Monday, March 26, 2007

The Story of Doña Jesi and the Maquilas

The factories bring us work, and for that they are an important part of El Tejar. If it weren't for the maquilas, no one would have a job. They have been a great help to Guatemala. Even the first, small factory was a special thing, because it brought 200 jobs to El Tejar. Still, the factories have brought with them some changes. You don't see young men walking out to their field with a pick over their shoulder, going to plant and care for the corn. Most people don't like to get dirty, they'd rather work at the factories. Before, a father would take even his youngest sons out to the field with him, to work. Now when you look you only see the fathers, and they are getting older. My father is seventy, and he still farms corn and beans every year, but my brothers don't go with him.

The factories have helped us, but they have also allowed us to forget about our land, and our parents couldn't show us how to care for it. Now that they are closing the maquilas, we can't go back to working the land, not after getting used to working with a machine. Now the money doesn't reach as far. Like my father says, wood doesn't burn by itself. You have to work if you want something.

Dong Bang Fashion was the first factory to open in our area, and they started hiring workers when I was sixteen. I'd been working in the house with my mother for a few years, and I thought I'd try to get a job on the production line. I was too young, and they were hesitant to give me a job, but they needed workers and I needed work. They were hiring lots of us younger girls. It was a big chance for all of us, to get started with something like that. I worked all day, and at night I went to school. I had special permission from the owners of Dong Bang to leave work at six and go to school. I would get home around ten-thirty, and then I would study until late at night. The next morning, I would start all over again.

When I started, twelve years ago, I was making 140 quetzales for two weeks work. Over the years my salary grew, and the factory grew, and at the end I was making 850 quetzales every two weeks. The regular working schedule is from 7:30 until 4:30, and if you work after 4:30 you get paid for extra hours. They aren't supposed to be obligatory, it is supposed to be your choice to work or not. These extra hours can really help increase your salary. When I left, we were being paid 6.50 Q per hour (approx. 90 cents).

At Dong Bang, now, there are two whole factories, each with twelve production lines, and on each line there are about sixty people working. Dong Bang's main business is in making suits for men and women. We made coats and trousers, in a few different styles. Other parts of the factory make shorts, skirts, and overcoats. We worked with different contracts, but the one really famous brand we worked for was called Sag Harbor, making blazers. Each line makes one article, starting with marking and cutting the material and producing at the other end a finished garment. Since the very beginning, I worked as an "operator", finishing the sleeves, the collar, the lapels. Legalmente, I was building an entire jacket every few minutes. Later on, I was also working as an assistant supervisor on my production line. The managers would show me how to do a job, and I was in charge of teaching everyone else in my group. I liked this part of my job, because I think it's beautiful to teach someone else how to do something new.

What I liked about Dong Bang is they always had respect for what was really Guatemalan. On Monday we would start work at seven, and all of the workers and managers would meet together, and we would do exercise and then sing the Guatemalan national anthem. I don't think all factories in Guatemala have the same respect for our country. They gave us most national holidays to rest. On Mother's Day they paid double wage to all of the mothers working at the factory, and sometimes they would put on a little lunch table for all of us, because we are working and raising children. For Christmas and All Saints Day they would have activities for all of us. I would say there was a real friendship between the management and the workers.

Dong Bang is always one of the highest-ranked export manufacturers in Guatemala, in terms of cleanliness, orderliness, and safety. There is a clinic there for the workers. The bathrooms are always clean, and there is a place for you to wash your hands with soap. Whenever they came to inspect the factory, we'd get top marks.

Let's be clear about something, though. The owner of the maquilas are Korean, not Guatemalan. It's rare that you find otherwise here. Which is to say that they are working for themselves, not for us. Among Koreans there are really angry managers, and there are also some very good people. I had a manager named Mr. Kang. He said to us "If you need anything, or if you want to say anything, I will do everything I can to help you." When one of my daughters got sick, I needed two days off work to take her to the hospital. He gave me the time off, and offered to lend me money to help cure my girl. Thanks to God, he treated us all well. But two years ago he left, and a woman named Mrs. Taka took over. She was really angry. She wanted us to meet all of our production goals, and if we didn't meet them she would make us stay on until they were complete. Some Koreans are very demanding, and in different ways they humiliate the Guatemalans who work for them. Sometimes they shout at you, "Get to work!" or they yell at you in their language, and you have no idea what they are saying. Sometimes they grab a piece you are working on and throw it away, although this never happened to me. We Guatemalans are just trying to do our work, and we ask God to help us understand, or explain what the problem is.

