San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department buys gear from company targeted by sweatshop investigators

The Safariland website is a virtual big box retailer of tactical equipment, chemical weapons and forensics for police departments, military and private security contractors. The Premium Wallbanger System is used for SWAT team entry operations and can create a shooting port through a wall. It can use an explosive charge to breach metal doors and provides OVC spray coverage. The Protech brand makes a rifle threat plate that can withstand multiple rounds from an AK-47. The DeltaNu Reporter is a handheld illicit drug identification system. The Monadnock Autolock defender baton is expandable and comes with a guard for hand protection.

In the early days Safariland kept it simple. The Ontario-based multinational corporation birthed in a ’60s suburban Los Angeles garage was known for custom holsters. The manufacturer claims that 70 percent of peace officers in North America currently use Safariland duty gear. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department purchases duty gear from the manufacturer.

Decades of growth and a series of mergers and acquisitions has left Safariland the flagship of 19 companies under control of the British defense contractor BAE Systems. The free trade business model of the ’90s put Safariland in a factory in Mexico well before the consolidation with BAE systems took place. The North America Free Trade Agreement fueled the growth of maquiladoras. The border factories import materials into Mexico for assembly and then re-export them to the U.S. to enter the global marketplace.

The treaty made conditions ripe for economic and environmental exploitation. The effect of the duty-free and tax-free provisions of NAFTA that leave little or in most circumstances zero development in the communities the workers live.

Before the consolidation with BAE Systems, Safariland had already moved into a 158,000-square-foot maquiladora in Tijuana. The new facility replaced one half its size near the border fence buffer zone in Otay Mesa. The factory has production roles in police duty gear accessories, belts, grenade holsters and pistol holsters, and a division known for its role in the production of a high-quality line of body armor that has saved the lives of numerous police officers.

But allegations of worker rights abuse followed the manufacturer. Safariland executives can view the shantytown that some of their workers live in from the windows of the new industrial complex.

Investigating Workers

The floodwaters of the Arroyo Alamar slice the colonia of Chilpancingo in half. The squatter settlement is at the bottom of a canyon 15 minutes from the International border in eastern Tijuana. It shelters 500 families and is vulnerable to rains. A recent downpour took out a footbridge, but the community quickly fabricated another to replace it from driftwood, particle-board and planks.

Without the passage the walk for fresh drinking water and laundry would be significantly longer.

The ridgeline on the north side of settlement is lined with factories that release waste into concrete channels that drain into the Arroyo Alamar. Energy comes from a crude electric grid supported with two-by-four street poles that tap into a municipal power system. Noise from jets in the flight path for General Abelardo L. Rodríguez International Airport is heard overhead. The south-east border of Chilpancingo lines the Verde Alamar Industrial Park and is home to Safariland’s Tijuana operation.

There is no school nearby for the children or any grass to comfort their falls. Delivery trucks drive down the main dirt road of the settlement to sell tortillas, milk and water to the residents. Debris-filled lots ignited by electrical fires mark where a family lived before heading back to southern Mexico or north to the states for a better opportunity. More migrants will come with the next boom and rebuild on top of the ashes with discarded garage doors from America.

The company runs a bus service for 700 workers spread throughout the nearby colonias, but the 10-12 employees from Chilpancingo do not have rides. It takes up to 30 minutes to walk to Safariland from the furthest reaches of the settlement. The workforce is 60 percent female and in the winter the long hours mean both the day and night shift changes fall in the dark.

No doubt, it is a tough turf for Manuel Lopez to go knocking on doors. The Chiapas native is a community organizer from Casa de Cultura Obrera based nearby in La Mesa. He found himself in similar circumstances when he moved to the sprawling border city 12 years ago.

He was a member of a field team that investigated the treatment of workers at Safariland.

“The governments and the corporations want to cover their mistakes, but it’s like covering the sun with your finger,” Lopez says before we leave his office. During the walk to catch a taxi we pass an auto body shop pockmarked from automatic weapon gunfire.

