Global Policy Forum

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


By Julie Light

Corporate Watch
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 furniture.

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 injuries.

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 ventilation.

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 street."

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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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.