Two women from a fair-trade sewing cooperative have recently inspired us with their story, reminding us that “A better world is possible” when people work hard together to build it. During their fall 2004 month-long U.S. speaking tour of 20 cities, Ruth Mena and Yadira Vallejos of Ciudad Sandino , Nicaragua, described the Nueva Vida cooperative which they and others co-founded six years ago.
Against the odds, this determined group of women constructed a building with their own hands, learned how to manage a cooperative, and developed an attractive line of clothing including t-shirts, camisoles, cotton blouses and pants, and other made-to-order products. They are now competing successfully with nearby maquiladoras in Managua ’s “free” trade zone while working a shorter day and paying themselves a just wage at least one-third higher than the sweatshops.
Their story began in 1998, when many families, left homeless after Hurricane Mitch, were relocated by the Nicaraguan government to the muddy Nueva Vida (“New Life”) barrio, initially with only plastic-sheet housing for shelter. Jobless and desperate to support their children, a group of women asked for help from the Center for Development in Central America (CDCA). CDCA offered to train them to construct their own building and start a clothing cooperative, as well as to lend them the money for building materials and sewing machinery.
Initially, the women turned down the offer. They had no construction experience and didn’t believe they, as women, could create a building. They were also afraid they couldn’t repay the loan. But after thinking about it, they realized they had few other options and decided to try. Of the original 50 or so women who began building, only 12 remained at the end of two years’ construction. The work was hard, and they had few resources to survive until the building was finished.
Since that initial phase, however, their numbers have grown to 47 cooperative members (now including some men), who make all business decisions collectively. In addition, they hire about 100 non-member contractual workers during high-demand periods, who earn at the same rate as members. So far, they have paid back over half the loan from CDCA.
Mena and Vallejos report that working conditions and pay are much better at Nueva Vida than in nearby “free” trade zone maquiladoras. The reason, of course, is that all Nueva Vida members are also owners, sharing in the benefits of what they produce together. The sweatshops require each worker to produce at least 2,500 (often 3,000) units of clothing per day before they receive their typical daily base pay of 29 córdobas (presently about $1.80). In contrast, Nueva Vida has established a much lower minimum of 500 units per day, at a daily rate of $3.40 (paid in córdobas, but tied to the dollar to keep pace with inflation). Workers can exceed the base pay by producing additional clothing.
The two speakers supplemented their talks by showing an excellent video about the Nueva Vida enterprise. In the video, workers report that they enjoy their collective labor and time together. They also express appreciation at not having to work long into the evening to meet a quota, and thus having time to spend with their children. They emanate the self-confidence that comes from people who have accomplished a great deal from their own effort, with the supportive help of another organization that cared.
In Baltimore , the last city on the tour, I drove the speakers to two stores to see whether they would be interested in ordering Nueva Vida merchandise for resale. At the first store, which sells lots of items from cooperatives in the Two-Thirds World, the manager was concerned that she might have a problem importing the items and dealing with customs. She was relieved to learn that there are already U.S. sources for the items (including Maggie’s Organics and North Country Fair Trade). At the second store, a boutique, the owner stated that t-shirts and pants are not their typical product. She became more interested when she learned that Nueva Vida can also sew made-to-order clothing and has even developed mechanisms to ship it overnight.
You can contact Nueva Vida directly (in English) via Becca Renk of Jubilee House, Center for Development in Central America . Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone from U.S. : 011-505-883-6634.