Women of the Maquila

By Luciente

Revolutionary Worker #947, March 8, 1998

Every day, thousands of people fill the streets of Tijuana, Mexico. Tourists visit the shopping districts and tourist rows. In the retail shops they buy Guess jeans at a cheap price. Soldiers and sailors from the military bases in San Diego go to drink and have a good time--at the expense of the people there. Others are only passing through, on their way somewhere else, like a beach resort in Acapulco or Mazatlan.

What if they stayed longer?

What if they drove past the children selling chiclets and newspapers, past the tourist rows and retail shops? What if they drove past the hotels and the bullring--out to the shantytowns which climb from the valley into the hills?

What would they see?

The colonias

These shantytowns are the real Tijuana for most of the people who live there. Entire neighborhoods of small shacks are pieced together from whatever is around--cardboard, scraps of wood, and plastic--held together with nails and rope and wire. In these colonias, people usually are forced to live without sewage systems, running water or electricity.

Over the last few years, such colonias have mushroomed and spread all along the 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border. They form the encampment of an army of landless peasants and propertyless workers gathered at the very edge of the border. Many who live in these colonias work in the numerous maquiladoras, the factories concentrated in Tijuana and other border cities.

People from throughout all of Mexico move North in search of work and a way to survive. They are from rural areas where campesinos have lost their land and from swollen cities in Mexico--where the government officially says the unemployment is 30 percent, but where the people know it is much worse.

Many who go North plan to cross the border. But the militarization of the border has made this much more dangerous and difficult. Others travel to northern cities like Tijuana, Matamoros, Reynosa, and Ciudad Juarez because they hear they can find work in the maquiladoras.

The people gathered in border cities to work in maquilas have more than doubled--from a couple hundred thousand to more than half a million in only a few years. These mushrooming shantytown populations reflect the explosive growth of the maquiladoras. These export-processing companies have spread along the entire 2,000-mile border in the past three decades. Most of the maquilas are owned by the U.S. and Japan. In 1990 the U.S. owned 90 percent of the maquiladoras in Mexico. They are branches of companies like General Motors, AT&T, Fruit of the Loom, Sanyo, and Panasonic. The demand for workers in the maquilas along the border is so high that the unemployment rate is only about 1 percent in a city like Tijuana.

Working Women
of the Border Factories

Out of the one million maquiladora workers in Mexico more than 60 percent are women. Hiring only women is an unwritten policy in many factories. According to factory managers, women are ideal assembly workers because they have "greater manual dexterity, docility, and there are an inexhaustible supply of new females, anxious to fill any vacancies." Companies like Zenith and General Motors send out crews with bullhorns to drive around the colonias advertising jobs "for women only."

U.S. corporations--and all their economists, sociologists and political scientists--try to justify the high proportion of women workers in the maquilas by arguing that the experience is a liberating one for Mexican women. They claim that it frees the women from the chains of feudal and sexist oppression in small rural villages. The lives of the women workers tell a different story--a story of abuse, suffering, and super-exploitation. These factory women face oppression at the hands of the same system that destroys the lives of the rural campesinos and that enforces the brutal oppression of women.

"Vivo la vida de una caricatura, siempre corriendo. Mi familia me dice que descanse, pero les digo que el día que me muera será el día que descansen mis pies," says a woman who works in the maquilas. She describes her life like that of a cartoon--constantly moving. She says the day she finally dies will be the day her feet get to rest.

Every day, groups of women rush to the maquilas and rush back home after eight or more hours at the factory. At work they spend hours bound to the machines that make all those goods people use--coat hangers, shoes, seat-belts, TV sets, computers, car parts, surgical instruments, and on and on. At home, these women almost always carry the responsibility of caring for their children and other family members--they cook, clean, wash, and everything else women are traditionally supposed to do. Economically they are essential to the survival of their families and must find a way to meet their needs with wages ranging from $25 to $40 a week.

The majority of the women working in the maquilas are between 15 and 25 years old. Many are single mothers, and all are vital for the economic survival of their families.

Telling of Their Lives

The Human Rights Watch Women's Project interviewed dozens of women working in the maquiladoras and published No Guarantees: Women in Mexico's Maquiladora Sector. The report documents the routine discrimination against women, especially pregnant women. Women also told them about harsh and dehumanizing treatment by supervisors and employers, sexual harassment, and work conditions that were often dangerous and even deadly.

A worker in Sunbeam-Oster told Human Rights Watch, "I was one of 12 kids in my family. We were very, very poor, and my parents could not afford to keep all the children in school. I was the oldest and so I dropped out and helped around the house and helped in neighbors' houses to earn a little money. We had to leave San Luis Potosí because there was just no work and no way to feed the family. It was even worse for women. No one would hire you for anything except to clean houses. And we were nine girls in my family. Work in the maquiladoras was our only hope. When we arrived here we saw how bad it was, with no place to live and working at machines all day long. But we had nothing to return to at San Luis Potosí."

