ajalpan, a small town in Puebla state about 175 miles southeast of Mexico City.
The factory is co-owned by Tarrant Apparel Group of Los Angeles and wealthy Mexican textile magnate Kamel Nacif, who has made headlines in Las Vegas for high-stakes gambling. Workers here have dubbed Nacif, "The Denim King," because he owns multiple factories, known in Spanish as maquiladoras, that assemble jeans.
Labor activists on both sides of the border regard the Tarrant Mexico dispute as the latest test case for Mexico's willingness to enforce maquiladora workers' rights. Allegations of sweatshop conditions are also putting pressure on big-name U.S. brands to oblige foreign suppliers to abide by codes of conduct and local labor laws.
Allegations of sweatshop conditions are also putting pressure on big-name U.S. brands to oblige foreign suppliers to abide by codes of conduct and local labor laws.
In the past, workers at Mexican maquiladoras have been subjected to forced pregnancy testing and other invasions of privacy, or fired for protesting abuses, in spite of Mexican labor laws that appear generous to employees on paper.
In today's Mexico, workers who try to exercise their rights are feeling the squeeze of global competition.
At the Ajalpan factory, some of the workers say supervisors are warning them to acquiesce to excessive demands that they work harder and faster -- or else the U.S. companies that once flocked to Mexico will go to China, where workers earn even less.
Because import tariffs were lowered by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, Mexico's textile maquiladoras mushroomed to 1,092 factories by 2001. By June of this year, because of the U.S. economic slowdown and an increase in textile assembly in China, Central America and other poorer regions, that number had fallen to 796.
The threat of China "is used a lot as a pretext now at factories," said Zacatzi. "China needs work. It's got a huge population. But Mexico needs work, too."
The 37-year-old says he turned down nearly $3,000 in severance pay offered by Tarrant, opting instead to challenge his sudden dismissal before a state labor board.
"We're not against transnational companies coming to our country. We welcome them. But we want people to know that Mexican workers are being exploited," added Zacatzi.
The dispute at Tarrant Mexico began in June, when about 800 workers staged a Norma Rae-style work stoppage. Then they gathered about 750 signatures demanding they be allowed to form an independent union, rare in Mexico because unions were for so many decades controlled by Mexico's former one-party government.
The employees claim they collected enough signatures to require the state labor board to approve their union. But in early October, the board rejected the petition on grounds the employees believe were flimsy excuses to thwart them and protect the influential Nacif.
One of the reasons the board cited for the rejection: The name of a woman union supporter was listed as "Maria" on one document and "Maura" on another.
Since their work stoppage, employees also say, Tarrant has fired workers in waves, starting with all the leaders of the union drive, including Zacatzi. So far, more than 300 employees have been dismissed.
"There are imbalances of power in every country, but Mexico is pretty extreme," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Workers Rights Consortium, a non-profit group that investigates sweatshop allegations and is respected by big companies like Levi's.
Nova's group produced a damning report on the Ajalpan plant, and in September sent copies to Levi 's and Tommy Hilfiger, two top Tarrant Mexico customers.
Levi's asked Tarrant Mexico to become more active in addressing workers' grievances and allow an independent auditor to investigate allegations of abuses at the plant. Tarrant refused, angering Levi's.
"To our surprise, the company was not willing to work with us. It's a very rare case," said Michael Kobori, director of Levi's "global code of conduct" section, which oversees Levi's internal labor standards at its suppliers' plants.
In September, Levi's stopped placing orders with Tarrant and wrote a letter to Puebla's governor, Melquiades Morales Flores, urging him to uphold Mexico's labor laws.
Also in September, a U.S. college group called United Students Against Sweatshops filed a complaint related to the Tarrant Mexico dispute before a three-country labor review board established by NAFTA. Along with Mexican activists, the students accused Mexico's government of failing to uphold its own laws.
Blame for the Tarrant plant dispute ricochets among the players at the top of the production chain.
Nacif's office in Mexico City referred calls to Jorge Echeverria, a plant spokesman, who said the 300 layoffs were necessary because companies like Levi's don't want to pay the factory enough. Because of the economy, he added, production at Tarrant's various Mexican plants has fallen by 50 percent or more.
Echeverria called the union supporters who were fired "bad for Mexico" because their actions were costing the company work.
"Don't you know the United States doesn't buy from us anymore?" he said. "That you buy everything from China now? Then you send people down here to dare to investigate human rights abuses."
Tarrant, he said, rejected Levi's business because Levi's wanted to offer "hunger wages."
Levi's policy is not to discuss details of specific transactions.
But in a statement, the company said: "We can tell you that we have reached mutually satisfactory agreements with over 500 contractors throughout the world who are willing to meet our requirements for service, time, and cost of production, as well as meeting our code of conduct requirements."
Patrick Chow, Tarrant chief financial officer in Los Angeles, Los Angeles, also accused Levi's for failing to offer enough money. As for Levi's request for an audit, he said, "Why should we let them in? They decided not to do business with us."
The Ajalpan plant is currently churning out Express jeans for The Limited, a chain clothing retailer that caters to young U.S. women. The brand responded to inquiries about its position on the Tarrant dispute with a statement: "Limited Brands holds its employees, suppliers and vendors strictly accountable for compliance with all applicable laws and our own business policies, including those relating to labor standards. "
Representatives of Puebla's labor board did not return repeated phone calls for comment.
The Tarrant Mexico conflict is reminiscent of a fight nearby at Puebla's Mexmode factory, a Korean-owned plant where employees rose up in 2001 to demand a union and to protest abuses.
After the intervention of the company's major buyer, Nike, and United Students Against Sweatshops, the independent union was installed.
Today, more than 700 assembly workers at sewing machines piece together T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with Nike, Disney or the names of U.S. college sports teams. And every Monday, manager Steve Kim or others sit down with union leaders to talk about problems.
"The union is like the face of the company now," Kim said.
Mexmode's workers are happier, said union leader Josefina Perez. The wages still aren't high enough to dissuade some from joining the trail of illegal immigrants to the United States that flows heavily out of Puebla. But many feel they have a stake in the company now, and for the first time in several years, Kim said, he expects to make a profit next year.
What happens at the Tarrant Mexico plant, U.S. activists say, depends on whether brands like The Limited will follow Nike and Levi's and use their leverage to pressure the company.
In contrast to Levi's, which took a public stand, Tommy Hilfiger pulled out quietly in what activists call a "cut and run," said United Students Against Sweatshops national organizer Ben McKean.
"The answer is not to drop the company like a hot potato," McKean said. "If a brand leaves every time workers try to organize an independent union, there will never be workers' rights in Mexico."
Susan Ferriss is a Mexico correspondent for Cox Newspapers.
Copyright © Cox Newspapers 2003