Puma dumps workers
MARK OSBORN writing for the British socialist daily Morning Star reports on the shameful treatment of Mexican workers by sportswear firm Puma. On January 13, workers at the Matamoros garment factory in Puebla, central Mexico, staged a one-day strike. The workers had had enough. They were protesting about non-payment of wages, forced overtime, verbal abuse from management, being locked in the factory and the denial of their right to form an independent trade union. The US-owned subcontracting factory was paying illegally low wages. One worker commented: "We are forced to work mandatory overtime and the guard has orders to lock the doors to keep us in the factory. "Wages are less than the legal minimum for the region. For example, the lowest wage is 39 pesos a day. When the customers do audits of the factory, the company forces us to lie." These workers were taking action in an area of Mexico where battles for dignity and union rights are becoming increasingly common. Puebla is characterised a special zone under the Free Trades Area of the Americas. Mexico is the largest garment exporter to the United States and the majority of workers in the industry — over 100,000 people — are located in this one state. In what is a common arrangement in Mexico, the workers had been "represented" by fake bosses' union Sindicato Francisco Villa de la Industria Textil y Conexos via a deal made between the "union" and management. Because of direct links established during previous battles between Mexican workers' organisations and anti-sweatshop campaigners and unions in north America and Europe, a massive international solidarity campaign quickly began to exert massive pressure on those transnational clothing giants which used the factory and exploited the ultra-low paid workforce. Key customers at Matamoros included US company Angelica and well-known German-based sportswear brand Puma. In the weeks ahead, Puma came under massive pressure from many hundreds of organisations and individuals as it tried to cut and run from the factory. Protestors were demanding that Puma — caught using cheap labour in contravention of its own code of conduct — back the workers' right to decent pay and a union organisation of their choice. Practically, this meant Puma renewing orders at Matamoros. Companies like Puma are intensely image conscious and this makes them vulnerable to high-profile worker-support campaigns. Unlike Nike, which has a richly deserved bad name for sweatshop abuse of workers, Puma has never been in the campaigners' spotlight before. And Puma managers ran scared as their shops were picketed by US students and campaigns were established across Britain and other European countries. Puma's head of environmental and social affairs Reiner Hengstmann received thousands of e-mails at the start of February as the internet website LabourStart ran a cyber campaign in support of the Matamoros workers. Trade unionists from around the world expressed their outrage at Puma's use of sweated labour, many threatened local boycotts of Puma goods and a 14- year-old Steve from Kent wrote to tell Mr Hengstmann he was "an idiot", and that he and his friends were never wearing Puma clothes again. Puma was forced to meet with representatives of the Mexican workers' resource centre, CAT, which is co-ordinating the unionisation drive in the region and German anti-sweatshop activists. Despite the threats of John Whittinghill, the factory's manager, to close the plant, the Mexican workers had declared their own democratic independent union, Sitemag, and filed for its formal legal recognition. Matamoros workers filed papers for legal recognition of their union on January 20. The next day, Puma tags were removed from the factory. At this point in the battle it became a central demand of the workers that Puma and the other users be forced to renew orders at the factory. Withdrawal of orders from sub-contracting factories is, in fact, a form of union busting — a factory without orders is likely to close before the union can be properly established. By the end of February, Puma had backed down and agreed to place new orders. CAT welcomed Puma's move, but urged caution — it has been betrayed by the multinationals before. It called for the pressure and protests to continue. In Britain, NO Sweat organised a series of protests across the country to celebrate international Women's Day on March 8. The London actions ended up in a samba-band led demonstration outside Puma's trendy new store in Carnaby Street. Even the security guards danced along. And the CAT was right to warn us. The factory has now closed its doors. The local labour board has refused to grant Sitemag legal recognition — proving yet again the links between local employers and the Mexican state. The battle goes on, however. In the US, massive campus campaign United Students Against Sweatshops is lobbying to get the union recognised. In Britain, No Sweat has called a second protest outside Puma's London shop. Ad the CAT battle to spread independent trade unionism across the Puebla region continues.
* * *PS: In January, Puma announced record profits of 84.9 million euros — up 114 per cent on the previous year. (1 euro is approx. A$1.35.)