Thursday, September 3, 2009

CIA Textil in San Jose, Costa Rica

This is the 3rd installment of Bena's journey to observe the Fair Labor Practices certification of Maggie's production process in Central America

September 2nd, 2009

Today we visited with the knitter, dyer, finisher, and cut and sew facility here is San Jose. This is all done by one company, Cia Textil CentroAmericano, in business since 1953.

We have done business with Cia over three years, first as a knitter of fabric only, and gradually to cut and sew our garments also. They are not a co-op, but are a family-run business. Costa Rica is one of the most developed countries in central America, and is highly regarded for both wages and labor laws.

The company was started by a Polish immigrant here in Costa Rica, Mr. Israel Nowalski. He was a very poor farmer when he began, and started the company on a shoestring. He actually started by knitting socks (an irony for us), and as the company grew they kept taking advantage of market opportunities, adding on operations bit by bit.

Mr. Nowalski is now 91 year old, and still comes to work for 2 hours each day. He checks in on operations, tours the plant, and leaves. His original 2 partners were his brother and a lawyer friend. When they wanted to sell their shares, Israel bought them out and gave shares to each of his 4 children. Now one of his sons and one of his son-in-laws are active in the business.

It seems that Israel Nowalski has always been a very special owner, and took great care of his employees. Many have worker here for over 30 years. All employees belong to an association that represents the workers, runs a health clinic, etc.

The company pays 10-15% higher wages than the prevailing rates for textile workers in Costa Rica. The company has an in-house clinic, and a doctor is on hand each day from 7AM - 9AM, and a nurse is available all morning. Costa Rica has socialized medicine, but the employees here tend to get better treatment and service at the clinic.

Today for example a notice was posted about flu shots being available to all employees and their family members for $14. All the employees had to do was sign up, and they were presented an option of paying the $14 as a payroll deduction with no interest.

These shots will be available later this fall through national medicine. However, anyone who wants them would who is not part of a high-risk group will have to go to a private clinic and pay $50 each for the immunization.

The clinic offer free wellness seminars often, open to all, on things like handling stress, nutrition etc. Their clinic also handles dental work, optical, and can also dispense medicines.

I found out about two other community benefits today that I never knew were offered by Cia:

First, there is a gorgeous national park right across the street from the company. They have been active as a company in helping improve the park. A few years ago, Cia actually paid for the construction of an events building at the park, which is used to teach classes to kids on natural resources, host park tours, etc. The park has two swimming pools, soccer fields, many hiking trails, and a zip line (just like the tourista eco tours, only this one is free and you have to climb the trees to get to it!). Cia employees use the park at lunch and after work. Fabio (Tonio) Vargas, who is a designer and the pattern-maker for Maggie's garments, toured me around the park. He teaches swimming classes here to Cia employees' kids.

The other community benefit I was struck by involves houses and land provided to approximately 60 employees. Apparently, years ago Mr. Nowolski found out about some land for sale near the plant. Cia is in a very residential area (kind of like Maggie's). Mr Nowolski purchased the land, and then sold it to the worker association for a very low price. The association then accepted loan applications from employees, and provided low-interest loans to approximately 25 of them to buy a lot and build their own home. Interest rates are always very high in Costa Rica, and the rate the employees paid was about 1/3 of a typical bank rate. All payments are deducted from the employee's pay.

Our pattern-make Tonio and his family took advantage of the loan program 20 years ago. A few years and two kids later, they were able to secure another loan from the association, and added on a second story with 4 bedrooms to his home. His house is now paid for, his children are now able to attend a semi-private school, and his wife Karen has a room to run her own business, which is designing and sewing custom undergarments for women (very high end and beautiful pieces).

After touring their home, admiring Tonio's orchids and their many amazing plants, I asked both Tonio and Karen if they could have afforded to purchase a home like this without the benefits at Cia, and they both replied with a resounding "no way!".

Cia has since purchased more lots nearby, making a total of 60 workers who have been able to buy a lot a build a home this way.

Unfortunately, globalization and the recent economic crisis have taken their toll on this company. From a high point of 1000 workers, they are down to 155 workers today. So many of Tonio and Karen's neighbors are not currently employed by Cia. But they have all been able to keep their homes, and we hope to increase the Maggie's business in upcoming months and years to provide them the ability to bring workers back.

Bena Burda
Maggie's Organics

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