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 city. 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 whore." 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 articulated. 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, Arizona. 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 employment. 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- pation. 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 consequences. 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. a a a. 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 19 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 struggle. 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 alternatives. 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. THE 'MAQUILA' WOMEN 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 1977). 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 34 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

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.