Organizing Women Maquiladora Workers (was Re: victimology)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sun Dec 10 21:35:41 MST 2000

Lou wrote:

>Bringing the struggle forward in time to the recent period, the maquilas in
>the northern part of the country have not been arenas of struggle, either
>for the woman's movement, the socialist movement, or the trade union
>movement. Women, stripped of the communal bonds of the village, end up as
>atomized wage slaves whose only escape from grinding low-wage labor is
>downtown honky-tonks.

Why should Mexican women workers be any different than women workers
elsewhere, who have organized unions, strikes, & other forms of
resistance to capital _whether or not they were close to their native

_With your logic_, no women workers away from their hometowns -- not
just women Maquila workers in Northern Mexico -- can organize

In your opinion, women workers are not history-makers, unless they
remain where they were born.  However, women workers seem to disagree
with you.

*****   Engendering Change:
The Long, Slow Road to Organizing
Women Maquiladora Workers

By Julie Light
June 26, 1999

Tijuana -- When a supervisor ordered Isabel back to work on a Samsung
assembly line following a workplace accident, he made a mistake.  A
company doctor stitched her injured heel and sent Isabel-- still
bleeding-- back to the line where she repairs defective television
screens.  The next day, Isabel, 28, went to a government clinic to
report the accident and was sent home to recover.  When her
supervisor later rebuked her, she informed him she was well within
her rights.  Most of her co-workers are afraid to speak out, she
says, because they fear losing their jobs and winding up on an
industry blacklist.  What makes Isabel different, she told Corporate
Watch, is that she is armed with knowledge of her workplace rights
and the confidence that she has a local feminist group behind her.

Such outspokenness in the workplace might seem routine, even mundane,
by US standards.  For women working in Mexican assembly plants, known
as maquiladoras, insisting on their legal rights takes what are
colloquially referred to as cojones.  It indicates that Mexico's low
wage feminine labor force may not be as docile as foreign employers
would like to believe.  It also is a harbinger of an incipient
movement inside Mexico's expanding export-processing sector.  Still,
Isabel, like the other workers interviewed by Corporate Watch, asked
not to be identified by her real name because she fears reprisals by
the company.  Such concerns are just one small indication of the
enormous obstacles to change faced by maquiladora workers.

Workers on the US-Mexico border are not alone.  From Saipan to San
Salvador, transnational companies are in a race to the bottom to find
the lowest wages in the global economy.  They locate where
environmental and occupational health standards go un-enforced.
Manufacturers say they need to locate offshore to stay competitive.
Poor countries promote export-processing zones because they claim
they have no economic alternative.

But critics, like Mexican economist Jaime Cota, argue that
transnational companies could pay a living wage, enforce
environmental and occupational health standards and still make huge
profits.  "If wages were increased by 300% to $2.00 an hour, the
standard of living would rise incredibly and there would still be
multimillion dollar savings (in labor costs) for the companies," he
notes.  Others argue for the creation of economic alternatives such
as investment in food production and small businesses that benefit
the local economy.

The Maquiladoras

There are some 4,500 maquiladoras along the US-Mexico border, which
employ over a million workers and generate 10 billion dollars a year
in foreign exchange, according to Mexican government sources.  More
than 700 export processing plants are located in Tijuana alone, which
is a microcosm not just of the US-Mexico border, but of the global
manufacturing system.  Foreign companies have been exploiting cheap
labor and lax enforcement of occupational health and environmental
standards on the border since the mid-1960's when the first export
processing zones opened.  Over the last fifteen years there has been
an explosion in maquiladora manufacturing, ranging from clothing
assembly to electronics to medical supplies to auto parts, toys and

Twenty years ago 85% of the maquiladora workforce was female, when
the majority of work was garment and small electronics assembly.
While the overall number of women working in the export processing
zones has grown, that percentage has dropped to between 50- 60%, as
more men enter heavy manufacturing in automobile, electronics, and
plastics.  As of March 1999 the Mexican government estimated that
there were 491,212 women working in the maquiladora industry.

