Making Fantasies Real: Producing Women and Men on the Maquila Shop Floor

September 25, 2007

In the early 1990s, I went to Mexico's northern border to study the role of gender in global production.[1] In Mexico, the bulk of such production takes place in maquiladoras (or maquilas)—export-processing factories owned by foreign (usually U.S.) capital. First established in 1965 on Mexico's northern border, maquilas employ low-paid Mexican workers to assemble U.S.-produced parts into goods to be sold on the U.S. market.

"Panoptimex" was the first plant I saw, and its shop floor fulfilled my most stereotypical expectations.[2] The "docile women" of managerial dreams and feminist ethnography, theory and nightmare were there in the flesh.[3] Rows of them, smiling lips drawn red, darkened lashes lowered to computer boards, male supervisors looking over their shoulders—monitoring finger speed and manicure in a single look. It was visible at a glance: femininity incarnate in the service of capitalism.

But the story would not prove to be so straightforward. Although the femininity enacted at Panoptimex appears to be imported from the women workers' homes and family lives, what is most noticeable over time spent in the plant is the amount of work dedicated to creating appropriately gendered workers. It has become a truism to note that globalization is fueled by the search for docile, dextrous and cheap labor, and Third World women are understood as "cheap labor" par excellence. Nonetheless, a closer look at an actual, live global factory suggests that this formulation puts the cart before the horse. Women workers are not always and already father-cowed, mother-trained and husband-supported. Rather, productive femininity is a paradigm through which managers view, and therefore structure, assembly work and through which they imagine, describe and define job applicants and workers. The people we think of as classic "women workers" are formed within these ways of thinking and being. Thus, it is a mistake to think that their presence in the factory makes global production possible. To the contrary, they are global production's finished product. Gender indeed is a significant aspect of globalization, but it is the rhetoric of "femininity," rather than the presence of flesh-and-blood women, that enables low-cost production.

All this is nowhere more apparent than in Mexico's maquila industry, where the image of the "woman worker" persists in shaping shop-floor relations, even in the face of a massive influx of young men into these feminized jobs. A closer look at the history of this paradox, and more importantly, an exploration of how the image of "femininity" operates on a particular maquila shop floor, make it possible to see the construction of "Third World women workers" in action and thereby to better grasp the role of gender in globalization.

The gendering of the maquila industry has a long and contradictory history. When the industry was first established in 1965, it was already framed in highly publicized, gendered rhetorics. Supposedly, its main purpose was to absorb the large number of Mexican men (braceros) who at the time were being expelled from their migrant farmworker jobs in the western United States. However, like managers of other export-processing factories in free-trade zones around the world, maquila hiring departments already had an image of "assembly workers," and male farmworkers were not part of it.[4] Advertising for "señoritas" and "damitas" throughout the border areas made clear—only young women need apply.[5] These policies were repeatedly, if indirectly, legitimated in public discussions by managers, union bosses, and political commentators, who all persistently invoked the superiority of women workers and the deficiencies of their male counterparts. In a typical article, a manager commented matter-of-factly: "Eighty-five percent of the labor force is made up of women, since they're more disciplined, pay more attention to what they do, and get bored less than men do."[6]

In the early 1980s, the image of the docile young woman began to crack. Interunion conflicts led to several strikes, bringing anomalous pictures of defiant women workers, sticks in hand, to the front pages of local newspapers. Shortly thereafter, peso devaluations dramatically cut wage costs in dollar terms, and the demand for maquila workers soared. This led to a shortage of young women willing to work at maquila wages and to an increasingly assertive attitude on the part of those already employed. Confronted by young women workers who did not behave like "women" at all, some managers faced by shortages turned to young men. By the end of the decade, men made up close to half the maquila work force.[7]

As a result of this history, a tour of the industry in the early 1990s revealed an increasingly paradoxical situation. Despite the large numbers of male workers, descriptions of the prototypically malleable female worker emerged again and again. In an interview held more than a decade after men began entering maquila jobs in large numbers, the head of labor relations for the Association of Maquiladoras still advocated hiring women, commenting: "Men are not inclined to sit. Women are calmer about sitting." Despite the increasing scarcity of the women purportedly described, the rhetoric of femininity persisted, shaping the decisions and expectations of managers and workers alike.

It was in this context that I began to ask how this persistent image operated in production, and how it was related to the emblematic, but—as I gradually came to realize—unusual women of Panoptimex. Over 18 months I studied four maquila shop floors. Three of these, including Panoptimex, were in Ciudad Juárez, the border city containing the largest number of maquila workers in Mexico.[8] One was farther south, having moved in search of the docile women workers who had become increasingly elusive at the border. Managers in three of these maquilas remained committed to the idea that assembly work is necessarily "women's work," and the fourth had let the image go, but only under pressure.[9] Thus, the image had effects across the board. Nonetheless, its impact varied dramatically across the plants, creating different types of shop-floor subjects with differing levels of productivity.

