MEXICO CITY (dpa) – Whenever a politician from Taiwan travels to Central America, he can be sure of the red-carpet treatment.
Be it President Chen Shui-bian, Vice President Lu Hsiu-Lien or some cabinet member – the guests arriving from across the Pacific Ocean rarely are coming over with empty hands.
Taipei is always there when the Central American governments are strapped for cash – whether it is money for new bridges in Costa Rica, government buildings in Nicaragua or housing in the wake of the devastating earthquake in El Salvador.
The seven Central American states are among the some 30 countries around the world which maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Taipei is ready to pay the price necessary for such support on the international level.
But while the governments between Guatemala in the north and Panama in the south see no wrong in the actions of their generous benefactor, trade unions and human rights activists in the region look at matters differently.
They allege that Taiwanese firms, which in recent years have set up a large number of factories in the specially-created duty-free zones in Central America, are ruthlessly exploiting their workers and not adhering to existing labour laws.
The Taiwanese have created tens of thousands of jobs in the region. And they are riding the globalisation wave while taking advantage of low wages, tax incentives and geographical location, chiefly to produce textile goods for export to the United States.
But inside these factories, often the working conditions are like those from the early days of capitalism.
“Mistreatment, beatings, unpaid overtime, firings of union members, unsuitable working conditions and discrimination against pregnant workers are an everyday fact of life,” says Gilberto Ernesto Garcia of the privately-run Centre for Labour Studies in El Salvador. Similar things can be said about South Korean-run factories.
The Taiwanese presence is the strongest in Nicaragua, where relations have traditionally been strong, with the exception of the 1979-1990 period when the leftist Sandinistas were in power.
Taiwanese capital is behind the largest international hotel in Managua and in shopping centers and several dozen textiles plants.
For around only 60 dollars a month, thousands of women are at work sewing jeans and T-shirts. Anyone who complains about pay or working conditions gets fired.
The frequent labour conflicts in the Taiwanese factories in Nicaragua have in the meantime drawn international attention.
U.S. trade unionist Charles Kernaghan last September wanted to inspect the conditions at the Chentex and Mil colores companies – but the Managua government barred him from entering the country. Interior Minister Rene Herrera accused Kernaghan of wanting “to destabilise labour relations”.
Nicaraguan worker representatives cannot count on getting any help from their government when it comes to disputes over adherence to wage agreements or legal regulations.
President Arnoldo Aleman, who during his period of office has become involved in various corruption scandals, has every reason for being understanding toward the Taiwanese. Just in the period since he took office in 1997, Nicaragua has received favourable credits and grants from Taipei amounting to 152 million dollars.
And as a special form of development aid, Taiwan also built a brand new presidential palace for Aleman.