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YOUNG WOMAN SHOWS THE BITTER FRUIT OF FREE TRADE

She comes from the world Kathie Lee Gifford, until a few months ago, didn't know existed.

Gifford is not alone. It is a world most of us don't think much about. Yet we come in contact with it every time we button our shirts or blouses.

It affects us every time a factory packs up for a country where the minimum wage is 30 cents an hour.

We've seen that side of the story. American workers lose jobs as factories relocate to Mexico, Honduras, Indonesia.

At the other end of that exodus is Julia Blanca.

She is a young woman, the mother of two daughters. She works 13 hours a day, six days a week, in a Nicaraguan garment factory, or maquila. She makes about $2.40 a day. She gets three minutes to use the bathroom. She cannot talk to the person working beside her. Or help if a fellow worker faints from heat or overwork.

Where she works, it is a crime to form a union.

Ms. Blanca visited Buffalo this week on a trip sponsored by a human rights group. She is living testament to the failings of free trade.

It is not working for American workers. It is not working for Julia Blanca, or thousands of her counterparts in Honduras, El Salvador and other Third World outposts.

Free trade works best for the manufacturers, retailers and corporations benefiting from the modern equivalent of slave labor. They make a profit on the desperation of the poor in backward countries.

Nicaragua is not part of NAFTA. But the duty-free concept is the same.

Ms. Blanca works in a government-created "free zone." It is an industrial park where the usual tariffs and fees on imports and exports do not apply. Such "zones" are scattered throughout Central America. There are 18 of them -- employing about 11,000 workers -- in Nicaragua.

Companies ship in fabric to be stitched into shirts, pants or other apparel. Workers make about 30 cents an hour. The finished product, folded and tagged, is sent to America. We buy it off the shelves at The Gap, J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart and other retail chains. It bears such labels as Liz Claiborne and Arizona.

Kathie Lee Gifford was shocked to learn her clothing line at Wal-Mart -- which netted her $5 million last year -- was stitched together in a Honduran sweatshop. But follow the clothes we wear back along the production trail, and chances are there's a Julia Blanca. For sewing the side seams on 600 shirts, she makes $5.

Conditions at some factories are better than others.

At hers, you're fired for merely talking about a union. Once gone, you're blacklisted from any factory. And, in Central America -- the land of $600 per capita income and 40 percent unemployment -- even slave wages are better than none.

Ms. Blanca, through an interpreter, told of conditions at her factory, which she said was owned by a Taiwanese businessman. A spokeswoman for the New York-based National Labor Committee, a non-profit labor watchdog group, said what she described is common in Central America maquilas.

"We are not seen as humans," said Ms. Blanca, a thin woman with raven-dark hair, "but as animals, or just another machine."

She told of women -- because of agility, most workers are young women -- being kicked and beaten after a work stoppage a few years ago. One of the beaten women, she said, had a miscarriage. Organizers of the stoppage were fired.

Production quotas are so high, she said, that women working the button line "sew buttons onto their own fingers. . . If they do it too often, these women are fired."

The global economy was supposed to better conditions in Third World nations, to create consumers for American goods. Ms. Blanca said many workers can afford only a single tortilla and an egg for lunch; others eat nothing. These people are not buying a Chevy anytime soon.

The Congress hasn't the will or the desire to "interfere" with trade laws. In fact, the United States helped create the "free zones." Congress approved NAFTA. The problem with the agreements was a lack of protections for American and foreign workers. "It's a race to the bottom in wages," said Ellen Braune of the National Labor Committee.

This is the bitter fruit of free trade and the global economy.

Kathie Lee Gifford had her eyes opened. When do other Americans open theirs?

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