The 'Maquila' Women

September 25, 2007

After she was deserted by her husband of only
two years, Rosario went to live with her mother,
Mariana. Her young brother, Gerardo, and two
aunts, Kica and Julia, also live there with their
two children. Kica and Julia are production
workers at clothing maquiladoras, as is Rosario.
They work to support themselves and their chil-
dren while Rosario works in the hope of moving
to a better home and affording her brother a
better education than the one she was able to
get herself. They all live now in a drab, two-
room adobe house in Juarez, Mexico, in sight of
the shimmering skyline of downtown El Paso,
Texas. Despite her youth, Rosario must always
consider her family's situation:
"When I see my mother and aunts laugh and
chat, I wish we were always happy. But the truth
is that we have many problems. My mother wants
to move to a different area because the barrio is
full of idle bums. They have no jobs. There are a
lot of unemployed men in this city. Mother does
what she can to take care of the house and the
children because neither Kica nor Julia can afford
a place of their own.
"Both Kica and Julia were living here when I
ran away with Carlos. He was my last hope! I
wanted to get married because I thought my situa-
tion could only improve. Carlos was a student of
architecture then. The first time we went out he
took me to 'Cafe d'Europa' and ordered straw-
berries with cream. I had two servings, just like an
elegant lady in a romantic novel. At sixteen I
became pregnant and Carlos married me shortly
afterwards. Then things changed. Even before the
death of my baby, Carlos had started to drink. He
dropped out of school and could not support me.
When he finally left me there was nothing to do
but look for factory work. I was fortunate to land a
job at RCA. They were expanding production and
hiring people; all women.
"Many could not be placed because they didn't
have enough education. But I went to school for
nine years and have some knowledge of typing
and shorthand. For a time I thought management
would find me a position as a receptionist or sec-
retary, but you need to speak English to even be
considered for that, so I guess I'll have to just keep
on doing assembly work.
"My shift runs from 6:30 in the morning to 3:30
in the afternoon from Monday to Friday. On Sat-
urdays I work from 6:30 to 11:30 a. m. -forty-eight
hours in total every week. On Fridays I get paid
1, 001 pesos (slightly less than $43). I give my
mother half of my weekly wage. Transportation,
meals at the factory and personal expenses take
care of the rest. I am buying a stereo system. At
least I can purchase that for myself. As long as I
work, I don't think I will get married again."
Rosario's story does not differ significantly
from that of thousands of Mexican women em-
ployed by maquiladoras. She is young, single
and childless, lacking support from either
father or spouse. Like many women doing as-
sembly work in CiudadJuirez -especially those
in the apparel sector-Rosario belongs to a fe-
male-headed household with children. (Even
14SeptIOct 1980
more frequent is the case of the young daughter
who contributes to the support of both parents
and siblings.) Although fathers, brothers, hus-
bands and other male relatives may live under
the same roof with these young women, evi-
dence indicates that the majority are either un-
employed or underemployed.
Seen in the context of Latin America, maqui-
ladora workers represent a relatively recent and
unusual occurrence. In Mexico as a whole, less
than 1% of the women who work in the indus-
trial sector get jobs as direct production opera-
tors.' In CiudadJuirez, by contrast, almost half
of the total work force is composed of women
who work as maquila operators (85% of the ma-
quiladora work force is female).
In the Mexican-American border area, ra-
cial, ethnic, national and religious differences
are generally non-existent. Gender takes their
place as a way to divide the labor force. Like
Blacks or Latinos in the United States, women
are preferentially hired to perform some of the
worst paid and least rewarding jobs. This pre-
ference depends on stereotypes of and prejudice
directed against the group in question. Of
course, from the point of view of the maquila-
dora managers, the prevailing ideological con-
ception of women workers provides the neces-
sary flexibility that adaptation in a fiercely com-
petitive international market demands? Their
identification as submissive and supplementary
income-earners tends to prevent women from
acquiring legitimate status and being able to re-
tain their jobs over extended periods of time.4
The two main industrial sectors making up
the maquiladoras- electronics and apparel-
offer very different conditions. The former, a
relatively stable and capital-intensive sector, re-
sults in highly selective employment practices,
i.e., women should be single, 17 to 25 years old,
childless and with at least six years of formal
education (compared to the average 3.8 years
for Mexican workers in general) ? In many cases
workers must be available for morning and
night shifts, and to get the job must pass one or
several manual dexterity tests and a pregnancy
exam. Such selective recruitment policies can
be implemented due to the abundance of wom-
en searching for jobs in an environment where
unemployment and underemployment reaches
30% ?
