Activists allege labor violations

WORKERS' RIGHTS: Union activists asked the foreign ministry to investigate claims that a Taiwanese-owned factory in Nicaragua has trampled the rights of workers, an allegation the company strenuously denies

By Liu Shao-hua  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sat, Dec 02, 2000 - Page 4

Around 70 union activists yesterday appealed "for the sake of both human rights and Taiwan's reputation" to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to look into alleged violations of labor rights by Chentex textile factory (正太紡織廠) in Nicaragua.

Chentex, a Taiwanese factory owned by Taipei-based Nien Hsing Textile Co Ltd (年興紡織股份有限公司), was criticized by US activists and local union workers for violating labor rights.

Ten activist representatives who went to the ministry told Lin Ki-tseng (林基正), vice minister of foreign affairs, and Huang Nan-huei (黃南輝), director general of economic and trade affairs, that Chentex's notoriety had become an international issue damaging Taiwan's reputation.

Since May, hundreds of workers have been fired by Chentex in a labor dispute over wages, local union leaders said. Chentex took 11 union leaders to court for criminal damages and for calling an illegal strike. Since then, a series of actions targeting Chentex and the Nicaraguan government have taken place in the US and Taiwan.

A delegation of US religious, labor, human rights and student leaders, led by Congressman Sherrod Brown, went to Nicaragua to investigate and alleged "systematic human and workers' rights violations" at the factory.

It was reported that when President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) visited Nicaragua in August, some local union leaders and the investigating delegation were forcibly made to leave the country for fear they might disturb Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman's meeting with Chen.

Sixty-four US congressmen wrote a letter about the matter in July to US President Bill Clinton.

The US has expanded free trade tariffs and quota benefits to Nicaragua.

In September, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation wrote to the International Labor Organization to protest Chentex's alleged violations of workers' rights.

In October, Charlene Barshefsky, the US trade representative, wrote to the Nicaraguan government demanding that conditions be improved at Chentex and Mil Colores, a US owned factory. She also set a deadline of next June for a US-Nicaragua discussion on worker rights.

In order to show the support of Taiwanese workers for the Nicaraguan unions, the Taiwan Solidarity With Nicaraguan Workers (台灣聲援尼加拉瓜勞工工作小組) group was formed in October. It comprises four labor groups and is supported by many labor leaders.

Activists appealed to the foreign ministry on three counts yesterday. First, they asked that a human rights code be incorporated into the ministry's regulations governing investments in countries with diplomatic ties with Taiwan; second, that the ministry identify Taiwanese factories overseas involved in disputes over labor rights; third, that it investigate the extent of Taiwanese diplomats' collusion with businessmen.

Activists questioned the ministry's provision of a NT$10 million investment subsidy to Nien Hsing and said that Huang Ming-wei (黃明偉), the ministry's former military attache in Nicaragua and currently Nien Hsing's general manager in Nicaragua, was an example of ministry officials' collusion with businesses.

Activists requested that the ministry look into alleged violations of human rights by Nien Hsing and suspend its subsidy to the company before investigating further.

But Huang Nan-huei said the ministry was no longer subsidizing Nien Hsing. "We only subsidize companies for the first five years. Nien Hsing established its business in Nicaragua eight years ago," he said.

Huang said that a meeting on this issue was held last Tuesday in Taipei and that some businessmen investing in Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan ambassador to Taiwan had attended. With Nien Hsing's report in hand, Huang emphasized Nien Hsing's contribution to generating US$150 million a year for Taiwan and employing 10,500 Nicaraguan workers.

"Nien Hsing's statement at the meeting was very different from your analysis," Huang said, suggesting the activists engage in direct talks with Nien Hsing to further their understanding.

But activists questioned the foreign ministry's acceptance of Nien Hsing's statement and what they said was the ministry's ignorance of international pressure over this issue. They showed ministry officials a pile of copied documents about US action on the issue and a press cutting about Chentex published in the British financial daily, the Financial Times, three days ago.

They also expressed doubts over Nien Hsing's attitude toward talking with activists. Activists protested to Nien Hsing in Taipei earlier in November and 15 of them shortly afterwards received a letter issued by Nien Hsing's counsel on Nov. 13 accusing them of breaking the law.

"We hope the ministry can send officials to Nicaragua to investigate the whole issue instead of listening to Nien Hsing's explanation alone," said Chen Hsin-hsing (陳信行), an activist who is also a sociology professor at Shih-Hsin University.

With New Party Legislator Cheng Long-shui (鄭龍水) assisting in the negotiations, ministry officials finally agreed to invite activists and Nien Hsing officials for a talk in the near future.