Along the eastern part of the border, US-based companies operate the
majority of maquiladoras.  In Tijuana, where 10 million television
sets are assembled annually, Japanese and Korean investment rivals
that of US firms.  Few people outside of Tijuana realize that the
western edge of the US-Mexico border has become a gateway for Asian
investment in Mexico and exports to the US.  Foreign companies import
equipment, machinery, materials and components duty free and have
Mexican value added taxes refunded.  Proximity to the US lowers
transportation costs and foreign companies receive preferential
tariff rates under NAFTA.  Even Asian companies receive full NAFTA
benefits as long as a significant part of the manufacturing process
takes place in Mexican plants.  Frequently foreign investors rely on
Mexican sub-contractors to provide the labor force and even the
production facility.

Cheap Labor

Historically, the biggest draw for foreign corporations has been low
wages. "The reason maquiladoras are there is for lower labor costs,"
explains Dale Robinson, President of Made in Mexico, a San
Diego-based firm that advises corporations operating on the border.
Wages on the border have fluctuated between fifty cents and a dollar
an hour since the opening of free trade zones in the 1960's,
according to Jaime Cota of the Tijuana-based Workers' Information
Center (CITTAC.)  Workers interviewed by Corporate Watch averaged
around 500 pesos, or between $50 and $60 dollars for a 40-hour
workweek.  The cost of a market basket for a family of four is
estimated at three to four times that wage. US companies report
saving as much as $30,000 a year per employee by moving production to
Mexico, according to Collectron of Arizona, Inc., a firm that advises
companies planning to move to the border region.

Isabel moved to Tijuana from Sinaloa 4 years ago, because low as
wages are on the border, they are lower still in the Mexican
interior.  In fact some 90% of maquila workers migrate to the border
from small Mexican towns where work is scarce.  Nine months pregnant,
Isabel dreams of saving enough money to return home and open a small
store with her husband, a bus driver.  "I've thought about quitting,
but you get used to having your own money," she explains.

Isabel plans to return to work after her baby is born in a different
maquiladora closer to home, where instead of TV screens she'll be
making pantyhose for the US market.  Turnover in Tijuana's maquilas
is high.  If workers are dissatisfied at one company, work is often
readily available another.  Older women, however, have a hard time
competing because they are assumed to be slower and less productive
than younger workers.  Production quotas are often set to the pace of
the fastest workers, and incentives are pegged to production,
attendance and other factors.

In addition to low wages, women complain that abusive treatment by
supervisors, sexual harassment and inadequate protection from
chemical solvents and other workplace hazards are routine.  Despite
labor and environmental side agreements, these problems have only
deepened since the passage of NAFTA five and a half years ago,
according to Reyna Montero, of the Casa de la Mujer, Grupo Factor X,
a feminist group.  "Several years ago you could demand your rights
and the government was more responsive," notes Montero, the
Coordinator of Occupational and Reproductive Health for the
Tijuana-based group.  "Now with NAFTA, economic globalization and the
pressure the government is under from transnational corporations, the
problem is much bigger.  Women have to demand our rights not just
from our own government, but from a higher level."

Health Risks

Occupational health and safety is a major concern for maquiladora
workers.  There is no "right to know" law in Mexico, so a company is
under no obligation to disclose workplace dangers either to its
employees or the community.  It is often easier for a worker to
simply leave her job rather than press for changes.  A 1996 study in
the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health
found that between 15 and 20% of women working in the maquiladoras
had left their jobs over occupational safety and health concerns.

While some parent companies carry out their own inspections, visits
by representatives from corporate headquarters are announced well in
advance.  They are often conducted by non-Spanish speakers who are
chaperoned by management.  Critics charge that such self-monitoring
is little more than window dressing.  Meanwhile, Mexican authorities
in charge of monitoring are severely under-funded.  As of a year ago,
there were just three people in the state of Baja California charged
with on-site workplace inspections. Workers say corruption is
widespread.  "The bosses in the factory maybe give the authorities a
bribe so they forget a case.  Or they postpone it indefinitely so
workers will get desperate and give up," charges one worker,
describing a practice that is reportedly commonplace.

