A labor dispute broke out and soon resolved last month at Nicaragua’s largest employer in the private sector, the Taiwanese investment Nien Hsing Textile.
The factory Nien Hsing Garments S.A., located in Managua’s Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone, is one of eleven Nien Hsing factories in Nicaragua. The factory has been in operation for twelve years. There are approximately 2,500 workers in the factory. Currently the factory produces only pants—jeans, slacks and shorts—for Blue Riders, Wrangler Jeans, Osh Kosh B’Gosh, Faded Glory and Sonoma Carpenter.
Thirty-eight founding workers held the union’s formational assembly on December 8, 2006. On December 15, the paperwork of the union “Sindicato de Trabajadores Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara” was submitted to MITRAB (the labor ministry). MITRAB legally certified the union on January 17, 2007. The union currently has over 60 members. The union is affiliated with the CST-JBE confederation.
Anti-union Firings and Repression
On December 22, 2006, Nien Hsing management started firing members of the recently-formed CST-JBE union. Since then, management has fired approximately fifty workers, many of whom were part of the CST-JBE union. The factory management cited Articles 42 and 45 as foundation for the firings, usually not listing any reason for the firing on the firing notices. Many of the CST-JBE union members fired were veteran Nien Hsing employees, having worked in the factory between 2-8 years before being suddenly laid off.
During the week of February 5-9, management decided to shut down two production lines, firing about 200 people. Some of the fifty fired CST-JBE members were laid off during these line closings. According to CST-JBE members, workers were told that because of the CST-JBE union, the factory could not afford to keep so many workers on, thus forcing them to close the two production lines. The firings were seen by the CST-JBE affiliates as a fear tactic to dissuade more workers from joining the union. CST-JBE members also mentioned that before the closing of the two lines, members of the company union CTN(a) asked each of the workers on those lines if they were interested in joining the company union, implying that if they didn’t their job would be at risk.
Workers also mentioned several other violations regarding the Nien Hsing factory: • Excessive and forced overtime. Workers reported that until recently some employees had regular shifts of 12-14 hours. Workers know that they may be fired if they refuse to work the extra hours. Workers say that recently a pregnant woman began crying when she was forced to work two hours overtime instead of being allowed to leave at the end of the official workday. • Unhygienic bathrooms and lunch space. • Workers getting sick from poor quality food offered at lunch. • An excess of lint in the factory air and a failure to provide workers with protective masks. • An increase in production goals to unreasonably high levels with an accompanying decrease in the amount paid per unit (especially in the ironing area).
Thirteen of the fired CST-JBE members have filed complaints with MITRAB, three of which are members of the board of directors. On January 26, CST-JBE representatives met with MITRAB Director and a representative of the Nien Hsing factory to discuss the firings of the thirteen workers that had filed cases. The factory contended that management never received the list of union affiliates, and therefore the firings were not targeted. The factory representative also assured everyone in the meeting that factory management would accept MITRAB’s decision on the thirteen cases and would not appeal that decision.
On February 5 and 9, MITRAB decided in favor of CST-JBE’s demand for reinstatement of two cases, declaring the December 22 firing illegal and null (though the decision is not technically a legally-binding reinstatement order, which can only come from a court). Untrue to their word, the factory immediately appealed both favorable decisions. The cases of seven other workers are currently being investigated by MITRAB and 4 others are still awaiting investigation.
The union affiliates got together on Saturday, February 10 and listed the following demands:
• Reinstatement of the fired union members, beginning with the thirteen currently being processed in MITRAB • Respect for the union and labor stability • Negotiation with the factory of a “list of demands” that would lead to a collective bargaining agreement
Just before the supporting CST-JBE campaign is ready to be launched by some international NGOs, Nien Hsing signed an accord with CST-JBE on Wednesday, February 21. The accord says that the fired CST-JBE union members will be reinstated on Monday. And the factory also verbally committed to paying them their back pay. The agreement states that factory management will negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the CST-JBE union and the CTN(a) union. The accord also committed management and the union to drop all legal cases, desist from all national and international campaigns, respect the law, and have regular meetings in the factory (every 15-30 days).
CST-JBE thinks that management/owners simply saw the mounting national campaign and the possibilities for an international campaign and decided to avoid a big fight. And the recent MITRAB declarations that the firings should be considered null probably also influenced the factory to sign.
Seven years ago, 2000, the workers in Nien Hsing Nicaraguan plant have tried first time for the independent union. The struggle was strongly oppressed by the right-wing government at that time and the company. Though some certain union members got back their jobs in 2001, eventually the independent union couldn’t survive inside the factory. After six years of undermining efforts and the left-wing Sandinista coming to power, now the independent union stands up again and win the first battle!
About the labor dispute during 2000 and 2001, please see Solidarity across Boundary against Exploitation.