San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Women Turn Free Trade into Fair Trade

NUEVA VIDA, CIUDAD SANDINO– Touting the slogan “Our Sweat, OurSales, Our Success,” a small sewing cooperativeof hurricane victims in a formerrefugee camp outside of Managua is on theverge of making history.For the past two years, the CooperativaMaquiladora Mujeres Nueva VidaInternacional has been producing organic-cotton T-shirts, camisoles and qualitycrossover blouses for export to theUnited States.Now, this modest entrepreneurial businessof 45 women and men is hoping tobecome the first worker-owned free-tradezone in the world.The paperwork to apply for free-trade zonestatus was finalized this week, and thecooperative is waiting for the green lightfrom the government of President EnriqueBolaños, which has aggressively sought toattract free-trade zones to Nicaragua.Free-trade-zone status would streamlineimport and export procedures for thecooperative, as well as ensure continuedtax exemptions on property and trade.HAVING complied with all of therequirements for application, the cooperative,which recently formed the company“Zona de Comercio Justo, Fair-TradeZone” for legal purposes, likes itschances for approval.The prospect of becoming the firstworker-owned free-trade zone is alreadybeing celebrated by activists as a grassrootscoup against the establishment ofglobalization.“We are using the system to turn thetables; we are using the rules of global tradeto our advantage, rather than always being adollar short and a day late,” said MikeWoodard, founder of the Nicaragua-basednon-governmental organization JubileeHouse Community, which played an instrumentalrole in forming the cooperative.“This will change the image of sweatshopsbecause the women will be workingfor themselves, not a foreign owner,”he said.THE worker-run maquiladora hasalready set base wages at 40% higher thanother free-trade zones in Nicaragua, and hasestablished a democratically elected directoratethat answers to the employee-owners.The cooperative members – includingpregnant women and several handicappedemployees – are free to move about thefactory, joking with other workers andgoing to the bathroom without the permissionof a floor boss.Quotas are set depending on order volumes,but employees are not punished ordocked pay if they are unable to meet theirdaily expected output.THE cooperative’s market in the UnitedStates is clothing wholesaler Maggie’sOrganics, a Presbyterian Church associationand several university bookstores, such asthose at Boston College in Massachusettsand Bucknell in Pennsylvania.With the help of a recent $187,000low-interest loan from the Washington,D.C.-based Inter-American Foundation,the women’s co-op is now able to buyorganic cotton directly from Peru. As aresult, the cooperative now offers “full-package”services, rather than the “cutand-sew” services it once offered when itwas dependent on buyers to purchase andsend primary materials to complete orders.The shift to the full-package model hasresulted a 2004 first-trimester productionincrease of 160% from last year’s totals,according to Rosa Davila, the cooperative’sadministrative director.The cooperative this year has exportedmore than $320,000 worth of clothing.If production levels maintain for theremainder of the year, the cooperativewill turn its first profit, which will bedivided among its members based ondays worked, Davila said.ALTHOUGH the sewing cooperativeis being hailed as a pioneer in breaking themold of globalization, blazing the trail hasbeen tough.For the first two years after forming in1999, members of the cooperative did notreceive any pay while they labored to buildtheir cinderblock factory.Neighbors ridiculed the foundinggroup of women, saying they were beingmanipulated by the Gringos of JubileeHouse, Woodard recalls. Consequently,the first two groups involved in the co-opdissolved before construction was completed.But a small and dedicated base ofwomen stuck it through.When the factory was done, the membersremaining in the cooperative agreed toplace a value of $350 on their 640 hours ofconstruction labor. In fairness to thesewomen, new employees who are allowedto join the cooperative must pay an admittancefee of $350. The money goes into ageneral fund controlled by the co-op.THE success of the cooperative, albeitnoteworthy, is still relatively modest.Cooperative president Zulema Mena, aformer vegetable vendor in Managua wholater worked briefly at another maquiladoraoutside the capital, said the working conditionsand pay at the Nueva Vida co-op aremuch better than what she was used to.However, as women such as 52-yearoldcooperative founding member DeliaUrban point out, the average monthly payof $120-180 is not enough to meet the risingcosts of living in Nicaragua.The monthly cost of basic food staplesalone is about $128, and does not includemoney for electricity and water bills, educationexpenses for children, medicines orany form of entertainment or diversion.Yet despite the harsh economic realitiesof Nicaragua, the Nueva Vida co-op is demonstratingto the world that a socialistmovement based on workers’ rights andequality can still offer the promise of changein a world governed by the neoliberal capitalistorder.

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