On the line there is always a Guatemalan and a Korean supervisor, to help prevent really big misunderstandings. We have every right to go to the manager's office to make a complaint, or to ask to be moved to different line. We might say "This manager hit me, or cheated, or embarrassed me, and I don't think it's right." But, really, it's rare that they take your side in an event like that. I don't know if it's because they want to keep their job, or if they want to stay on one another's good sides, or what. But you always have a right to complain. If it doesn't work at the office you can go to the labor supervision office in Chimaltenango to make a complaint, and if they ignore you there you can go to the main bureau in Guatemala City. It's a lot of work, but if something happens there are things you can do to defend yourself.

My job, attaching collars and sleeves, was one of the most difficult jobs on the line, and I was using a really heavy machine to do my work all day. I was getting tired, but I knew it would be hard to find someone else to do my job on the line. The managers didn't want to move me, they said "If we put someone else on your machine it won't be the same." But I was tired, so when I went on maternity leave for my fourth time, I decided I would look for work at another maquila when it was time to get back to work. Later, I went back to Dong Bang, because I found out that working in other factories around here can be a really different experience. First I spent almost four years working at Manzanales, another Korean maquila farther away from here. I wasn't doing sleeves, but they didn't have automatic machines, so I was spending a lot more time cutting thread and clearing the piece. I had to pay a lot more money to ride the bus to Manzanales, because it isn't in town like Dong Bang. There were a lot less Koreans working at Manzanales, so when we needed to talk to a managers we would have to spend a lot of time looking around. The bathrooms and the workroom was really different from Dong Bang, too. Less clean. The machines were older. Those were some of the reasons I went back to my old job, on the huge machine.

I met my husband the same year I started working at Dong Bang, when I was sixteen. Two years after we met we went on our first date. We were both studying in escuela basica at night, and working at factories during the day. After three years, we signed a civil union, and moved in together. We only really had our wedding two years ago. My husband worked at Dong Bang for several years, and then he changed jobs and went over to Alianza Fashion, south of town. He was working the second shift, until eleven at night. Sometimes, when they were behind on a shipment he would have to work all night, and he would only have time to come home for some breakfast before going back to work. When they weren't behind the extra hours weren't obligatory, but I don't think they should ever be obligatory. If you've worked your regular day, you should have a choice whether to keep working, or to go home.

Just recently they closed one of the factories at Dong Bang. The oldest factory has been running for sixteen years, and the one they just closed had been running for seven years. They say there is are less orders than before, and that they can do more of the manufacturing there in Korea. It costs less to hire labor in Korea than before, materials are cheaper in country, and export tariffs are dropping.*
*It is possible to speculate that this drop in costs has been achieved domestically through the ongoing creation of tax-free manufacturing zones along the border between South and North Korea, where employees are brought from the North to work for wages that would be illegal in the rest of South Korea.

Work started dropping off at Alianza Fashion as well, and my husband lost his job. He was without work for two months, and for a lot of the time I wasn't working either. For years he'd been saying, "I should go to the United States, we should try our luck up there." This time, when he asked me, I felt it was my duty as his wife to support his decision, because it was the right one for our children. We got a loan from the bank for Q25,000 ($3,300), and members of my family lent us another Q20,000, and with this money he managed to get to Dallas. From there he used another Q8,000 to travel on to Waterloo, Iowa, which is pretty close to New Jersey. So, the whole voyage turned out to be really expensive, especially when you take into account the extra loans we had to take out to support ourselves in El Tejar during his first few months up north, looking for work.

