Tarrant Workers Want to Unionize

More than 700 garment workers are trying to organize their own union at one of Tarrant Apparel Group’s Mexican factories that sews blue jeans for such retailers as The Limited, Wet Seal, Wal-Mart and Macy’s.

On Aug. 6, about 750 workers filed registration papers with the local labor board, the Local Conciliation and Arbitration Board, known in Spanish as the Junta Local de Conciliacion y Arbitraje (JLCA), to form a union at Tarrant’s factory in Ajalpan, Mexico, in the state of Puebla. The factory employs 1,400 sewers, dyers and finishers to fill private-label denim orders for major American companies including Levi Strauss & Co., Calvin Klein, DKNY and American Eagle Outfitters Inc.

The arbitration board has until Oct. 6 to review the petition and decide what to do.

“The workers are seeking recognition of their independent union so that they can negotiate fair working conditions,” said Nikki Bas, co-director of Sweatshop Watch, a workers’ rights group in Oakland, Calif., that is monitoring the situation.

The factory workers are seeking better working conditions, prompt overtime pay for hours worked after the standard 10-hour workday, improved cafeteria food and a clean environment in which to eat their meals. The workers make an average of $40 to $70 a week, according to Sweatshop Watch.

According to Bruce Berton, international business consultant at Stonefield Josephson Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif., the average wage for apparel factory workers in the Puebla region is between $35 and $60 a week for an experienced sewer.

The factory employees are also seeking profit sharing from Tarrant, a $347 million company based in Los Angeles.

Under Mexican law, employees are entitled to a share of their employer’s profits. In many ways, Mexican labor law is theoretically more favorable to workers than U.S. and Canadian laws, according to some industry observers.

“The problem is those laws are not enforced,” said Robert Jeffcott, a policy analyst for the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network, a grassroots organization that promotes respect for factory workers’ rights in export processing zones in Mexico and South America.

Jeffcott also noted there may already be an official union at Tarrant’s factory in Ajalpan but many of the dominant unions in Mexico have close ties to the Mexican government, which often negotiates contracts without workers’ knowledge or participation.

“The workers want to be represented by a democratic union—one that represents their interests rather than the government’s,” Jeffcott said.

Last month, Tarrant laid off approximately 220 garment workers at its Ajalpan factory, according to the Workers Support Center, also known as the Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador, in Puebla, Mexico. Among those laid off were seven people who had formed a committee to negotiate better work conditions and benefits, Bas said.

Negotiations for workers’ benefits are being complicated by Tarrant’s announcement a few weeks ago that starting Sept. 1 it was leasing its three Mexican facilities for the next 12 years for $11 million. Tarrant invested approximately $175 million in capital expenditures on developing its full-package network in Mexico.

Gerard Guez, Tarrant’s founder, chairman and chief executive, declined to name the new lessees although some sources believe it is a Mexican manufacturer who previously served as a Tarrant contractor. Guez said the company’s decision to lease out its facilities is part of a company-wide restructuring plan. While some workers’ rights observers have accused Guez of leasing the factories to avoid the labor problem, the reason may be simply financial. In 2002, Tarrant posted a net loss of $6.1 million.

When asked about whether or not Tarrant is responsible for paying workers a portion of the company’s profits, Guez said: “It’s no secret that there has been a lack of profits in our Mexico factories. There is not a lot we can offer in shares.”

According to Tarrant’s May 15, 2002, quarterly report, the downturn in the economy and the effects of the events of Sept. 11 forced the company to cut its operating costs and workforce in Mexico by 20 percent.

With the Ajalpan facility in transition, workers’ rights advocates are calling on U.S. apparel companies that have merchandise sewn at the factory to come forward with their support.

Most of the U.S. companies that produce at the Ajalpan factory have not responded to letters sent by workers’ advocates, Bas said. However, Levi Strauss & Co., which produces its Wal-Mart signature line at the Ajalpan factory, has agreed to look into the workers’ complaints.

Levi Strauss & Co. spokeswoman Linda Butler confirmed the denim giant is aware of the workers’ allegations and is working with local nongovernmental organizations to resolve the matter. “At Levi’s, we respect the right of workers to exercise their right of freedom of association,” she said.

Butler said that last May Levi’s sent an inspector down to the facility, where the company has produced denim for less than a year, to make an assessment of the workers’ conditions. She said some of the workers complained of nonpayment of back wages and overtime. “We worked closely with the factory to resolve certain issues we had identified and conducted interviews with the workers before we determined that those issues had been corrected,” she said.

Currently, Levi’s is working with the factory’s management to reach a resolution, according to Butler.