Cross-Border Connection: Building Links of Solidarity North and South, the newsletter for the Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, interviewed Maria, a woman who works at the Zettler, a U.S.-based company which makes computers.

Maria works a double shift--one in the factory and another at home. Maria works at the factory on second shift, from 2 to 10 p.m. But her day begins at 5 a.m. every morning.

She wakes up before her husband, cooks the main meal of the day, usually sopa de fideo--pasta boiled in water sometimes cooked with a little bit of onion, tomato, and seasoning salt--and makes his lunch. This is the only time she spends alone during the day. Then her husband gets up, and they will eat their only meal together before he leaves for work.

They are a two-income family, but their wages together hardly cover life's necessities like food, water, electricity (even though they have no TV, refrigerator, or any other electrical appliance), diapers, clothes, a baby-sitter for their kids, etc. Meat, fruit, vegetables, milk, and even beans and tortillas are a rare luxury and almost completely out of the question for maquila workers.

On weekends Maria doesn't get a break from the daily grind of work. On these days she washes her family's clothes, grocery shops, cooks for the week, and cleans the house made of scrap wood and cardboard which she, her husband, and kids share with Maria's mother, two sisters, and brother.

Maria says, "I feel as though I spend every waking hour working--running and stay in the same place."

Using People Up

The assembly workers in the maquiladoras often work under conditions dangerous to their health.

A former physician at the Matsushita plant, Dr. Adela Moreno, described how she was fired because she complained that the plant did not have a proper ventilation system and did not provide protective eyewear for workers who were welding.

Women at a factory owned by Zenith say the only time they are only given gloves for soldering is when managers from the U.S. visit.

In Reynosa, at an Erika plant owned by W.R. Grace, women who assemble medical kits aren't given masks to protect them from noxious fumes. When they complain about feeling dizzy they still aren't allowed to take a break. Monze worked at the plant for eight months, but quit because the chemicals they worked with gave her daily headaches. She says that because of the chemicals, she has suffered a loss of short-term memory that is so bad she could not find her way home from work one afternoon.

Pregnancy and
the Border Factories

Women who have worked or applied for positions at the maquilas say urine tests are common in factories as a condition of hiring. Employers say they are screening for "pre-existing medical conditions." Often the doctors are simply trying to screen out applicants who are pregnant. As part of this, women workers are often asked invasive and embarrassing questions about whether or not they are sexually active, how often they have sex, what type of contraceptives they use, and what their menses cycle is.

Women who are pregnant are often pressured to leave their jobs. They are given more strenuous work in which they have to spend longer periods of time on their feet. This common practice has resulted in dangerous and possibly deadly complications.

Maria-Elena Corona Caldero, a worker at Plasticos Bajacal, assembles plastic coat hangers. She told her story to Human Rights Watch:

"When I first started working at Plasticos Bajacal, none of the women had to do pregnancy exams. One simply had to work--and all the time. I realized I was pregnant in November. When I realized I was pregnant, I went to the supervisor and asked for seated work. He told me that there was no one to take my place and that I would have to continue my position. In December, during one shift, I was feeling bad and asked my supervisor if I could have a break from packing hangers into boxes on a conveyor belt. I was responsible for packing about 75 boxes a shift. He said no.

"This same day, I started bleeding soon after the shift began. My husband, who also worked at the plant, asked my supervisor if he could take me to the hospital. Rojas [the supervisor] said no. He did, finally, let me go to the bathroom. I had to go see the guard because he had the key to the supply chest, where aspirin and toilet paper were kept. He told me there was neither toilet paper nor aspirin.

"I did not leave the plant until 6:30 a.m., when my shift ended. I went directly to the doctor, but I had hemorrhaged so much that I had lost the fetus. While I was there, I read what the doctor wrote on my medical chart. He wrote that I had lost the baby as a consequence of work."

Dr. Moreno told the L.A. Times, "It's a vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation." Women are exploited on all fronts. They are paid extremely low wages--sometimes only 80 cents an hour. And, in addition, they are often exploited and degraded sexually as well.

According to Dr. Moreno, it is common for managers to caress the buttocks of their female employees. The male employers give themselves all kinds of liberties with their employees. A married woman with six children was accused of stealing after complaining when her boss told her to sleep with him or lose her job.


The maquiladoras have spread along Mexico's northern border like a carpet of flesh-eating bacteria. As countless campesinos and workers, men and women, have been driven from their homes in a desperate search for work--they have arrived at the northern border region and been eaten alive.

On top of the usual daily household oppression and labor, women forced into the maquilas now bear the new burdens of superexploitation in the factories of foreign capitalists.

No! Imperialist-owned factories and other so-called development have not liberated the Mexican women. It has reinforced and intensified their oppression.

At the same time, these women have been brought more deeply into contact with the world outside their farms and homes--they have been able to raise their heads, often for the first time, to catch a closer glimpse of those who have caused so much suffering for Mexico and its people. And this experience is fueling the anger of hundreds of thousands of women and helping to build their unity and strength as they search for a way forward out of this suffering.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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