Many maquiladora operators respond to occupational health complaints
by workers with indifference or even callousness.  Maria, 43, works
at Nellcor, Puritan and Bennet, a US medical supply manufacturer,
making bandages that are part of hospital equipment that measures
blood oxygen.  For the last several months Maria has experienced
numbness in her hand, a symptom sometimes associated with repetitive
stress injuries or peripheral neuropathy, a condition that has been
linked to exposure to certain chemicals.  Sometimes her hand gives
out and she can't pull the materials off the assembly line.  Her
supervisor has refused to rotate her to a different part of the line.
Nor has she been seen by a company or government doctor and diagnosed.

According to a 1997 study in the American Journal of Industrial
Medicine (AJIM), 21% maquiladora workers surveyed reported pain
numbness or tingling in one or both hands due to repetitive stress

Sitting in a cramped bedroom in the Tijuana apartment where she lives
with her elderly mother and the 3 youngest children, Maria showed
Corporate Watch an adhesive she must handle daily.  The label bearing
the warning "Danger If Inhaled," was of little use to Maria and her
coworkers who do not speak English.  Maria says the women are given
protective goggles, but not masks or gloves to protect them from the
glue.  Her coworkers complain of colds, coughs and other respiratory
problems from adhesive vapors and what she says is inadequate

Steve Ellis, Vice President of Manufacturing for Mallinckrodt,
Nellcor's parent company, says the health and safety of employees is
the company's "number one priority" and that Mallinckrodt's above
average safety record bears out this claim.  According to Ellis,
Mexican inspectors have signed off on the Tijuana plants ventilation
system.  All health and safety materials are translated into Spanish,
he says, and supervisors receive training that emphasizes ergonomics.
Ellis asserts that employees are encouraged to come forward with
health and safety complaints.  If they do not get an adequate
response, Ellis says they can go to the plant manager or write
directly to him.

But Maria tells a different story.  She says that when the women
complain, supervisors tell them they will get used to the fumes.
According to Maria, workers who speak out are tagged as troublemakers
and pressured to quit. Ironically, Mallinckrodt, a St. Louis,
Missouri based company, makes respirators and other equipment for
critically ill patients in the United States, Europe and Japan.

"I may be old, but if they fire me I'll find work, even if I have to
set up a table outside the factory gates and sell burritos," says
Maria who is soft-spoken but tenacious.  In fact, Maria used to
supplement her meager wages by selling burritos to her coworkers at
their lunch break.  Now, she spends her weekends caring for an
elderly man on the US side of the border.  Although she is paid less
than the US minimum, she earns more in two days than she does all
week in the maquiladora.

Because there is so little enforcement of workplace health and safety
standards, maquiladora workers are exposed to a wide range of toxic
chemicals.  According to the AJIM study 45% of the workers
interviewed said they were exposed to toxic vapors and 43% said they
were exposed to dust-born toxic materials on the job.  The study also
found a correlation between several neurotoxic symptoms and exposure
to solvents and glues.  Workers also report menstrual disorders,
miscarriages and high levels of stress, according to informal surveys
by women's groups.

Sex Discrimination

Sexual harassment is a serious problem for women workers. The
experience of Ana, 36, is typical.  She came to the border from a
small town in Guanajuato in 1995 and has been working in the garment
export industry ever since.  At her first job, pressing garments for
a clothing assembly plant, her boss called her into his office and
began making sexual advances.  At first she shined him on, but when
he pressured her for sex in return for a salary raise, she quit.  It
still got ugly: she had to file a complaint with government
authorities to receive the severance owed her.  "All female workers
know about this kind of pressure.  If we don't want to play the game,
we quit," she explains.  Women who accede to their bosses' advances
to "get ahead," lose the respect of their coworkers, she says.  Male
bosses rarely face the consequences of their actions, however.

