The Badger Herald , January 30, 2004

Student labor coalition presents former union organizer

by Virginia Zignego, College Writer

[PICTURE - Maria Deysi Hernandez and interpreter]
Maria Deysi Hernandez and interpreter
Media Credit: Ben Smidt/ Herald photo

A woman who formerly helped organize unions at an El Salvador sweatshop spoke Thursday night.

Deysi Hernandez spoke through a University of Wisconsin student interpreter and described the circumstances that led to her forming a union and the results, such as starting an independent union factory.

The UW Student Labor Action Coalition, the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, and the Madison Sister Cities Project sponsored the talk regarding basic human rights in foreign factories.

UW Assistant Student Services Coordinator Virginia Waddick introduced Hernandez to the audience.

"Nearly 200 countries around the world have sweatshops in them, which structurally disadvantage developing countries," Waddick said.

When Hernandez worked at the Tainan Enterprises factory, she got up at 3 a.m. to walk 30 minutes to work. She earned $4.50 a day for eight hours of seamstress work.

At the factory, Hernandez witnessed the owners physically and verbally abusing the workers. After seeing the abuse and discrimination of pregnant women in 2001, Hernandez and seven others organized a union. By April 2002, 52 percent of the factory's workers joined the union.

In the middle of 2002, the owners of Tainan Enterprises suspended work at the factory for one day after hearing about the union. Additionally, the company through which Tainan Enterprises contracted its goods withdrew its order, and the workers were told that those who did not take 50 percent severance pay would not receive any money.

After forming the union and being released from the factory, all of the involved workers were put on blacklist. Such a move resulted in hardships in finding other employment, Hernandez said. Other factories in the area would not hire those on the blacklist for fear of the formation of more unions.

One of the factories Hernandez and her fellow workers applied to was Primo, which supplies Lands' End.

"All 300 of us, in an area where 20,000 workers are employed by factories, were told we could not work at Primo because we were unionists and would be a problem for the factory," Hernandez said.

Hernandez and others recently opened their own factory, Just Garments. Tanian Enterprises owns the factory, but Hernandez said one of the union's aims is for each worker to have a 1 percent share in the factory.

Hernandez said that while there is no set wage, she estimates the living wage will be "three times the $4.50 a day we were earning before, and that's if we eat once a day."

UW senior and SLAC member Tony Schultz feels the issues Hernandez focused on are important on various levels.

"I think it's important to have speakers such as Deysi Hernandez because the struggle for worker and human rights is an international struggle," he said.

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