« Women and the Maquiladoras in Mexico »
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Following the termination of the Bracero program by the US government, a plan known as the Border Industrialization Program was introduced in 1965 by the Mexico government aimed at creating employment opportunities in the northern Mexican border for those seasonal agricultural workers who were previously allowed to work in the United States but now lost their job due to the cancellation of the Bracero program. At the same year, the maquiladora industry was born in Mexico.

According to Kathryn Kopinak, author of the book Desert Capitalism, the meaning of the word maquiladora or maquila in short, have evolved overtime due to changing government policies that ultimately shaped the characteristics of the maquiladora industry (9). However, maquiladoras at their cores “are US subsidiaries or contract affiliates under foreign ownership; are dedicated to the assembly of components, the processing of primary materials, or both, producing either intermediate or final products; import most or all primary materials and components from the united states, and re-export the end products of the manufacturing process to the United States; are labor-intensive” (Prieto, Introduction xxiii).

As Kopinak pointed out, “Maquiladora history has been divided into four stages” (9). The first stage is from 1965 to 1974. It is considered to be a period of Maquiladora installation and consolidation. New jobs were created. However, instead of absorbing those braceros that lost their jobs into employment as hoped by the Mexican government, maquiladora plants preferred and hired mostly young women who have never worked outside of their home. By 1974, less than 10 years of the Border Industrialization Program, there were already 455 maquiladoras employing 75947 people in Mexico (Vila, 102). During this period, several regulations were relaxed. In 1973, maquiladoras were no longer limited to the northern Mexican border. Governments allowed maquiladoras to be built and operate in the interior. In the same year, foreign corporations were allowed to have 100 percent ownership of maquiladoras.

The second period lasted two years from 1974 to 1976. This period was marked with crisis in the maquiladora industry due to the 1974 recession in the United States. Foreign investors pulled their capitals out of Mexico and 32000 jobs were lost in the first ten months alone (Vila, 39). As a result, the growth of the maquiladora industry came to a complete halt. In order to revive the industry and encourage foreign investment, the Mexican government exempted the maquiladoras to abide only few of its labor laws. Thus, the maquiladoras were able to operate outside of labor laws and on their own rules and policies which affects thousands and thousands of maquiladora workers. This period of unrest indicates the “inability of maquiladoras to form a stable economic base [for mexico]” (Kopinak, 10).

The third stage is characterized by expansion from 1977 to 1982. Maturing of infrastructures and the devaluations of peso had helped a 13.8 percent annual growth in the maquiladora industry between 1977 and 1980 (Koniak, 11). However, great concerns and disappointments were expressed among top government officials for the maquiladora program. This was mainly due to the fact that maquiladoras were extremely dependent on the US economy; foreign capitals are not fixed and they tended to move out more quickly than they float in (Weintraub, ix).

The fourth stage of the maquiladora industrialization is the period between 1983 and 1989. This stage was marked by the governmental emphasize of support for more capital-intensive maquiladoras with fewer worker while maintaining the creations of more jobs as an important objective. State planners explicitly specified that “maquiladoras making machinery, electric and electronic supplies, and the automotive equipment had top priority and they tried to encourage on local sourcing” (Anyul, 142). This is also the period in which the word “maquilizacion” was introduced to the Spanish vocabulary, which was to reflect the phenomenon in which a huge number of existing foreign owned non-maquiladora plants transformed into maquiladoras to take advantages of the maquiladoras legislation. The characteristics of such phenomenon were observed by many as to “feminize the labor force, lower real wages and to introduce a non-union orientation” (Kopinak, 13).

With these understandings to the maquiladora history and the changes of government policies on foreign investments in Mexico, we can focus on the impacts the maquiladora industry had on the lives of its workers.

By July 1994, after 6 months of the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the maquiladora industrial in Mexico has become the main source of foreign investment for its government, far surpassed the foreign currency that was brought into the country by tourism and petroleum combined. It was the one that generated all the hype and buzz. As Kopinak puts it, maquiladora industry has become “the engine of industrialization throughout Mexico” (3).

Through the reflections of the lives of the maquiladora workers, we should see how this engine of industrialization has helped to create abundant employment opportunities, to improve the working conditions, to enhance the standard of living, to save families out of poverty, to restore social justice, and to bring Mexico closer to a rich democracy for the Mexican people or if all this ever materialize in reality.

Women had been the main source of labor for the maquiladora industries since its first conception in 1965. In fact, it was estimated that 80 to 90 percent of all the maquiladora worker populations were women in the early day of the Border Industrialization Program. Among these female maquiladora workers, most of them were between the ages of 16 to 23.