In apparel, on the other hand, the precarious
nature of the industry, due to intense competi-
tion, combined with a relatively low capital in-
vestment per plant, means that it tends to em-
ploy workers whose position in the local labor
market is weaker than those hired in electronics.
There are a larger number of older women
(their average age is 26 as opposed to 20 for
workers in the electric/electronic branch);
many are single mothers who represent the only
means of support for their children. Many have
sought employment after being deserted by
their husbands or after losing economic support
from men belonging to their households. In-
deed, one third of all women in apparel manu-
facturing in Ciudad Juirez are heads of house-
holds. 7 They also have lower average levels of
schooling than workers in electronics.
A large number of assembly workers in the
maquilas (some 70%) migrated to Ciudad
Juirez, but only 3% came from a rural environ-
ment, and their average length of residence in
Ciudad JuArez is 14 years, having typically ar-
rived in the city as children in the company of
their family. Only a small proportion left their
hometowns as unaccompanied young women
with the explicit purpose of finding a job in the
Many have taken courses in commercial
academies or have studied to become profes-
sionals such as nurses or computer technicians.
Yet particularly in electronics, the majority
(60%) of the women had held no prior jobs, and
in the apparel sector, approximately 30% were
employed for the first time. Of the others, many
had been maids, either in Ciudad Juirez or,
usually without documents, in El Paso.
Among those interviewed, the consensus was
that maquiladora work offered the best employ-
ment alternative in Ciudad Juirez, a striking
revelation inasmuch as assembly operators earn
an hourly wage of $1.00 and work 48 hours a
week. Domestic work in the U.S. border towns is
more rewarding and clerical work is more pres-
tigious, but maquila work is less risky than the
former and requires less training than the lat-
ter. Despite the rigorous work pace and incon-
venient schedule, the subsistence wages and the
access to medical care for themselves and their
dependents- one of the "fringe benefits"- are
vital to these women!.
This is particularly true given the size and age
composition of their households. While the av-
15NACLA Report
erage number of household members in Ciudad
Juirez is 5.3, the average for maquila workers is
seven, three or four of whom are likely to be un-
der 14 years of age.' Even more important is that
the majority of men belonging to the same
household are either unemployed or underem-
ployed due to the scarcity of viable employment
alternatives for men.
The result of this convergence of economic
realities has been the swift transformation of
women into the main providers of stable and
regular income for their families. The pertinent
question then becomes: how does the participa-
tion of women in wage labor affect family struc-
ture and organization? In a country in which,
for better or worse, women aspire and are en-
couraged to become mothers and/or house-
wives, does factory work necessarily indicate an
expansion of alternatives for women or their
families? In short, will it bring about an im-
provement of women's political and economic
position within and outside the household?
Maquila Mythologies
Impressionistic judgments and lack of empir-
ical information have joined to generate a par-
ticular mystique, a nascent folklore, around
maquiladora work and workers. What is note-
worthy about these perceptions is their pro-
found ambivalence toward female employment
and its consequences. Women workers are
trapped both by traditional suspicions about
their participation in the world outside of home
and family, and by corporate programs design-
ed to reinforce the submissive "feminine"
behavior that they have been taught all their
lives. According to one common opinion, for
example, the maquiladora program has ef-
fected a kind of "emancipation" by affording
women the opportunity to earn their own in-
come. Women, it is argued, can now spend
money on clothes, jewelry and entertainment.
This has led to the proliferation of clothing
stores, discotheques and bars, an avalanche of
consumer advertising in local newspapers, and
a swarm of seductive opportunists waiting at the
plant gates on payday.
