Manufacturing Suffering

Sep 092004
Authors: Meg Burd

The Maquiladoras in Mexico offer low wages, dangerous conditions for workers

Leaving her cinder block house, a young woman in Tijuana crosses sticky mud to make it to her midnight shift in a manufacturing plant. All night, she endures leers from her boss, leaving before the sun comes up. Making the dark journey home, she not only worries about her own safety, crossing the same path where several other women have disappeared, she also worries about how she will pay for the day’s food.

Disturbing, this is an all too common story of the struggles of everyday life related by many of the workers in the Maquiladoras in Mexico. Located just across the southern border of the United States, in Tijuana, Juarez, Chihuahua and other towns, these giant factories and assembly plants called Maquiladoras have been flooding into the area since the passage of NAFTA roughly eleven years ago.

Workers pour into these areas, hoping for the slightly increased pay the factories offer.

What they have found is sweatshop like conditions and shanty towns, working under dangerous conditions in factories owned by corporations such as GE, Tyco, Zenith, Johnson Controls or Carlisle Plastics, creating goods for tariff-free export to the United States and Canada and earning between $3.50 and $5 a day for their intense and often hazardous labor.

These Maquiladoras sectors, as structured under the NAFTA agreement may indeed bring in large amounts of revenue for the Mexican economy, but the plants and factories are bringing little to the people of the area.

Corporate giants from America (which control 90 percent of the Maquiladoras) see the area as appealing not only because of the lack of export tariffs, but also the low wages they can pay workers. This means that while profits for the companies increase the quality of life in the areas decreases. The devaluation of the peso in 1994 struck workers especially hard.

“A Maquiladoras worker must work four hours and 17 minutes to buy one gallon of milk,” said the non-profit organization Women on the Border, a group who works with Maquiladoras workers.

For women in the Maquiladoras, conditions can be particularly bad. Women, on average ranging from the ages 15-35 make up at least 50 percent of the Maquiladoras work force, according to Human Rights Watch. Low wages are not their only problem, as discrimination and sexual harassment are common practices in the factories. Women are often subject to pregnancy tests in order to be hired, says Human Rights Watch, and indeed are often fired or forced to work unpaid overtime if they do become pregnant on the job, a clear violation of both Mexican and U.S. law. Even when not faced with discrimination due to pregnancy, “sexual harassment of women employees… is common,” reports Jen Soriano in Mother Jones.

Besides facing danger at work, women leaving work also face dark and dangerous streets. In the last decade, more than 300 women have been either murdered or disappeared from the shanty towns surrounding the Maquiladoras according to Amnesty International. Little is being done to stop or investigate these crimes.

Besides all these dangers, there is also the danger of exposure to toxins from the plants.

“The toxic chemicals in use in Tijuana’s Maquiladoras industry include heavy metals, solvents and acids,” reports Environmental Health Coalition. Lead batteries come from the U.S. for “recycling.” The leeching chemicals have had dire environmental and health effects: between 1993 and 1994, 19 children were sadly born without brains, a condition called anencephaly, David Bacon of the San Francisco Bay Guardian reports.

As environmental conditions are more closely examined in surrounding areas, it is likely more dire consequences will be realized.

These horrible conditions for both workers and the environment must be ended. We must force the companies relocating their factories here to observe the laws, something that is often “overlooked” by enforcers on both sides of the borders. Workers should be allowed to unionize without fear of reprisal, and women should not have to fear for their jobs and indeed lives in these areas. NAFTA needs to be re-thought to stop these horrible crimes against people in the Maquiladoras sectors.

In short, the abundance of the United States should not be built on the suffering of Maquiladoras workers.

Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs weekly on Fridays.

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