Ana, a forthright, petite woman with long dark hair, now works at
home trimming threads from athletic garments for Converse and other
US manufacturers.  A Mexican subcontractor delivers the garments and
she, her sister in law and mother must trim an average of 3000 pieces
a week to make ends meet.  She is paid less than on-site factory
workers, earning the equivalent of about three or four cents per
piece.  But she is spared from abusive supervisors, can set her own
pace and keep an eye on her school age children.  Her brother and
partner both work in foreign owned factories to help support the
household of 10.

Most maquiladoras require women to show proof that they are not
pregnant in order to gain employment.  In December 1998, Human Rights
Watch issued an extensive report "Mexico: A Job or Your Rights"
documenting widespread sex discrimination and pregnancy testing in
the maquiladoras.  Following up on a 1996 report, Human Rights Watch
notes that the Mexican government has done little or nothing to
investigate or curb sex discrimination by Mexican sub-contractors or
foreign companies.  Pregnancy testing is common practice all along
the border, but Human Rights Watch found that in Ciudad Juárez,
across from El Paso, Texas, that female employees faced an even more
humiliating practice.  They were required to show bloody sanitary
napkins as proof that they were not pregnant.  Furthermore, women who
became pregnant after being hired were sometimes pressured to quit,
according to the report.

All the women interviewed by Corporate Watch confirmed that they were
tested for pregnancy before being hired.  One woman reported that a
co-worker was fired for getting pregnant. Some companies told Human
Rights Watch that they refused to hire pregnant women to protect
their fetuses from workplace hazards.  The women Corporate Watch
spoke to believe it is to avoid paying pregnancy related benefits.

Overworked and Underpaid

The typical profile of a maquila worker is a young, single woman.
"They are usually unmarried and living at home," says entrepreneur
Dale Robinson, as a partial explanation of why wages on the border
are so low.  What Robinson, the former President of the Western
Maquiladora Trade Association, neglects to take into account is that
many young women are single parents who have left their home towns to
find employment on the border.  And there are a significant number of
older women working on the maquiladora assembly lines.

One such woman is Graciela, 43, who came to Tijuana from Sinaloa with
her children when she separated from her husband in 1990.  "I had
nowhere else to run to," she explains.  Since then, she has worked at
Ensambles de Precision de California testing extension cords
assembled in Mexico. Graciela spends her eight-hour shift plugging in
the extensions to see if they light two bulbs.  She and her four
younger children scrape by on the 500 pesos (about $50 USD) she
brings home each week.  She drops her youngest children, six and
eight, off at her sister's, leaving the two eldest, in their early
teens, at home while she works the swing shift from 5:00 p.m. to 2:00
am.  "I get up very late, make dinner to leave for my kids, bathe and
go off to work," explains Graciela who has little time or money for
much else.

Graciela and her kids live on the outskirts of Tijuana, in a cramped
two-story cinderblock house on a dirt path. A television blares from
the bedroom upstairs.  A refrigerator hums in the kitchen and a
ringer washer sits in the front yard.  She explains that the
appliances are bought with salary advances it takes years to pay off.
She says many women at the factory have skin problems and other
ailments from solvents used in the plant. She complains of verbal
abuse by her supervisor.  But her biggest complaint is her poverty
level wages.  "I don't feel benefited by free trade and the
maquiladoras," she explains.  "The main thing is that wages haven't
gone up."  She stays at the same plant because wages are relatively
uniform in the maquila industry, and at 43 factory work is hard to
find despite low unemployment in Tijuana.

The Slow Road to Change

The obstacles to organizing maquiladora workers, especially women,
are formidable.  Most work long hours of overtime to supplement their
meager incomes, sometimes working up to seven days a week.  They
struggle to hold their families together on poverty level wages, at
the same time they are surrounded by high priced US consumer goods
flooding the border market.