On the other hand, critics of maquilas claim
that a role reversal takes place which under-
mines traditional patterns of male authority
and the overall cohesion of the family. Not only
is this seen to have deleterious effects upon the
"house husband's" sense of manhood, but it is
also deplored for the alleged negative effect it
has on the welfare of children. According to this
view,, as women gain economic power,
daughters begin to challenge the authority of
parents, wives refuse to comply with the
demands of their husbands and, in general,
disrespect for "traditional values" becomes
rampant. This is extended to accusations of
growing promiscuity and moral looseness
among maquila workers. As a young woman
working at an electronics components plant ex-
pressed with worry, "There are those who treat
you differently as soon as they know you have a
job at a maquiladora. Maybe they think that if
you have to work, there is also a chance you're a
Public relations managers for the maquila-
doras have countered these accusations by
pointing to specific policies implemented to
reaffirm the value of femininity and a stable
family life. Some companies offer courses on
human sexuality, birth control and home eco-
nomics to their workers. Annual beauty contests
are held and, in many plants, operators receive
red carnations on St. Valentine's Day. As is
clear by these maneuvers, corporate-style "lib-
eration" and more traditional expressions of
women's oppression thus reinforce each other,
defining the ideological framework within
which real conflicts and fears are allowed to be
Myth and promotional hype aside, the em-
ployment of women in these transnational as-
sembly plants has not inevitably led to gains in
autonomy. Nor is there any indication of signi-
ficant variations in family mores. In the vast
majority of cases, single daughters live with
their parents and siblings while these continue
to hold traditional positions in the family hier-
archy. Fathers are sources of authority. Mothers
take care of daily domestic expenses and are re-
sponsible for housework. It is not uncommon
for a young maquila worker to promptly trans-
fer all her weekly wage to her mother, who in
turn gives her a small allowance for essentials.
Indeed, only in a very small number of cases are
other housing arrangements found, e.g., young
women living with other single friends with
whom they share expenses.
Women's employment has not decreased
their responsibility for domestic chores. Of
16SeptlOct 1980
more than 100 married workers interviewed,
only one lived in a situation where her male
companion had taken full charge of housework
and child care while she acted as sole provider.
In the majority of cases, women have a double
work load.
Nina, for example, was employed at CEN-
TRALAB, one of the largest electric manufac-
turers inJuirez. Although she had worked there
almost three years, she was still on "temporary"
status, enabling management to circumvent
seniority and indemnification stipulations. For
a time, Nina's husband, Manuel, was employed
at the same plant. His earnings were being
saved to buy a larger house, a goal to which both
of them longingly aspired. When Manuel was
fired from CENTRALAB, he did not take over
any part of the domestic chores. He searched on
and off for a job but was unable to find one.
Finally he crossed the border without documen-
tation. For three months he was employed as a
maintenance worker in a factory in Phoenix,
While Nina worked the morning shift, her
two pre-school children remained in the care of
an elderly acquaintance-even when Manuel
was at home. She paid 100 pesos for babysitting
out of her weekly wage of 875 pesos (roughly $4
out of $37). Nina would retrieve the children on
her way home from work and stop at the barrio
store to buy groceries. She would then cook din-
ner and tidy up the small adobe house which
they leased for 500 pesos ($20 a month). On Sat-
urdays, Nina washed and ironed clothes. She
also put her background as a beautician to use
by cutting and setting her neighbor's hair.
Although Manuel sometimes drank in excess
and beat Nina occasionally, she earnestly
prayed for his return from the United States.
But when he finally returned with the intent of
moving the family to Arizona, Nina was reluc-
tant and afraid; she would have to leave her
whole family behind. Nevertheless, she de-
ferred, and on a Sunday afternoon, someone
helped them cross the border at a relatively un-
supervised spot.
Nina's not uncommon experience clearly
does not suggest a shifting sense of shared re-
sponsibilities, nor an increase of women's parti-
cipation in decision-making- either on the job
or in the household - as a result of their factory
More difficult to evaluate is the connection
that some see between maquiladora work and a
change in sexual mores. Extensive interviews
with maquila workers indicate that their per-
ceptions, attitudes and aspirations conform to
traditional feminine definitions. Women often
see their working status as temporary. They
eagerly anticipate the prospect of marriage and
motherhood, linked to their retirement from
the work force. More importantly, they share a
conventional differentiation between "decent"
and "indecent" female behavior. To be con-
fused for a prostitute is cause for grave preoccu-
However, "decency" may be a difficult asset
to preserve. The limited economic options of
working class women is the reality in which they
must come to terms with their sexual identity.