Things haven't been easy for him, up there. He told me about crossing the desert, suffering from cold and hunger. Legalmente, it was only God in heaven taking care of my husband. He left without knowing where he would find work, or what he would do, but a friend who he was travelling with helped him find a job. He's been working in Waterloo for the last eight months, at night, cleaning a meat-processing factory with really big hoses. He says the work is pretty heavy, and with all the stress of life there he hasn't been able to start a second job. He's only working eight hours a day, so we still have most of our debt to pay off. He's working hard to get out of debt, because he say he wants to build a house for his children, and to save enough money to send them to good schools. He wants things he wouldn't be able to get if he stayed here.

He spent a while getting settled, finding work. He lives with a group of men from his work, all in the same house. He says they are all friends, that they have extended a hand to him there. After two months of work he started sending remittances. They come every two weeks, more or less, to pay for our expenses here and to pay down our debt. I think it will take us two years to pay off the debt, at this rate, unless he gets a raise or finds a second job. When we are clear of payments, things will be different. When we talked about this trip, at first, we thought he would stay north for three or four years. Now, talking with him, and considering our debt, we are thinking it will be more like five years.

Now that my husband is gone, working in the United States, there are changes to our lives here. I am staying at home with my children, doing work in the house to help pay for his debt. I do ironing and laundry for other families in town. He was the head of the household, and we are all missing him. My children ask me when he will come home, and I say "God is the only one who really knows." Before, if we had a problem, we could talk to each other to find out what we were going to do. If one of our children was sick, we would look at each other and wonder if we should take them to the hospital. Now I am alone, and if I have a problem I need to be able to solve it without his advice. Calling him will make him worry, and besides, what can he do? As an illegal, he can't come home, even if he wants to.

Today is my son's first birthday without his father here, and you can see in his eyes that even though it's a happy day he is also feeling a little sad. He said "Mom, I miss my dad today." He's completely right, you know? My husband has always been really kind, very loving with his family. He stays close, calling us a few times every week. Even with the distance between us he is attentive to us. As his wife, I am raising our children and taking care of problems down here. If God is willing, one day he will come home and I will say to him "Here are your children, and what I could do I have done for them."

From what my husband has told me, the US is very different from Guatemala. Here we have beautiful landscapes, and the freedom to go wherever we want to go. In the US there are only buildings, everywhere, and no freedom. People with their papers have freedom, but my husband goes out every day with the fear that he will be grabbed and deported. He told me "Everyone thinks the United States is so beautiful, but it isn't like that at all. People are suffering here, too. It's hard to find work, and to meet other people. Here I am alone, without my family. Life is better in Guatemala. Let God help me reach my goals, and help me return home to everyone in my family." I don't think the US will ever, ever, be a home for my husband. It isn't his country. He's able to earn a little more up there, but even when he returns to our family it won't be the same as before.

Now that the elections are coming, the politicians are coming through town making thousands of promises. Sadly, when you promise something to someone poor you don't usually have to follow through with what you've said. They say "We're going to lower the cost of electricity in town!" But when they are in office they forget about us here. In my mind, one day we need a president who is treats rich people and poor people equally. I don't mean someone who gives us everything for free, just someone who gives us a chance to earn a salary instead of humiliating us and taking away our jobs. Governments should support the people, but instead the price of everything just goes up, and our lives get worse.

If there were better opportunities here it would be harder to get young people to leave their home country, but people all around the world will take a big risk to go somewhere to find good work. Immigration is the people's answer to their situation. People don't wait for a solution, they go out and find one for themselves. We have families here, and if we wait for the government there will never be any changes in our situation. Many make the decision to leave for the US, while their families stay behind and suffer in their absence.

When President Bush came the other week, to sign some agreements with President Berger, I thought "How beautiful would it be if those two were working to help both of our countries. When Bush left, we would be able to salute him, and thank him for his visit." But now in the US they are deporting so many men and women, even refugees who have been there since the war years. They are sending mothers home without their children. Those chapines are just there because they want to earn something with their sweat, they aren't asking for gifts. If you go to Antigua you see lots of people from the United States, all walking around without any hassle. I think it would be better if things were a little easier for Guatemalans in the US, if they didn't have to do things like run through the desert and hide in the cities all of the time. But this is how the governments say it should be.