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Too often conditions in free-trade zones are deplorable

by Tana Wilson — Commentary
| July 9, 2013 3:05 PM

Are you familiar with clothing brands, such as: Columbia, The North Face, and Patagonia? Do you own any of their products? 

We as consumers need to be aware of where our products are manufactured and under what conditions. 

For instance, in a recent trip to Nicaragua, I learned an immense amount about free-trade zones and labor conditions. Free-trade zones are designated geographical areas within a nation that are exempt from the regulations and taxation normally imposed on companies. 

More than 100 U.S. companies are producing goods in Nicaragua, but how are the conditions for their laborers? I was able to meet with María Elena Morales, Nohemí Flores and María Mojica of the María Elena Cuadra Women’s movement. They work organizing and training women in the free-trade zones in defense of their human rights. 

They told their personal stories from working in free-trade zones, and as I sat there listening to these inspiring, motivated, passionate women, I had a moment of self-actualization. Morales told a story about being promoted to manager and making slightly more an hour (which is still less than two U.S. dollars an hour), but they told her to fire her fellow workers. She knew these workers, they were her friends, and they had families who depended on this income. How could she fire them for being pregnant and therefore not being work efficiently or fire them because they were exercising their legal rights? 

So, she stood up for her fellow workers, and by refusing to give in, she sent a message to the workers and to the free-trade zone itself. As a result, she was blacklisted all over Nicaragua. She said, “To create change we must stand up not only for ourselves, but for each other.” 

These three women closed by not asking us to stop buying products like Columbia, The North Face, or Patagonia, but to recognize where they were made and the long hours, sweat, and tears that went into the products we consume. 

We as consumers can make a difference. Write the companies of the product and ask them, how are your workers treated? What are their conditions? What measures is your company taking to improve worker conditions and safety? 

It’s up to us to recognize and ask questions. I know I will never buy another product and not pay attention to where it was made and under what conditions it was manufactured.

(Tana Wilson is a Libby resident who traveled to Nicaragua to see firsthand the working conditions in free-trade zones.)