Perspective from Mexico

Publisher Name: 
Race, Poverty & the Environment

To the Zapatistas, who led our first rebellion against NAFTA.

In Mexico, The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which took effect on January 1, 1994, has resulted in worsening economic and social conditions and increasing violations of human rights for working people, peasants, aboriginal communities and others.

NAFTA is not a development model for our country. There has been no development, but rather a dismantling of Mexico's productive capacity, preceded by privatization of the main national industries: steel, mining, telecommunications, airlines, railroads and recently the petrochemical industry.

Along with selling off the country, the Mexican government has increasingly resorted to repression in order to weakening trade unions, particularly those more democratic. The results have been devastating for economic and labor freedom.

Prior to NAFTA, Mexico had an important domestic manufacturing industry, of which the maquila sector represented only 11.7% in 1980. By 1990, this had increased to 46.2%. In 1995, the second year of NAFTA, the maquila sectors represented 73.1% of manufacturing. In the same year, the domestic textile industry, for example, had practically disappeared.

Unemployment is another area where the impacts of NAFTA are visible. Prior to NAFTA, 1.8 million Mexicans were reported unemployed; in September 1995 - again two years into NAFTA - the figure had increased to 3.5 million.

In 1993, 8.5% of the labor force earned less than the minimum salary, rising to 11.9% in 1995. According to a study by the Mexican Autonomous University (or UNAM, its Spanish acronym), the minimum salary would need to rise 350% to provide for basic needs.

Work place accidents in 1995 were up 20% over the previous year. The increased risk in the work place and the worsening of working conditions is resulting in more serious injuries. According to the Mexican Society of Labor Health (Sociedad Mexicana de Medicina del Trabajo), there are 400,000 factories in the country and only 570 physicians who specialize in health and safety.

The figures quoted above provide a general idea of NAFTA on labor health. What follows is an analysis of the maquila industry and an outline of some of the workers' responses.

Maquilas and NAFTA

The first maquila were set up in the mid 1960s and located along the Mexican border with US. These "free zones" and the conditions that go with them have extended to all areas of the country and to Central America and the Caribbean. NAFTA represents nothing but the "maquilization" of the whole region.

The maquila industry invests in our countries looking for high levels of productivity. This means a faster working pace, longer hours of work, lower salaries, reduction in health care and compensation costs, as well as a weak or non-existent enforcement of labor and environmental laws. Thus the multinational companies can obtain huge profits that return largely intact to their countries of origin.

We call this the neo-liberal model of economics, which, among many other things, has resulted in:

  1. Over-exploitation directed to and designed for mainly young women, who represent about 70% of a labor force estimated at 776,000.

  2. The filthiest production practices, with a clear racist intent of bringing to the southern countries the most polluting industries and production processes. Many of the chemicals and toxins used have been barred in their countries of origin.

  3. The systematic violation of labor and gender rights of maquila workers.

  4. An awakening of consciousness and the search for new forms of labor and union organization from a gender perspective. Oftentimes these combine different struggles, for instance communities and environment.

  5. New forms of local, national and international solidarity amongst workers and feminist, environmental, anti-racist and international movements.

In the 30 years of maquila history in Mexico, several struggles have been carried out by maquila workers as a response to oppressive working and living conditions. As working conditions in the factories have worsened the struggle of the workers has increased. Women and men workers continue to fight only against low salaries, mistreatment and sexual harassment, and have added an important new component: the struggle for the health and survival of the work places and the communities surrounding the maquila.

In the maquila, there is a serious problem of health threats in the workplace in general and particularly of threats to the reproductive health of women workers. The majority of the women workers are between 16 and 24 years of age and are being exposed daily to chemicals and solvents in their workplaces without health and safety protection.

The average weekly salary is US$35-45. (Prior to the 1994 devaluation of the Mexican currency it was US$70.) Rent for a house with public services such as running water and electricity is on average $200 per month. This, women are forced to live in neighborhoods (colonias) without basic services such as electricity, water and sewers. These neighborhoods are also often affected by the release of dangerous wastes from the maquila into the streets and the drainage systems.

The conditions in and outside the maquila, as well as the malnutrition caused by low salaries, produce skin illnesses, cancer, irregularities in menstruation, abortions, tumors, intoxication and birth of undernourished or disabled babies.

This situation, along with the clear violations of the workers rights as human beings, workers and women, results in the search for labor or union organizations to defend their lives and rights. The workers began to organize in spite of the poor economic means of the movement and of the repression they have to endure when demanding their rights, such as being fired or harassed and punishment in the factory.

Obstacles to Labor Organizing

In the struggle for their rights, women workers confront various enemies: the foreign boss, the Mexican managers, and the corrupt, "phantom" unions. These unions not only do not fight for the workers' rights, but the women do not even know them, have never seen their leaders, and when a conflict arises in a factory, management informs the workers that "their" unions have accepted these or those conditions.

One example of a "phantom" union is the Confederacion Regional de Obreros Mexicanos (CROM), or Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers. In Baja California, the CROM sells labor protection directly to the companies. The CROM makes deals about working conditions and salaries with management without the workers' knowledge. In return it receives union fees deducted from the payroll directly from management. Obviously, the government and companies prefer this model of union organization.

The CROM uses similar tactics to the Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM, or Confederation of Mexican Workers) which also claims to represent maquila workers. In Tamaulipas the CTM was forced by the movement of women workers of maquila to subscribe to Internal Rules of Work providing for the minimum salary established by the Federal Labor Law, even though it is not a firm guarantee that these minimums are met.

