Misery of the maquiladoras

November 18, 2011

In 2000, Socialist Worker's Todd Chretien and Jessie Muldoon toured the maquiladora zone in Tijuana with a delegation organized by the human rights group Global Exchange--and reported on the conditions maquiladora workers face and their struggle to change them. This article appeared in the June 9, 2000 edition of SW.

THE MODERN factories that dot the landscape in border towns like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez don't fit the image that many Americans have of Mexico.

Huge multinationals such as Sanyo, Panasonic, General Electric and Nike have set up shop here. And they've brought with them some of the most advanced manufacturing technology anywhere in the world. Yet near these 21st-century facilities stand the shantytowns.

They are home to many of the more than 1.2 million men, women and children who work in the maquiladora factories, located mainly along Mexico's border with the U.S. Maquiladora workers assemble products that end up around the world. But when they go home at night, they can barely afford to put food on the table.

Mexican officials say that the maquiladora system--which allows multinational corporations to avoid taxes and trade restrictions by setting up factories that produce goods for export--is an economic success story. And it is successful--for the corporate crooks who have taken advantage of Mexico's plummeting wages. For Mexican workers, the maquiladoras have brought misery and repression.

A maquiladora producing clothing for the U.S. market
A maquiladora producing clothing for the U.S. market

"FROM ITS corporate headquarters in Carlsbad, California, Sunrise Management oversees a global enterprise with 4,400 [employees] and 12 factories in North America and Europe," brags the Web site of Sunrise Medical, a manufacturer of home health-care products. "Our products improve people's lives in many ways: healing wounds, speeding recovery, providing independence, facilitating breathing and assisting in the activities of daily life... [based on] our empathy with people confronting illness, disability or simply old age."

But 22-year-old Maria has a different story to tell.

Maria has worked in Sunrise's maquiladora plant in Tijuana for just over a year. During that time, she suffered severe chemical burns, which turned the skin on her face dark gray. "I've been hurt by the chemicals we work with, and I want to know what they are so I can help myself," Maria says. "Most of the chemical names are in English, so we can't read the warning labels. My skin has been burned by these chemicals, and now they want to fire me. They say I came to the factory this way, but everyone knows that's not true.

Maria's coworker Carmelina has a similar story to tell. "I've worked for 35 years in different maquiladora plants--in textiles, electronics, chemicals," she says. "At Sunrise, we're abused physically and emotionally, and we have no way to resist. Many people have lost fingers and hands in the cutting machines, but they just get fired. The bosses always blame accidents on the workers, and we never get any benefits or compensation."

This is the world of the maquiladoras. The system is supposed to benefit ordinary Mexicans by bringing in international investment and creating jobs. But the real winners are the corporations who put profit first.

"It's not like Arkansas at all," explained an American manager for Sanyo, who was transferred to one of the company's plants in Tijuana. "They have a union [in Arkansas], and the workers are always saying, 'That's not in the contract.' We can be very discriminating here about who we hire. For instance, if a woman is pregnant, we don't have to hire her. Also, I can really play favorites in terms of promotions or giving out overtime pay.

"You have to understand, it's different here. The Mexicans don't think like Americans do. They don't know how to take any initiative on their own. But they're friendly. They'll never say a mean word to your face or even tell me when one of the other workers has made a mistake."

According to Minerva Najera, a human rights monitor in the Baja California region, many maquiladora workers are young women who tried to escape the poverty of rural life in southern Mexico by crossing into the U.S.

But the Clinton administration has massively stepped up patrols at the border, stopping many migrants from crossing. "So many people get stuck along the northern border and have to take jobs in the maquiladoras," Najera says. "It's especially terrible for the young women. They not only have to work five days a week for 12 hours, with a half-day on Saturday, but they often also have to take care of the children and do all the housework. We've found that many of these women only sleep for four hours a night and have to take drug stimulants just to keep working."

The dangers faced by Mexican workers have spilled beyond the walls of the maquiladora plants. Corporations whose only priority is profit have caused numerous environmental catastrophes.

For example, wealthy San Diego businessman Jose Cann abandoned his Tijuana battery recycling operation, Metales y Sus Derivados, in 1993. He left 6,000 tons of toxic sludge, including lead and sulfuric acid, sitting on the top of a hill overlooking the neighborhood where his workers lived. Every time it rains, poisons stream down the hill into thousands of people's drinking water. After years of increased birth defects, learning disabilities and illness in the surrounding neighborhood, the government finally responded to community protests--by covering the mounds of sludge with thin plastic sheets.

The wages paid by the multinationals don't begin to make up for these conditions--since maquiladora owners pay the lowest possible amount. Average pay for a 60-hour week in the maquiladoras is 400 to 500 pesos--about $40 or $50. And women and children often make much less.