Why would they all hire young female workers? Of course, there are explanations behind this preference of young female labor in the hiring process. From the capitalist view, young women are a good source of human capital. They are energetic thus they have the maximum productivity output; they are often with little social experience thus they are more disciplined and the firm can exercise a greater control over them; they are physically healthy thus they can endure longer hours of repetitive task; last but no the least, they are women thus they are much cheaper in wages than their male counterpart. Yes, those transnational corporations did not come here to provide better, higher paying jobs; rather, they came here with the sole “objective of reducing production costs by capitalizing on the extremely low cost of local labor” (Prieto, Introduction xxiii). Otherwise, they would have given these jobs to the braceros as of what the Border Industrialization Program initially intended for.

The feminization of the labor force by the maquiladora industry is not without consequences. The first of such effects was the underemployment and unemployment of the local male population. Since the beginning of the maquiladora industrialization, “these transnational assembly plants triggered unprecedented migration from mexico’s rural interior to its urbanizing northern frontier” (Prieto, Foreword xiv). Men and women were attracted by the often overrated employment opportunities. They came in number to the already crowed cities to find a job and a better life. Upon arrival, they were only greeted with unemployment. This was due to the fact that the growth of maquiladora industry is simply not “great enough to absorb the increased flow of migrations northwards” (Kopinak, 200). It was especially difficult for a male to find a job in a maquiladora.

The jobs that were open for male in any maquiladora were often at managerial or technical level. Such openings required experiences and certifications which most of the migrants from the interior rural areas lacked. Even if they were to have the require qualifications, such job openings was rather scarce since the managers or supervisors to laborer ratio was extremely small and only a few of these maquiladoras required a large number of technicians. Thus, men with children would have to assume the role of a mother when the wife was able to secure a job in a maquiladora; men without a family would often find themselves unemployed and idle in the overcrowded city. As the unemployment of local male population grew, crime rate also increased. These two were directly proportional to each other.

The second major effect of such feminization was the rise of sexual harassment against female employees by supervisors in the workplace inside maquiladora plants. It had risen to a point where “institutionalized sexual harassment was common place in the maquilas, where male supervisors sometimes exploited their position to extort sexual favors from female employees” (Lorey 174). This phenomenon is due to many different factors. Of the major causes, one is the lax enforcement of labor laws by the government. Besides lax enforcement, and to encourage existent or more new foreign investment, the government even took a step further by amending laws to deregulate the maquiladora industry.

With those special treatments from the government, maquiladoras would make their own rules and policies which are of course in favor of the maquiladora plants. With their own sets of factory policies, they exerted a greater control and power over their employees. Supervisors often considered these young women as inferiors. With little or no social experiences, these young women always complied with any request of their supervisors, even if such request were of sexual nature. Even for the ones who were with more experience, it was still very difficult for them to say no because they needed the jobs and money to support their families. A female worker knew by heart that it was not easy to find another job in another maquiladora since “her experience as a worker, should she leave the firm or be dismissed and seek other employment, hardly constitute a recommendation, because her work was so specialized that, despite the skills she acquired, she would find another position like it only with difficulty” (Prieto, 98).

With so much fear, many of such incidences of sexual harassment went unreported. This in turn left the devastating effects of encouraging even more violence and harassment against women in the maquiladora industry. No other words can clarify the situations more than these of Norma Prieto, author of the book titled Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladoras: “Women in the factories are daily treated as sexual objects … women are urged to present themselves as sexual objects in order to preserve their employment and their position within the labor hierarchy … struggle to be liked by the boss, to become his pet, becomes an obligatory habit and the daily purpose if one wants to survive in this workplace” (76). Not only were these women exploited of their labor, they were also exploited of their sexuality, body and soul. With many of these harassment went unreported, the scale of such detrimental phenomenon to women would never be fully realized. Without the realization of such crimes against women, the conditions these women faced day to day in maquiladoras would never improve.

Besides having to put up with the constant harassments from their supervisors, these female workers have to work under conditions that are at best detrimental to their health and well being, to meet unreasonable quotas and performance expectations, to endure hours and hours of seemingly endless repetitive boring tasks, to sustain merely a pathetic living wage for all this hassle and hard work. According to Altha Cravey, author of the book Women and Work in Mexico’s Maquiladoras, “hazards of the workplace included exposure to toxics as well as mutagenic and carcinogenic chemicals, the operation of dangerous and antiquated machinery that lacks safeguard to prevent injury, lack of protective equipment and clothing, stress or disease caused by long hours and repetitive motion, and a denial of information on chemicals in the workplace” (96). Again, this is a clear demonstration of the maquiladoras’ sole purpose of profit in disregard of the well being and safety of their workers.

In cases where safety equipments such as goggles and gloves were provided, workers found it an annoyance to put on since these goggles and gloves would certainly slow down their productivity. They would fail to meet the quotas imposed by the factory and for that they might lose their jobs. When female workers got sick, they were often required to stay to meet production. For those who left work for sickness, they were often without pay. Furthermore, for one day of absence, three days of pay were penalized and deducted from their wage.

