Wednesday, September 2, 2009

More on The Road to Fair Labor Certification

As our fair labor auditors visited more farms on Monday morning, I went into Managua to visit with a potential sewing company for Maggie's garments. The workshop is small, but their products are extremely high quality, and their story is another that is so impressive: Sonia, the owner of the company, is a clothing designer and importer. She runs her own retail shop, where she sells beautiful woven dresses and tops, as well as hand-made jewelry.

Sonia and her new partner, who is someone we have worked with before here in Nicaragua, have actually begun to find, train and hire prostitutes off the Pan-American Highway. These women have fallen into their trade due to the high unemployment and poverty that is rampant here in Nicaragua. The women have come to trust Sonia, and are constantly asking her for help. Her form of help is to show them another way to support themselves and their children. They are learning traditional Central American embroidery, and are paid well for their beautiful work. The sense of accomplishment and recognition that they get from this new form of employment has already led in some instances to a change in their profession and a renewed sense of purpose.

Maggie's contracts would offer this business a way to scale up and hire many more workers. We have never partnered with this small of a group before but it does fit into our business model of sustaining local economies when possible. The challenges are different, and we all have much left to do to make our dream a reality, but our inspectors were very impressed with this group, and feel that together we can and will make our dream real.

Our inspection took place today, Tuesday September 1st. On Monday afternoon, we inspected both the new cotton gin and Genesis, the spinning co-op.

Both projects have been worked on by JHC for over four years. Since we first helped the sewing co-op (Fair Trade Zone) get going, we all realized that one of our major obstacles was creating a consistent source of good quality organic fabric to use for sewing our garments. Nicaraguan organic farmers grow great cotton, but the country is so poor there is no processing infrastructure left.

After years we have located an excellent knitting partner nearby in San Jose, Costa Rica (who we will inspect tomorrow). JHC decided to take on the huge task of building the spinning mill. I had been very skeptical of this undertaking, as spinning is a very expensive and automated task. But Mike from JHC has assured me that the tougher the task the more potential workers we could employ, so JHC has persevered.

Yesterday I met with 24 of the original worker-owners of Genesis Spinning Cooperative in their new huge building. The workers, mostly but not all women, hauled and poured cement all day to make their new floor. Like the members of the sewing co-op years ago, the founders of Genesis have worked for 24 months without pay to build their business from the ground up. In addition, they decided as owners to provide English classes to all members, which they take for 7-8PM each night. The workers are amazing. They hope to be spinning cotton by December of this year.

The cotton gin is set up and running and it will also be owned and operated by the workers. This co-op is not yet organized, as they wait for full-time work until the spinning mill is operating. However, it was impressive to see the gin built and capable of spinning yarn.

We are almost through our entire chain, as tomorrow we will visit the fabric-making operation in San Jose, Costa Rica. We had a celebratory dinner tonight - our inspectors Jorge and Michael from SCS, and our observer from ILRF, Trina Tocco. I was honored to hear each of them comment on our supply chain being special.

Bena Burda

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