To keep up with Mexico's high cost of living, whole families have to work in the plants. "A gallon of milk costs 25 pesos, a kilo of eggs costs 18, and a pack of tortillas costs five," says Eduardo Badillo from the Support Committee for Workers Along the Border in Tijuana's Guadelupe Victoria neighborhood. "So you're talking about 48 pesos a day just to put this basic food on your family's table. That's almost 350 pesos a week! Never mind clothes for your kids or books for their school, which we have to buy. Housing is also very expensive. The government now builds some small houses without any water or electricity for maquiladora workers, but they cost 15,000 to 20,000 pesos. Who can afford that?"

As Jorge, a 30-year-old father of three who works in a Maxwell electronics plant, put it: "The maquiladoras give us employment, but it comes at a tremendous cost to the workers who suffer many insults and injuries. Our kids have to go to work at 12 or 13 years old because the economy is set up to help the owners but hurt the workers. And if you raise your voice or leave a job on bad terms, then you get blacklisted."

The complete lack of union rights in the maquiladoras means that most workers express their resistance to terrible conditions and low pay through high absenteeism and by frequently changing jobs. After all, since the bosses work together to keep down wages and keep out health and safety standards, one job is, generally speaking, as good as the next.

Yet by concentrating large numbers of workers in crucial industries and by stoking their resentment, bosses on both sides of the border have created the conditions for anger to turn into action.

Why the bosses love this scam

MEXICO'S MAQUILADORA program was instituted in 1965 to spur economic development in Mexico's border region. The idea was to allow foreign-owned companies--mainly from the U.S.--to set up assembly plants to produce goods for export. The multinationals were given huge tax breaks and exempted from duties and tariffs. Plus they got to take advantage of Mexico's large pool of cheap, unemployed labor.

The system took off when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994. The number of maquiladoras and maquiladora workers has doubled in the past six years. Electronics is the biggest industry among the maquiladoras, but the factories make everything from auto parts to garments.

The program is particularly desirable for companies that set up shop near the border. The financial investment is minimal, and Mexico's minimum wage is very low. The equivalent of $4 to $5 a day is typical. No wonder the corporate crooks love the maquiladoras.

Border between different worlds

ON THE beach in Tijuana, a corrugated border wall that extends about 100 feet into the ocean divides the U.S. from Mexico. The wall divides two different worlds.

On the Tijuana side, the barrier is covered by a memorial to those who died trying to cross into the U.S. While we were on the beach during a recent visit, small children ran up to us begging for food.

That same day, an injured seal washed up on shore on the U.S. side. San Diego's Sea World immediately sent a rescue crew in a Land Rover. Aquarium employees assured us that the seal would be transported safely to Sea World, where it would be fed and its injuries tended to.

The contrast with the future that faces human beings on the other side of the wall couldn't be more obvious. More than half of Mexico's population lives at or below the official poverty line. Many survive on less than 1,200 calories a day--half of what's considered necessary to remain healthy.

Of course, this isn't because there's not enough food. The real source of the poverty is an economic system that depends on competition between Mexican and American workers.

That's why the U.S. has turned its border with Mexico into a militarized zone--with Border Patrol agents armed with the latest weapons. Since 1994, the Clinton administration has poured money into border enforcement. The effect has been to make crossing into the U.S. more dangerous than ever--leading to increased deaths among Mexicans whose only "crime" was to want a better life.

Meanwhile, the maquiladora system is specifically designed to open up the border with Mexico--for multinational corporations and international investors. We want the borders to be open for workers, too.

Organizing inside the maquiladoras

WORKERS FIGHTING to organize in the maquiladoras face enormous difficulties. Many workers in the border region come from southern Mexico. They are separated from their families and communities, making them more vulnerable to attacks. In particular, women workers suffer high levels of sexual abuse and harassment from managers--and are often brutally intimidated if they get involved in union activity.

And maquiladora workers are often unknowingly members of "white unions"--company unions run by Mexico's ruling Party of Institutional Revolution in collusion with the bosses.

Large numbers of workers aren't aware of their rights. And when they do begin to organize, the threats and firings come quickly.

Nonetheless, organizing campaigns continue in the maquiladoras. In Tijuana, a group called Factor Eches has trained dozens of organizers and begun the process of building a network of militants in the plants and barrios. "While we still have a long way to go, there are now more than 30 different groups trying to organize independent unions in the maquiladoras," says Jaime Cota of the Workers Information Center in Tijuana. "We're trying to bring all those groups together so we can build a more effective movement."

Meanwhile, U.S. unions such as the United Electrical Workers (UE) and United Auto Workers have begun cross-border solidarity programs, exchanging organizers and offering resources.

These links are beginning to pay off. For instance, in 1998, workers trying to organize an Echlin auto-parts factory near Mexico City were told that the U.S.-based bosses had already signed a secret deal with a "white union." The governmental labor board then forced workers to choose between the two unions by voice vote--in the presence of managers and a large group of armed thugs. Independent unionists appealed to the UE, the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO as well as the Canadian Labor Council for help. Together, Mexican, Canadian and U.S. unions pressured Echlin to back off.

Such actions show the hope for overcoming the misery of maquiladoras--with the power of workers united against the bosses' greed.

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