Consumer responses can change factory conditions in Honduras

“The Israelites went seven times around Jericho, and that was after they felt defeated,” one woman said. “We think maybe this time we’re on our sixth turn.”

We sat in a small, hot office listening to the stories of workers who had been illegally fired from a Honduran maquila, a garment factory, or more pejoratively, a sweatshop. A year and a half prior, workers had attempted to unionize, but the company retaliated by firing the organizers.

The maquila industry employs over 150,000 Hondurans a year in jobs that many call “better than nothing.” It’s true that where unemployment is rampant, maquila jobs are highly desired. One maquila told us they turn away 93 percent of applicants, with a turnover rate of under 2 percent per year. However, as consumers, we must ask whether “better than nothing” is good enough.

In Honduras, maquila workers make around $10 per day — only 70 percent of the Honduran minimum wage — because of a government-mandated effort to keep international companies from seeking cheaper labor elsewhere.

Besides the low pay, maquilas also threaten the health of their workers. Working in an assembly line, each worker repeats the same motion throughout his or her 12-hour shift, 1800-4800 times per day. The lint and chemicals in the air can also affect workers’ lungs.

These workers are fighting for better pay and safer working conditions, but right now, only the most ethical companies will provide these conditions simply because it’s the right thing to do. Competition depends on driving the cost of production down as far as it can go. If consumers don’t reward ethical production, it won’t pay off for corporations. But this can change.

As consumers, especially from the country with one of the biggest economies in the world, we have power. In a way, these giant corporations work for us, and we face a choice of what work to reward whenever we visit the mall.

Our action doesn’t have to be simply in what we buy either. “Write letters,” the union leader told us, asking us to demand that the people who make our clothes be well-treated. The maquila workers are organized and courageous, but their voices aren’t acknowledged. “We don’t get anywhere without international involvement,” another worker said.

As one example, in 2008, Fruit of the Loom closed the only maquila in Honduras that had unionized — reputedly to eliminate the union. Pressure from student groups forced the company not only to reopen the factory, but to pay back wages for the year that all its employees had been without work. Fruit of the Loom now works with three different unions and is the best-paying maquila in the region.

Investigating conditions abroad can seem like a paralyzing task. Some people prefer to reject maquilas altogether; instead, they buy local or used. But both blindly participating in the system and removing yourself completely leaves workers without defenders. Consumer awareness is about more than just a clean conscience — it’s about taking action, and the first step to that is simply understanding that there is a problem.

It’s easy to think that one person’s action won’t make a difference. But remember what God can do with faithfulness. The Israelites walked six times around Jericho before the seventh time, when they lifted up their voices together and “the walls came tumblin’ down.”