Sexual harassment on the job is not uncommon;
in many cases women complain that middle
management and supervisory personnel ask for
sexual favors in exchange for job security.
Women are particularly vulnerable to advances
made by men who have a superior status in the
professional, economic and educational hier-
archy. Some women, seeing their sexuality as
the only viable means to gain access to employ-
ment, offer themselves to men in decision-mak-
ing positions. Some evidence indicates that loy-
alties won through romantic entanglement can
be fruitfully used by employers to insure effi-
ciency and docility on the job. Thus it moves
from a moral issue to one with vivid practical
In sum, the feeble economic and political
position that women have in Ciudad JuArez has
fettered any advances in consciousness these
women have achieved as a result of their expe-
riences. They have thus far been unable to
erode female subordination, challenge estab-
lished norms, or even achieve solidarity on the
basis of class and gender. Mague, a maquila
worker, summed up the predicament that she
and her sisters confront on a daily basis:
"No matter how you look at it, we are in a bind.
Either as husbands, lovers or managers. men have
power over us.
17NACLA Report
Women and the Church--even there, class divisions alter the experience and, increasingly, the religious message.
Many aspects of women's lives in Latin Amer-
ica are not unfamiliar to those of us who live in
the United States. And issues that are pushing
to the surface there--such as equal pay for
equal work, the special needs of working wom-
en, and access to safe birth control and abor-
tion- remain the goals of our own struggles.
However, despite these shared specific con-
cerns and the generalized subordination we all
confront, the differences between the situation
of women here and in Latin America should not
be minimized. These differences lead us to ex-
pect that a richly different women's movement
will emerge, with its own timetable and ap-
proach to the issues.
Women as a group in Latin America have of-
ten been derided as conservative and reaction-
ary. But when a woman's only source of
strength, respect and financial support lies in
her family, for all its contradictions, she cannot
be expected to attack it if an alternative is not
readily apparent. The same holds true for the
Church, which has often been the only accept-
able opportunity for public participation and
self-expression. Resorting to the mercy of the
Virgin does not indicate an innate conservative
streak, but a last resort when no real power to
change one's own life exists. This lack of options
"causes [women] to support the very institutions
in which they are oppressed."
Moreover, the sharp class divisions in Latin
America have produced a situation in which
women from different classes have little in com-
mon, even at the family level. Middle class
women, in part because of the advances already
made by women in the more developed coun-
tries, have been able to gain some limited vic-
tories like suffrage, access to education and pro-
fessional jobs with less difficulty. Moreover they
have not begun en masse to question other cul-
tural or psychological aspects of sexual oppres-
18S.ptlOct 1980
sion. "The consequence of this is an absolute
lack of solidarity with other women and a denial
of the fact that they belong to a social group
which has specific problems. It is common to
hear these women say that they have never expe-
rienced discrimination as women.., and that
they are in total disagreement with feminism."
The gap between the majority of women and
the small elite may be so vast, their experience
of sexual oppression so different, as to severely
constrain a common effort to combat discrimi-
nation, much less engage in a broader common
There are also unique conjunctural factors
which can be crucial in determining the course
and pace of the process. While it is true that
more women in Latin America are working
than ever before, the general conditions are far
less in flux than those of the 1960s which gave
birth to the women's movement in the United
States. It is not a time of economic expansion in
which the demand for women's labor is drastic-
ally increasing; it is not a time of open and lively
debate about social values; and it is not witness-
ing the emergence of large numbers of educated
women running up against the double day,
anachronistic constraints on their behavior or
rigid walls of discrimination in the male-domi-
.nated professions. Instead, it is a time of wide-
spread repression, rampant unemployment and
poverty for the region's working class and peas-
antry, heightened class tensions and disloca-
tions, and a search for revolutionary political
Women bring to this context a limited history
of political activity. While small movements for
the vote have existed, for example, they were
not as extensive as the suffrage or birth control
movements in the United States. Notwithstand-
ing the fact that much of women's involvement
has been hidden from history in Latin America
as elsewhere, active political struggle there has
in fact been decidedly male.