The Safariland fieldwork in Tijuana was done by the Worker Investigation Center in Mexico known as CITTAC (Centro de Información para Trabajadoras y Trabajadores). The group compiled 27 short survey questionnaires from workers, collected 11 pay stubs and transcribed four personal stories from employees. Some workers reported that management had told them not to speak with investigators.

Unresponsive Law Enforcement

A PDF document titled “RFP-H27 Duty Gear & Equipment Contract Awards” is stored online with a URL from the San Bernardino County government. The undated document list 60 items and notes Safariland as the required manufacturer 21 times. It names the brand for left- and right-handed holsters for two Glock models, magazine pouches, belts, handcuff cases, and holders for pepper spray and radios.

When I call the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department public affairs division and ask about the document, a secretary is the only one available to talk. I give her information from the CITTAC report on the manufacture and ask if the document is from the agency and represents a long-term buying pattern.

She recognizes the Safariland brand and takes note of my questions in a message she will forward to a sergeant that works with the purchasing department. When she asks how an agency would know if a manufacturer was operating a sweatshop I offer the Milwaukee ethical purchasing bill as an example. The ordinance sparked the investigation with CITTAC the legislation requires that all city contracts be published online.

The message and questions for the sergeant were not returned.

Female Labor

Lost in the violent headlines from the drug war in Mexico is the struggle for basic human rights. While rival cartels battle for control of lucrative trafficking plazas, the threats and attacks against social activists silently rises. There were 25 cases reported last year, according to statistics from the National Human Rights Commission.

Last month a female activist in Juarez that was investigating police and army abuses was murdered.

It is understandable that some of the investigators and employees who participated in the CITTAC field survey chose to remain anonymous. The 16 female and 11 female respondents matched the gender tilt found in the maquila industry on the U.S.-Mexico border. The blue-collar female workforce is left behind as the males choose to leave the family behind and brave a harsh desert crossing for a job in the states.

In the past 15 years there has been over 5,000 documented cases of people who have died making the effort.

The slender fingers of the female workforce at Safariland make it easier to use the machines. The outer shell of custom body armor sewn in Tijuana is custom ordered in a process the manufacturer compares to getting fitted for suit coat. The ballistic fiber must be added later at manufacturing sites in the U.S. to adhere to the Berry Amendment which regulates the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs in defense spending as a national security issue.

Talk among the workers is that some of the products from their maquiladora end up in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The defense contractor has been awarded over $18 million in federal contracts over an eight-year period last decade.

The following testimony published in Subsidizing Sweatshops II is a result of the CITTAC field study on Safariland employees. It comes from a seamstress named Catalina who moved to Tijuana to find work from the southern state of Hidalgo:

“I make the ‘points’ on the grenade bags. They also make bulletproof vests, pistol holsters, tire covers and seat covers for cars. My first contract was for 30 days, and since then [three months later] they haven’t said anything to me, and they haven’t asked me to sign anything else. I make about 13 little grenade bags a day, and every day they raise my production quota. Anyone who meets it is paid between 65 and 75 extra pesos. I don’t earn this because I am still too slow. And they don’t give me any overtime hours [paid at the overtime rate] either. They only give those to the people who meet their production quotas. If you don’t meet the quota on Friday, then on Saturday, when they have the overtime hours, they don’t pay you the overtime rate, they just pay you as though they were normal hours.”

Long Hours and Drugs

The labor laws in Mexico apply to a standard six-day 48-hour work week. But Safariland cites provisions that allow workers to negotiate the number of days in the work week so the Tijuana operation has a 48-hour five-day work week. Besides the long hours the workers are also given production quotas which can result in bonuses and the chance to pick up an extra day on the weekend.

If a worker falls short of a daily production quota a supervisor would often sit next to the worker for extended periods to harass them. A common punishment a slow worker received was reassignment to the production lines that make bulletproof vests; the least liked job at the factory due to the low pay.

