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The garment and textile factories and assembly plants in the Central American free trade zones, or maquila industry, have given rise to new actors on the labour scene, as women’s organisations and local monitoring groups now work alongside the traditional trade union sector. Furthermore, some of these new organisations are linked to networks based elsewhere, mainly in the USA and Europe, and are actively involved in transnational campaigns to improve working conditions in the maquila. To date, attempts between trade unions and these new labour actors to collaborate have been disappointing and often characterised by conflict. Challenging the idea that trade unions and NGOs are in competition for the same limited ‘space’, by looking at the relations between trade unions and women’s organisations, this paper asks whether such conflicts are inevitable, and suggests ways in which the two kinds of organisation could work together to improve the conditions of workers in Central America.

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