The population in border cities like Tijuana has exploded over the
last decade, making affordable housing scarce.  Shantytowns and poor
barrios known as "colonias," which have existed for decades, are
mushrooming with the influx of Mexicans seeking work in the
maquiladoras.  Often city services like water, electricity, sewers,
garbage disposal and transportation are lacking in the colonias.  And
it is usually women who organize to pressure city hall for adequate
services, adding one more burden to their overextended lives.
Community organizing has, however, laid the groundwork for organizing
women the workplace.

According to feminists, Mexico's traditional unions have a long
machista tradition that excludes women's active participation.  In
fact, most do not even promote men's participation.  There are few
independent unions and many companies have "phantom unions" which
rubber stamp company policies. Workers often do not even know they
exist.  Workers who do try to organize independent unions are often
fired or pressured to quit.  Handbag searches are routine, and
carrying leaflets on labor rights can be grounds for dismissal.

Another obstacle to labor organizing is that Mexico's official policy
promotes the maquiladora industry, which is the only sector of the
Mexican economy that is growing.  Depending on fluctuating
statistics, foreign-owned export processing plants could outpace oil
and drug trafficking as Mexico's primary source of hard currency,
according to economist Jaime Cota.  Mexican officials have sometimes
been complicit in putting down strikes and crushing organizing
attempts at labor organizing in the maquiladoras.

"We have been unable to create a true maquiladora worker's
organization," notes Cota who has been organizing maquila employees
since 1993.  "The influence of all the different organizations
working with maquiladora workers in Tijuana combined hasn't reached
more than 1% of the workforce," he adds.

Auspicious Beginnings

Workers who are relatively recent migrants to the border, complain
about the social isolation and crime associated with living in
industrial boomtowns.  For many, it was the desire for a social
support network that initially motivated them to enroll in 14 week
training as workplace "promotoras," or organizers.  The Casa de la
Mujer, Grupo Factor X, adapted a successful curriculum developed by
the San Diego-based Environmental Health Coalition used to train
environmental organizers in the Latino community.  Factor X has
injected their uniquely Mexican feminist perspective into the
Coalition's Latina Health Action, or SALTA, program.  So while San
Diego activists take on issues like the hazards of industrial
pollution and toxic waste in the community, the maquila workers are
trained in workplace and gender rights.

In 14 sessions the women get a crash course in globalization and
feminism.  They analyze why wages have stayed stagnant on the border,
and work in their hometowns has dried up.  They look at why the same
goods assembled in Mexico for pennies, are sold in the US for many
times what they cost to produce.  One worker told Corporate Watch
that she saw a blouse which she had been paid less than a dollar to
assemble selling for more than $30 on a trip to Los Angeles.

The training draws on Factor X's long experience promoting
reproductive health rights.  Promotoras discuss how they experience
oppression in their bodies.  As workers they are exposed to toxic
chemicals and repetitive stress injuries and subject to sexual
harassment.  In the home they carry the burden of domestic chores and
sometimes face domestic violence.  "We don't own our bodies,"
explains training coordinator Reyna Montero. For many, it is simply
an affirmation of what they have long known.  "Everything you're
living through in the maquilas, on the street, it's as if you're
reading about it in the training," explains Maria.

"It is difficult to contain my anger when there is a problem.  But
all of us in the factory have learned to do it." says Ana.  'But now,
as a promotora, I know how to confront a problem, where to direct a
complaint and how to help a co-worker.  If I need to, I can go with
Factor X," she adds.

"I used to think that the factory was more important than I was,
because that's how they make you feel," observes Isabel.  "The
training opened my eyes and made me realize that I have rights and
that I have to make them worth something at work, at home, in the

The promotoras must each recruit and train other maquiladora workers.
Once the program trains some 50 organizers they hope to launch
campaigns against some of the violations by foreign companies
operating on the border.  They acknowledge that change is slow and it
will be a long haul before real inroads are made into exploitative
labor and environmental practices.

"If not now, maybe in ten years, but yes we will see a union," says
Isabel.  "Many things will change.  One or another of us is always
opening our eyes and protesting."

<>   *****


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