Beside the meager paychecks, production quotas, sanctions and the heavy-handed managing style, female applicants are also given pre-employment pregnancy tests. The screening provides a way to get out of paying six months of leave to new mothers as detailed in Mexico labor laws. But the most troubling reports involve violations of Mexico child labor laws and the use of a manufacturing glue named Resistol.

The sweet smell of the inhalant is well documented as a narcotic for street children in Latin America. A study of the epidemic found that it turns off the brain’s connection to reality, and neutralizes stress, pain and fear with an addiction that replaces parental affection.

In the field study of Safariland employees, reports surfaced that two minors between 14 and 15 years old worked in the factory the same hours and wages as everyone else. Mexican law does allow for minors between the ages of 14 and 16 years old to work, but first they must pass a medical exam and their workday cannot exceed six hours. There must be a one-hour rest break in the middle of the shift.

“High Standards of Business Conduct”

The global defense contractor was swift to respond to the Subsidizing Sweatshop II published report of the investigation at the Tijuana facility. In a public comment last April it countered with the following statement:

“BAE Systems and our business Safariland are committed to supporting employee rights worldwide. We have investigated the issues identified in Sweatfree Communities’ report, and believe that the vast majority of the concerns raised about our operations are simply unsupported by the facts. We believe our facility is in line with our company’s high standards of business conduct.”

Adam Goldman, the VP of Human Resources, met with me at the Safariland Ontario location and was on point with the same message. He travels to the Tijuana facility twice a month and says he has never heard of Chilpancingo but acknowledges the workers settlement in front of the industrial complex. He is not pleased with the conditions some of the workers face but feels relief to hear that only 10-12 Safariland employees are sheltered in the substandard conditions of the shantytown.

He makes a note on the pad on his desk and circles it.

He cites the employee paycheck stubs from the CITTAC investigation as evidence of the base rate between $32 to $53 per week and from $60 to $91 with overtime and bonuses. He says the pay rate falls in the 75 percentile in the Tijuana pay scale.

The minimum wage converted from pesos to dollars is equivalent to $27.40 per week.

Goldman says that before the Subsidizing Sweatshop report was published Safariland had decided to end random pre-employment pregnancy screening. While legal counsel advised BAE Systems that it was not illegal, the practice was found to be unacceptable to company standards.

It also turns out that a small quantity of Resistol was found stored at the Tijuana facility in the maintenance department. The product has been phased out and replaced with another adhesive that is OSHA compliant.

An internal audit of the 700-person workforce was done by Goldman and revealed that no one under the age of 16 had knowingly been hired. He refuses the possibility of a fraudulent document being used by a child to gain employment. He says there are currently a dozen workers between the ages of 16-18 at the facility, but that is not the optimal hiring age for applicants.

The pay rate and the full employee parking are examples of upward movement and progress for the people that would not be possible without Safariland as an employer, he says. He talks about the numerous workers who get five- and 10-year employment awards and cites low turnover among the workforce. As a whole, he views the workers in Tijuana as hard working and dedicated individuals filled with hope for the future.

The Safariland Tijuana division he forecast will remain an employer of choice and a strong global corporate citizen.

Economic Depravity

The one-room shelter has a concrete floor and is walled with particle-board and roofed with two rusted garage doors. Clean water is stored in multiple plastic 50 gallon drums in a small courtyard with a porch light that works when there is electricity. Security devices and other simple comforts make the lot feel like home to the multiple occupants.

The female and one other person in the household have worked at Safariland for a few years. She has agreed to talk with me as long as her identity remains hidden. The scars on her hands and arms are wounds from needles and blades on the production line. She was given a pregnancy test before she was hired and knows multiple workers who were also screened. The long hours at work and the conditions in Chilpancingo make her daily survival an exhaustive effort.

The maquila worker has family left behind in southern Mexico who is also dependant on her income.

Her biggest fear is that the government will make good on threats to clear the settlement and she will be forced to start all over again. She takes her struggle in stride and often thinks about it on the walk to work. She remains hopeful stuck on the border of economic depravity and opportunity, determined to make ends meet.

By: Tommy Purvis

Other Stories by Tommy Purvis


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