Another enemy is the government: the Juntas Locales de Conciliacion y Arbitraje (JLCA), or Local Committees for Conciliation and Arbitration, stand in the way of and prevent negotiations of labor conflicts in cases of collective bargaining and registration of unions. These Committees also often inform management of workers' demands presented to them. The committees should be eliminated to allow for direct collective bargaining between workers and management. As it now stands, the JLCA clearly serve the foreign boss rather than the workers.

The federal and state bodies which should enforce health and safety regulations and also prevent environmental pollution, only visit management offices, never the work place.

Even with these limitations, women workers have conducted important struggles in various instances in the labor movement of the maquila. The first one was in the 1970s, involving the struggle of the women workers at the Mattel plant in Mexicali, Acapulco Fashions. This struggle coincided with the labor unrest of electricians in one of the most daring struggles for labor democracy during the 1970s. In these first struggles, workers had to face the departure of the maquila, which chose to move to other countries where there could be guaranteed the ability of imposing their conditions and where there would be no danger of labor organization.

Some movements had important successes, such as the Solitron in Tijuana in 1978-79. The struggle began as a result of the attempted rape of one woman worker by the company's physician. An independent union, SOLIDEV, was formed, and achieved one of the best collective agreements in the maquila. But when the maquila moved the union disappeared.

As soon as workers in the maquila began organizing and achieving favorable results, the transnational companies would move their capital to other countries. The workers' movements thus waned and in the 1980s, only the movement in Tamaulipas, primarily made up of workers at Zenith in Matamoros, was alive.

Today, there is a broader movement extending along the northern border of Mexico. It ranges from small groups of workers to struggles for independent unions. It is still a small, young and relatively silent labor movement.

Organizing in the Maquilas

Organizing in the maquila begins in the factory along production lines and in departments. It must be organized clandestinely. How long the organization can be maintained often depends on solidarity. Although maquila workers' movements start for various reasons, such as low salaries, mistreatment, sexual harassment and recently labor and reproductive health, most of them result in the search for independent union organization, outside the corrupt phantom central unions.

Given the conditions inside and outside the maquila, and the fact that the majority of maquila workers are women, the forms of organization are just beginning to be defined by the women themselves. We speak of a "model" of organization, since they are being built through trial and error.

The meaning of these new forms of organization in the maquila is that more and more women workers are conscious not only that their labor rights are being violated, but also their rights as women. Women are finding strength by developing their identity as women and as workers through the realization that they are the main generators of wealth - wealth which is not being reinvested in the country.

On the women working the maquila, who are inside the factories and suffer the working conditions, can produce a change. But this movement cannot advance without the unity and solidarity of the various movements mentioned here.

The labor movement being built by women maquila workers, and the links being developed, provide a new dimension for the union movement. The labor movement of today must contemplate a broader spectrum of demands and forms of organization that include labor, union, gender, anti-racist, and environmental organizations. In the case of the environmental movement, it is important that it emphasizes the human aspect of the environment. maquila are an environmentally racist form of production, affecting first the women workers on the production line and then the living environment of the community.

It is of utmost importance that the democratic union movement of Mexico see organizing in the maquila as a priority, something that has not yet been done. There is also an important role for other labor or solidarity movements, both those in the country from where the transnationals come (such as the US) and the southern countries where the maquila are being located.

The effects of NAFTA, such as the worsening of living conditions for the working class and women in the US and Canada, have resulted in the movements in these countries approaching Mexico. There are important links being developed between various movements, including union, labor and women organizations in Canada and the US. Contacts are being made with similar movements in Europe.

In Mexico, during the Fourth Workshop of Women Workers of the maquila, held in Tijuana on June 23-25, 1995, a Network of Women maquila Workers with International Links was formalized. This is one of the first steps in a joint reflection and struggle, acting locally and thinking globally.

The experience in the development of the Network is an example of the combination of old and new forms of organization of the working class, of the community, feminist, internationalist and anti-racist movements.

The Network of Women maquila Workers with International Links was born from a series of workshops beginning in 1993, which were held in different cities along Mexico's northern border. These workshops were opportunities for meeting and training, and also for systematizing and building the organizational experience. The presence of women workers and women's non-governmental organizations involved in different organizational processes in Mexico, as well as the internationalist presence of women from Central America, United States and Canada, gave birth to this grassroots network based firmly in the region but with an international vision and contacts.

The women's support groups - which combine direct labor advice, training in human rights, and labor, reproductive and sexual health services, educational programs against sexual harassment and domestic violence - reinforce and promote resistance and organizing being developed by women workers in the maquila.

The local, regional, national and international solidarity networks help to raise awareness that conditions suffered by both women and men workers is not restricted to a single country of the North or the South. We all, women and men, are being subject to intents of submission, of bringing us back to slavery. We are being left only with our chains, which we must break.

Reprinted from Race, Poverty & the Environment, Summer/Fall 1996. RPE/Earth Island Institute, Box 29908, Presidio Station, San Francisco, CA 94129

Carmen Valadez is on the Coordinating Committee of the Mexico Network of Women Maquila Workers and on the Coordinating Council of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. Jaime Cota is with the Workers Information Center.

AMP Section Name:Trade Justice
  • 110 Trade Justice