Page 2 of 3
While Meza, the 28-year-old worker from Nicaragua, searched the store for jeans, she explained that the managers at her factory refuse to issue gloves to protect workers from the shears they use to trim fabric. Workers, who make about $9 for a 70-hour week, often cut their hands and splatter blood on their work. It's Meza's job to inspect the pants and send them to the wash if they're stained with blood.
Meza said managers at her factory won't let workers take drinks of water because doing so could increase the number of trips to the bathroom. It's the same story at Arevalo's factory south of Manila. A sign she said she had stolen off the wall there read: "1-19-06 NOBODY IS ALLOWED TO GET WATER DURING WORKING TIME."
Meza finally spotted a familiar pair of jeans. They were plus-sized, with an elastic waist, just like the ones she makes. But then she noticed the end of the pant leg. "No capri," she said. These, she said, were made at another factory. She headed off in search of hers.
Nearby, Arevalo introduced herself to a shopper whose cart overflowed with clothes. The shopper had been cornered by Trina Tocco, a program assistant with the International Labor Rights Fund and a chaperone for the two factory workers. Tocco imports a new group of overseas workers every few weeks for trips just like this. Every time, she buttonholes Wal-Mart shoppers. She takes pride in the fact that many of them have put items back on the shelves after meeting the workers who made them.
"We have workers here who produced these clothes," Tocco told the Overland Park shopper.
"Oh, OK," the shopper replied.
"Did you know they would have to work for a week to buy these clothes?"
"No, I didn't know," the shopper said, looking surprised.
"Did you know we could double their wages if this shirt was just $1 more? Would you be willing to pay that?"
This went on for a while, until the woman wheeled her cart to a register. It wasn't that she didn't agree but that there are few alternatives to Wal-Mart. Boutiques that hawk sweat-shop-free clothing simply can't compete with Wal-Mart's deep discounts.
Meza spotted a rack of stretch-waist capris with "Hecho en Nicaragua" on their tags. She recognized them immediately as products of her factory. She inspected the fabric, as if looking for bloodstains missed in the wash. They cost $14.75 about 11 days' wages for Meza, who makes $9 a week.
The two workers wandered around for a while. They didn't want to leave. They checked more price tags. They inspected where shirts and socks and pants had been made. But mostly they just stared at the stuff. Their initial disbelief over what seemed to them to be high prices turned into what looked like despondence. Their life's work had been reduced to a rack of clothes in a suburban discount store.
One of Tocco's co-workers bought the blouse and a pair of capris for the women. They'll use them as displays for their speeches. Then they'll take them back home and show factory workers the price tags. The hope is that if workers know what Wal-Mart charges for clothes that cost less than 10 cents to make, they will demand better pay.
Already, factory workers in Nicaragua and the Philippines are trying to unionize. About a year ago, during the midst of negotiations between workers and managers, Arevalo says a Wal-Mart employee showed up to give the workers a warning. "If you don't give up this campaign for a union, then Wal-Mart will withdraw its order from the factory," Arevalo says the man told the union leaders. The union's activities cooled, and conditions in the factory have remained the same.