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Banking on Openness and Proximity to U.S.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page A19

When Danubia Rodriguez walked away from her rural Honduran village six years ago to accept a textile factory job, it demonstrated the implicit bargain Honduran officials struck in hopes of improving the lot of their country, one of the poorest in the hemisphere.

In the early 1990s, they scrapped inward-looking policies and turned the economy into the most open in Central America and one of the most open in the world, according to the World Bank. Generous tax treatment for foreign factories helped persuade companies such as Sara Lee Branded Apparel, owners of the Hanes line, to invest in places like El Progreso, a town of 97,000 in central Honduras. Shipments of agricultural commodities such as bananas, coffee and shrimp were gradually eclipsed by exports of fabric, garments and other textiles churned out by the new plants, or "maquilas." Between 1995 and 2003, employment in the factories doubled from 65,000 to 130,000 -- substantial numbers in a country of just 6.8 million.

Danubia Rodriguez moved from the earthen-walled house in her village to this cinder-block house in El Progreso, which has indoor plumbing and electricity. (Paul Blustein -- The Washington Post)

About This Report

Staff writer Paul Blustein wrote and reported from Honduras and Washington. Staff writer Peter S. Goodman wrote and reported from Sri Lanka, Cambodia and China.

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A New Pattern Is Cut for Global Textile Trade (The Washington Post, Nov 17, 2004)
Ready to Take On All Competitors and Markets (The Washington Post, Nov 17, 2004)
Pinning Hope On Fair Labor Standards (The Washington Post, Nov 17, 2004)
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It was, Honduran officials hoped, the start of a cycle of development and wealth creation whose virtues could be glimpsed in the small steps forward taken by people like Rodriguez.

Life in her village of Las Mangas was difficult. A trip to the doctor or the store, a hunt for a home with electricity to watch a soccer game on television -- all required an hour's trek down tough mountain paths and across a river on foot.

The family house, built by her father, was an earthen-walled structure with a roof of corrugated zinc and coconut leaves, and only makeshift bathing facilities on the outside. The family worked from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the coffee harvest, picking, washing and drying beans on a small plot of land.

The village school stopped at sixth grade.

Today, she gestures proudly around the cinder-block home she now occupies in El Progreso. "It has been really hard for me to achieve all this," said Rodriguez, who most recently worked at a Sara Lee plant for $1.50 an hour.

Though cramped and ramshackle by U.S. standards, the home holds luxuries undreamt of in village life. A gas stove. Indoor plumbing. Television, and the electricity to power it. A diet that has moved beyond rice, beans and tortillas to include regular portions of meat, fish and fresh vegetables.

In areas where maquilas are concentrated, business executives and workers point proudly to signs of modernization supported in part by the spending power of factory workers -- American fast-food outlets and family restaurant chains, and even a couple of air-conditioned shopping malls in major urban centers, all of which provide additional employment. Civic officials report that tax revenue from workers' incomes has helped finance improvements in public services such as trash collection.

Most important, Honduran maquila workers say, their earnings offer hope for their children, because the money enables them to afford the expense of sending kids to high school -- the books, supplies, uniforms, transportation and other costs that can add up to hundreds of dollars a year.

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