I almost surprised Julia, the co-ordinator of Zona Franca Masili (Free Trade Zone Masili). We had vague arrangements to meet, and I showed up on the afternoon we had tentatively agreed upon. However, I mistakenly went next door first, to the occupant’s complete surprise. Talking to the screen door I said hello but needed to go inside to see exactly who I was talking to, and found an old American woman telling me off. “You know this is someone’s house”, she warbled as I tried to make my way through her front room. Not quite the central American welcome I was used to. But to be fair, it was my mistake. I’d found the residence of the Jubilee House Community (JHC), a charity that helped the women’s cotton co-operative get started.
Julia and I sat down and she told me a the story of the co-op. “Zone Franca Masili” origins arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, in 1998. The local area was devasted and the displaced people were relocated to a new community (Nueva Vida) a few km outside of Managua. Following relocation, unemployment levels within the wider community were as high as 80%. A US non-profit organisation (NGO), JHC, then looked into ways of helping the people here, and a sewing co-operative was established. It took time and hard work to get the foundations ready – literally in this case, as the women took 2 years to build the sewing warehouse themselves – but by 2001, COMAMNUVI (Cooperativa Maquiladora Mujeres de Nueva Vida Internacional RL), as it was originally called, was able to get started. From 2005, the co-operative established itself as a worker-owned “Free Trade Zone”, the first of its kind in the world (though they call it a “Fair Trade Zone”).
The cotton they use is organic and sourced from Peru. Julia said that they are trying a new initiative to source the cotton from within Nicaragua. The co-op started out as a women’s co-op but today there are a few male members as well. They work Monday to Friday and on Saturdays there are opportunities to study. Producing clothes gives the members a long-term job, not seasonal work that many were accustomed to before. They receive annual health checks and access to medicine, as well as small amounts of credit if needed. The members live across the road in a co-op community.
One of their major clients is the US company Maggie’s Organics, who have been buying their products since the beginning. They also export garments to Canada and Germany.
Cotton does not work like coffee and cacao, for example, in that there is no Fair Trade label on each end product or no minimum price for the products they sell. The co-op is a member of the WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation) so adheres to Fair Trade ‘principles’. The monthly salary they receive (approx $150) is low by our standards, but it is a considerable improvement on what a lot of people earn there, and significantly better than what they started out paying themselves (as little as $2/day initially).
Julia showed me where the real work happens. I met a few of the ladies who were stitching, sewing, packing or otherwise keeping busy, though it was quiet. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly; the women clearly seemed to enjoy what they were doing. I saw plenty of t-shirts hanging up and some really interesting designs.
It was obvious from my travels to and from the co-op that many people in the neighbouring areas do not have opportunities like the people at Masili. My short time in Nicaragua reminded me a lot of Guatemala. Most people in the country struggle to make an adequate living and assistance from outside NGOs is common. Initiatives like Zona Franca Masili are encouraging and an important lifeline that allows members and their families the opportunity to make a life a little above the bare minimum. It’s not much, but it provides them with some dignity and the hope that their families and children can make a better life. Julia is optimistic about the future and has expectations to help grow the co-operative and the number of families that benefit from it.
This quote about the founding of the co-operative is an inspiring one: “This phase [the construction] was very difficult for us and many of our families told us that we must be crazy to invest so much in a project that would never have results. But when we look at our successes, it fills us with provide in our work and hope for the future of our cooperative“.