The notion of women's liberation is still for-
eign to most Latin Americans. Yet significant
signs of change have appeared. The idea of a
Gay Pride march in a place like Mexico City
would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Yet one occurred this year, attended by approx-
imately 6,000 people. And while most people
would still define themselves as opposed to
"women's lib," the topic is in the air. No longer
can the public sphere of production in its eco-
nomic sense be viewed as the only valid arena of
struggle. Social relations and the politics of re-
production are not only as important in deter-
mining our lives, but they are inextricably
linked to the politics of production.
The struggle for women's liberation in Latin
America, as elsewhere, has to be one that chal-
lenges the use of sex to determine what a person
can or cannot do, and the division of labor, in its
broadest sense, which emerges from these stere-
otypes. It must struggle for equal opportunity
for all people, legislative freedom, and control
over one's mind and body. Moreover, it must be
a broader struggle for a social system that does
not exploit those gender distinctions to extract
cheap women's labor, to use sexuality for profit,
and the like. Ultimately, it does not imply a
fight for equal access to exploitative and alien-
ating work, but for a social system in which peo-
ple are truly free to control their own lives.
1. G. Gonzalez Salazar, "Participation of Women in the
Mexican Labor Force," in June Nash and Helen I. Safa,
eds., Sex and Class in Latin America (New York: Praeger,
1976), p. 188.
2. Helen I. Safa, "Multinationals and the Employment
of Women in Developing Areas: The Case of the Carib-
bean," Paper prepared for the Latin American Studies
Association (Pittsburgh, 1979) and "Class Consciousness
Among Working-Class Women in Latin America: Puerto
Rico," in Nash and Safa, eds., Sex and Class.
3. Ratil Trajtenberg and J.P. Sajhau, "Las empresas
transnacionales y el bajo costo de la fuerza de trabajo en los
paises subdesarrollados," Working Paper No. 15 (Geneva:
International Labor Organization, World Employment
Program Research, 1976); "U.S. Runaway Shops on the
Mexican Border," NA CLA's Latin A merica & Empire Re-
port, Vol. IX, no. 5 (May-June 1975); "Capital's Flight:
The Apparel Industry Moves South," NACLA 's LA & ER,
Vol IX, no. 3 (March 1977); and "Electronics: The Global
Industry," NACLA's LA & ER, Vol. XI, no. 4 (April
4. Safa, "Multinationals and Employment;" and
"Women, Production and Reproduction in Industrial
Capitalism: A Comparison of Brazilian and U.S. Factory
Workers," (mimeo, no date). See alsoJune Nash, "Certain
Aspects of the Integration of Women in the Development
Process: A Point of View," Conference Background Paper
- World Conference on the International Women's Year
(New York: United Nations, 1975).
5. J. Bayer, "Unidad coordinadora para el empleo, ca-
pacitaci6n y adiestramiento," Address before the Regional
Convention of "Maquiladora" Associations (Ciudad JuA-
rez, February 9, 1979).
6. J.R. Newton and F. Balli, "Mexican In-Bond Indus-
try," Paper presented at the Seminar on "North-South
Complementary Intra-Industry Trade" (Mexico City:
UNCTAD, United Nations Conference, 1979), p. 11. See
also, D. Nayar, "Transnational Corporations and Manu-
factured Exports from Poor Countries," Economic Jour-
nal, No. 881(1977), pp. 59-84, and K. Martin and P.
Tallock, Trade and Developing Countries (London:
Croom Helm, 1977).
7. The empirical information about "maquiladora"
workers in CiudadJulrez included in the following pages is
based on preliminary results of a sample survey conducted
by Maria Patricia Fernandez Kelly between September
1978 and February 1979. A random sample of 510 women
working as direct production operators at 14 plants were
extensively interviewed on questions of migration, income
SeptlOct 1980
distribution and family composition.
8. By Mexican law all "maquiladora" direct production
workers are affiliated to the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro
Social (the Mexican Social Security System) and earn the
minimum wage.
9. University of Texas, El Paso, The CiudadJudrez Plan
for Comprehensive Socio-Economic Development: A
Modelfor Northern Mexico Border Cities, 1977.

Tags: Women, maquilas, labor inequality, feminism

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