The main charges are that the companies require job applicants to disclose whether they are pregnant, and in some cases to submit medical proof, as well as denying pregnant workers the maternity benefits provided by Guatemalan law, occasionally firing workers for becoming pregnant.
The report, based on interviews with 37 garment workers, found violations of workers’ rights at 17 Guatemalan apparel plants — known as maquilas — all of which did business with U.S. brands.
A Guatemalan trade official said Tuesday afternoon that Vestex, the nation’s apparel trade association, has added sex discrimination to the list of offenses banned by its code of conduct.
LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch’s New York office, noted that both Guatemalan law and the codes of conduct of many of the apparel companies mentioned in the report already prohibited discriminating against women. She said the fact that the violations happened at all was evidence that the Guatemalan government needs to more rigorously enforce labor laws.
“It’s a problem for both parties, but the government bears the ultimate responsibility here to protect the workers and cannot abdicate that responsibility,” she said. “The government still has a clear responsibility under its own laws and international law to protect its workers.
Jefferson said the interviews, as well as talks with 29 domestic workers in Guatemala, took place during a fact-finding trip in May and June 2000.
“Human Rights Watch found widespread sex discrimination in the maquila sector, in the form of questions or testing to determine reproductive status, post-hire penalization of pregnant workers and failure to enforce maternity protections,” said the report, titled, “From the Household to the Factory: Sex Discrimination in the Guatemalan Labor Force.”
“Although factories can be fined and even closed down for this blatantly illegal practice, ineffective monitoring by the social security system itself means that most factories never suffer any consequences,” the report continued.
The report makes extensive recommendations on how to rectify the problem. It suggests that the Guatemalan government should “publicly condemn pregnancy discrimination” and make it illegal for companies to require their workers to provide proof as to whether they are pregnant. It also calls on Vestex, the Guatemalan apparel trade association, to add a policy on pregnancy testing to its code of conduct.
Roberto Rosenberg, a commercial attache for the Guatemala Trade Office, said Tuesday that Vestex has recently added a ninth rule to its code of conduct.
“The ninth principle is the respect of the physical and moral integrity of a person,” he said. “The reason the industry has started to do this before the government is they know that it takes a while before legislation is approved. And the code of conduct has a lot of support already.”
Rosenberg could not say exactly when the new principle had been adopted.
In a Friday interview, Vestex president Carlos Arias — who is also executive vice president of Koramsa, a garment producer — contended that working conditions in his nation’s apparel factories are generally good.
“I will not tell you that there are not violators of labor laws in our country. In any country, you will get that,” he said. “We are proud of our record on human rights and labor rights.”
He contended that Guatemalan garment workers on average earn 30 percent above minimum wage and noted that both Korean-owned and locally owned apparel companies in recent years have started to take steps to encourage their workers to take better care of their health, by giving out free toothbrushes and toothpaste, for instance.
The report said that all women interviewed earned minimum wage, which is about $140 a month, according to Arias. According to Vestex, 131,000 Guatemalans work in the garment, textile and associated industries.
The report detailed the complaints of 17 of the maquila workers, who named the factories they worked at and the brands whose goods they made. Among the factories named were Modas One Korea SA and Modas Cielo, who produced goods for Liz Claiborne Inc. and VF Corp.’s Lee brand.
A Claiborne spokeswoman said the Claiborne work had been subcontracted out by a regular Claiborne supplier without the company’s knowledge, which is a violation of the New York-based company’s policy. She added that Claiborne’s code of conduct prohibits pregnancy testing as a condition of employment.
A VF spokeswoman said that after Human Rights Watch notified the company of its findings, it hired an independent monitoring company to inspect the plants, but found no evidence of the described violations.
“We didn’t find anything,” she said. “We found some minor stuff but nothing in terms of what Human Rights Watch was alleging.”
Officials at Modas One and Modas Cielo could not be reached for comment.
An appendix to the report offers details on the responses of all named American companies to the allegations.