Penalizing worker even for reasonable absences with disregard to governmental labor law is a very common practice among maquiladoras. To avoid being penalized, to avoid being fire, many workers were forced to work even when they were very ill. There were even cases where pregnant workers had miscarriage due to stress, fatigue and overwork. There were incidences where workers injured in the factory and they were never given the immediate and right medical attentions they needed. The cover picture of the book The Children of NAFTA is the portrait of Han Young striker Miguel Angel Solorzano whose “right arm was injured when he fell in an industrial accident at the plant. The fracture weren’t set properly, and he was forced to return to work ten days later” (Bacon, Cover Picture, 122). As depict in the image, He was still unable to close his fist completely. If maquiladora workers were not considered inferiors by their supervisors and if the attitudes toward these hard working people were more equal, some of these women workers may not have to suffer the physical and emotional pain of losing their baby; Miguel may be able to escape the fate of disability; the working condition, the safety and health of these people inside maquiladoras would have improved.

With “absurd regulations that limit even her trip to the bathroom” (Prieto, 98), one can easily imagine that the degree of control and power the maquiladoras have upon their workers was near absolution. As a consequence, it was extremely difficult for maquiladora workers to organize and to form independent unions. The need for independent union is inevitable because official unions did not fight for the good of the workers, instead they represented the big corporations. Inactions of the government to protect its labor further discredit the trust the common people had for authority. Many Mexicans believed that the government and the official unions are “conspiring together to sell … workers to foreign companies, and selling [them] at hunger-level wages” (Bacon, 75).

Those who form independent unions, who join strikes, were often greeted with violence. They were threatened, beaten and fired. They were blacklisted so they would not be able to find another job in any maquiladoras. Fear and violence is only one of the tactics employed to prevent the formation of independent union and organized walkouts. Secrecy and ignorance is the more profound method to blind its workers. “Workers in the maquiladoras … cannot find out for whom they work, the use of the product they manufacture, or the value it might have. These conditions have grave implications for efforts to organize labor and raise worker consciousness” (Prieto, 18). Without these essential information, without knowing who they are really fighting, the organized effort may seem meaningless. By withholding these essential information, maquiladoras effectively shut off worker consciousness. As a result, the presence of labor unions and labor movements in Mexico is rather scarce and weak.

In the last decade, as technology advanced, more and more sophisticated equipments were brought into the maquiladoras. And as the younger generations of maquiladora workers became more educated, productivity were at steady increase. However, such increase did not result the increase of wage. Instead, wages of the maquiladora worker was shrinking at an increasing pace. The average minimum wage of the maquiladoras worker is at a historical low of four US dollars per day or roughly forty cents per hour. When market inflation, peso devaluation and the increased of interest rates were all taken into account, the real wage of these worker in term of purchasing power is horrific to all of us here in the United States. Yet, about eighty percent of all maquiladoras in Mexico are American owned. It is us, the Americans, the advocates of human rights, the proponent of equality, the symbols of democracy who think that we have every right to pay this dignity-degrading wage for the dedications and hard work of the Mexican people.

“On a daily basis, she confronts the instability and the insecurity of her employment status and the relative and absolute reduction of her salary. Obliged to meet with specified production quota, she is subject to demanding and routine manual tasks and work rhythms whose monotony produces alienation. She endures inadequate workplace safety, the hazards of occpupational illness, and absurd regulations that limt even her trip to the bathroom” (Prieto, 98). This is the true portrayal of the lives of the women in the maquiladoras.

Over the last few decades, installations of the maquiladora industry under the Border Industrialization Program, expansion of maquiladoras under the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, without question, have generated enormous economic growth for Mexico. It is a great achievement that the Mexico government should be proud of. Unfortunately, such growth and statistics did not benefit the vast majority of the common working people in Mexico. It is in this sense that such government plant and international agreement are a total failure rather than success.

Not only are the sweet promises these plants and agreements never fulfilled, they further deteriorate the lives of the Mexican people. Instead of creating more jobs, they increase unemployment. Instead of lifting wages, they shrink the pay. Instead of spreading equality, they bring social injustice. Instead of liberating people to prosperity, they enslave the masses to poverty.

Anyul, Martin and Lionello Punzo. Mexico Beyond NAFTA. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Bacon, David. The Children of NAFTA. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.
Cravey, Altha. Women and Work in Mexico??s Maquiladoras. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998.
Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, Geografia e Informatica (INEGI) Banco de datos sobre la industria maquiladora. Mexico City: 1996
Kopinak, Kathryn. Desert Capitalism. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1996.
Lorey, David. The U.S.-Mexican Border in the Twentieth Century. Wilmington, Delaware. SR Books, 1999.
Martinez, Ruben. Crossing Over. New York: Picador, 2001.
Prieto, Norma. Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladoras. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1997.
Weintraub, Sidney. Fiancial Decision-Making in Mexico. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.
Vila, Pablo. Ethnography at the Border. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.