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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers.
When labor officials are ill-equipped and powerless, workers' complaints can hardly be investigated.
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — If you’ve ever wondered why conditions for legions of Latin American workers are so bad, it helps to spend time with the front-line officials keeping tabs on abusive employers.
Government labor inspectors take on cases like union-busting and unlawful firings. But across Latin America, labor inspectors are often overburdened with massive case loads, poorly paid and impotent to do very much when they spot exploitation.
“This is by design,” said Dan Kovalik, a lawyer for the United Steelworkers which works closely with Latin American labor unions. “These are countries and economies that depend on paying people low wages to make cheap goods. So there’s no real interest in policing labor conditions.”
Part of the problem is that Latin American labor ministries, which employ the inspectors, are usually the least important entities within governments. Sometimes, they don’t even exist. Colombia closed its Labor Ministry between 2002 and 2011.
But even when labor ministries are operating at full capacity, Latin American governments, when confronted with labor unrest, usually side with business owners — who often provide politicians with large campaign donations — rather than with workers. As a result, there’s scant top-down pressure on labor inspectors to be aggressive.
“If I try to go inside, those guards could kill me.”~Jose Rivera, Honduran labor inspector
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There’s also little financial incentive. In Honduras, most inspectors earn about $600 a month. Like poorly paid police officers, some of them accept bribes to look the other way.
All of these ingredients mean that scurrilous factory bosses and plant managers are rarely sanctioned and the problems persist. For a closer look, I recently tagged along with a labor inspector in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ largest city.
Wednesday, 9 a.m.: By the time the Labor Ministry opens, there’s already a line of people at the front door, sweating under the tropical sun as they wait to file complaints. But there are only 18 labor inspectors to cover all of San Pedro Sula, the country’s industrial hub which employs a large portion of the national workforce.
Inside, I meet my assigned labor inspector, Jose Rivera. He sports ripped brown pants and wire-rimmed glasses. He wears his government ID tag like a necklace.
Rivera’s furnishings are spartan. One of the two toilets in the men’s room is out of order. Rows of green cubicles are equipped with aging computers. But it doesn’t matter to Rivera, who prefers ballpoint pens and legal pads.
A 53-year-old grandfather, Rivera is quaintly old school. But documenting cases longhand sucks up precious time. It’s one reason why he can only handle two or three cases per day.
Wednesday, 9:25 a.m.: First in line to see Rivera is Wendy Maravilla, who works the cash register at a supermarket chain owned by Walmart. She claims that unlawful deductions have cut her take-home pay in half. It takes 25 minutes for Rivera to jot everything down.
The Labor Ministry provides Rivera with neither a vehicle nor cab fare to do his job. So if Maravilla wants Rivera to visit her workplace, she’ll have to pay his way.
She agrees. But taxis are expensive. Rivera calls a friend who agrees to drive us across the city to Walmart headquarters for half price. The friend rolls up in a 1968 Toyota compact. We squeeze inside, and even with the windows down, are nearly overwhelmed by exhaust fumes.
Rivera likes to catch people off-guard with surprise inspections. But that means he often misses the managers he’s looking for. When we get to Walmart, the supervisor is gone.
Wednesday, 11 a.m.: Waiting for us back at the ministry is Lilian Cantor, who claims she was fired illegally from her cafeteria job at an underwear factory, or maquiladora, in the nearby city of Choloma. To get there, Rivera presses Cantor for the 16 lempira — or 85 cent — bus fare.
We climb into a jam-packed public bus and stand in the aisle. Rap and reggae music blast from the speakers. At bus stops, vendors board to sell candy and soft drinks. Rivera pays no attention and focuses on a marked-up copy of the Honduran labor code that he carries in his briefcase like a Bible.
After 45 minutes in heavy traffic, we transfer to a second bus that drops us at the maquiladora. At the gate, security