NOVEMBER 1996 · VOLUME 17 · NUMBER 11
B E H I N D T H E L I N E S
OIL GIANT MOBIL RISKS DESTROYING THE LIVES of some of the last uncontacted indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon, charges the London-based indigenous rights group Survival International.
Mobil is prospecting for oil in the southeast Peruvian Amazon, including in an area where at least three uncontacted tribes live.
According to Survival International, there have been at least three encounters between oil workers and the uncontacted indigenous groups. Survival alleges that Mobil employees have followed the indigenous people back to their villages, and flown helicopters over the villages, causing the inhabitants to flee in panic.
Mobil spokesperson David Dickson categorically denies these charges. "We do not want contact," says Dickson, who says the company is proceeding in the area with the "utmost caution." Mobil employees have experienced a single sighting of an indigenous person, he says; following company policy, the employees hid, and the indigenous man continued on his way.
Contact between outsiders and indigenous people is likely to have severe consequences, since the indigenous immune systems cannot withstand outsider diseases. In 1985, Shell prospected in the region, according to Survival, and the resultant contact between Shell workers and independent loggers introduced whooping cough and pneumonia to some groups of the uncontacted indigenous. Between 50 and 100 of the indigenous died -- more than half of the uncontacted tribes' population.
"There is a tragic inevitability about what Mobil is doing," says Survival International Campaigns Officer Jonathan Mazower. "If they are genuinely concerned about the uncontacted Indians, they will stay out of their territory. That is the only way to ensure there will not be another disaster."
Dickson says the decision on whether exploration is appropriate is the responsibility of the government of Peru, not Mobil.
A New Wrinkle in Guatemala
FOR ONLY THE SECOND TIME EVER, a group of workers in Guatemala's maquiladora sector have filed a legal petition with the Guatemala Labor Ministry asking for a union contract.
If certified by the Labor Ministry, the petition, filed by workers at Philips-Van Heusen (P-VH) plants in Guatemala City, would require the company to negotiate a contract with the workers' union, STECAMOSA. Guatemalan labor law provides that an employer must agree to negotiate a contract with a union if 25 percent of the workforce sign a petition in support of the union.
The Labor Ministry had not ruled on the P-VH petition, filed in September, at Monitor press time.
An inspiration for the stepped up organizing among the Guatemalan workers, according to Steve Coats of the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project (US/GLEP), is a fear that P-VH plans to contract its Guatemalan work out to even lower-wage operations in the country.
US/GLEP charges that those contractors, already employed to some extent by P-VH, use child labor and violate other labor laws. US/GLEP also alleges that P-VH has intimidated union supporters.
P-VH representative Gus Weil says that "we prefer our facilities not be unionized, but that is up to our associates." He denies the company ever intimidated or discriminated against any workers for supporting the union.
The charges of abuse of child labor, Weil says, have an "Orwellian quality" to them. Weil says Philips-Van Heusen has a firm rule that no child labor be used in its facilities or those of its contractors. He says the company has found children working in contractors' shops on occasion, but has ordered them home immediately.
THE RELENTLESS DRIVE AT THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE (USPS) to cut wage expenditures has led the post office to shift as many of its sorting operations out of the postal system as possible -- and now some of them are moving to Mexico.
Because of a longstanding policy of giving discounts to bulk mailers who pre-sort their mail, work that was once done in-house by unionized postal employees is now done directly by bulk mailers, or by mailing houses that specialize in sorting for low rates.
With wages the key variable in sorting costs, one enterprising sorting company, Envisions of San Diego, has opened a sorting operation in Reynosa, Mexico. The Reynosa workers are paid $4 a day versus the $11 an hour paid for unionized workers in the United States.
The postal service denies any responsibility for, or role in, the shifting of sorting jobs to Mexico. "It was in our best interest" to have sorting done outside of the postal service, says Sandra Harding, a USPS spokesperson, because it enabled the USPS "to get a better return on our investment and to use our equipment."
But when asked if the issue really comes down to where the sorting is done -- by higher-paid workers in house or lower-paid, non-unionized workers outside the USPS -- Harding says, "Exactly."
APWU officials pin the blame for the maquiladorization of sorting work on the top echelons of the USPS. "Postmaster General Marvin Runyon is looking to contract out all of our work," says APWU President Moe Biller. "He doesn't care if our work goes to sweatshops in this country or any other country. He just wants to privatize, privatize, privatize."