In the Juárez auto parts assembly plant, a group of U.S. managers were deeply wedded to the notion that the work was appropriately "women's work." Yet they could not attract enough female workers and succeeded only in antagonizing most of their male employees and provoking them to interfere with their female coworkers' production. In another auto parts plant located outside Juárez, Mexican managers were intent on showing that they were cosmopolitan: They dismissed the notion that their rural women workers were merely "traditional Mexican women" and organized them into teamwork and leadership training. This training used the rhetoric of assertiveness and self-discipline—all, of course, in the service of work output, and it evoked a distinctive, and highly productive, shop-floor "femininity." And in a Juárez-based hospital-garment assembly factory, responding to a distinctly "unfeminine" strike, Mexican managers deliberately turned to male workers, scrapping completely the image of the "feminine" assembly worker and consciously working outside that framework.

Thus, the rhetoric of productive femininity was always meaningful on these shops floors; yet it had distinctive effects on each of them, depending on the managers' senses of who they themselves were. Such managerial self-concepts set both the rhetoric of feminity and the labor control strategies within which it was communicated, in motion. It was only at Panoptimex, though, that I saw women workers who actually resembled the ones described in transnational accounts. At Panoptimex, therefore, we can excavate the construction of the paradigmatic feminine subject—by tracing the multiple forces that come together to bring her into being.

Panoptimex makes televisions, and it is managers' consequent obsession with the visual, in the context of the transnational rhetoric of feminine productivity, that decides what is the appropriate way to be a woman (or a man) in a particular place. At Panoptimex, labor control practices based on the heightened visibility of workers create self-conscious and self-monitoring women on the one hand, and emasculated men on the other. In this process, managerial framing generates, rather than simply takes advantage of, a particular set of gendered subjectivities and in so doing establishes order on the shop floor.

The plant manager is an ash-blond South American who has his sights set on being promoted to the company's metropolitan headquarters. He is obsessed with the aesthetics of "his" factory—repainting the shop floor his trademark colors and insisting on ties for supervisors and uniforms for workers. The plant is the company's showpiece in Mexico: a state-of-the- art facility whose design has been so successful that its blueprint was recently bought by a competitor building a second factory in Juárez.

The factory floor is organized for visibility—a panopticon in which everything is marked.[10] Yellow tape lines the walkways; red arrows point to test sites; green, yellow and red lights glow above the machines. On the walls hang large, shiny white graphs documenting quality levels in red, yellow, green and black. Just above each worker's head is a chart full of dots: green for one defect, red for three defects, gold stars for perfect days. Workers' bodies, too, are marked: yellow, sleeveless smocks for new workers; light blue smocks for more seasoned women workers; dark blue jackets for male workers and mechanics; orange smocks for (female) "special" workers; red smocks for (female) group chiefs; lipstick, mascara, eyeliner, rouge, high heels, miniskirts, identity badges... Everything is signaled.

Ringing the top of the production floor are windows. One flight up sit the managers, behind glass, looking—or perhaps not. From on high, they "keep track of the flow of production," calling down to a supervisor to ask about a slowdown, which is easily visible from above in the accumulation of televisions in one part of the line, gaps further along or in a mound of sets in the center of a line that also has technicians clustered nearby. Late afternoons, the plant manager and his assistant descend. Hands clasped behind their backs, they stroll the plant floor, stopping to chat and joke—just as everyone says—with "the young and pretty ones." The personnel department (its staff are titled "social workers") is entirely focused on questions of appropriate appearance and behavior, rather than on the work itself. "That's not manly. A man with trousers wouldn't behave like that!" one of the social workers tells a young male worker who showed his ex-girlfriend's letter to others on the line. "Remember this: It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice," she counsels a young woman who keeps getting into arguments with her coworkers. Behavior, attitude, demeanor—typically in highly gendered form—is evaluated here. Skill, speed and quality rarely come up.

Managerial focus on the look of things is reflected in the demographics of the workplace as well. Close to 80% of the plant's direct line workers are women. They sit in long lines, always observed, repeating the same meticulous gestures a thousand times over the nine-hour day. During the 1980s, when it became difficult to hire women workers and most Juárez maquilas began hiring men, the company went so far as to recruit a busload of young women from a rural village 45 minutes away. The company, calmed by the sight of the familiarly populated lines, for years provided the workers with free transportation to and from the factory. This economic decision, one not made by most companies in the area, suggests the way in which Panoptimex managers' visually oriented attentional practices heightened their commitment to the transnational image of the woman worker.

Lines are "operator controlled." The chassis comes to a halt in front of the worker; she inserts her components and pushes a button to send it on. There is no piece rate, no moving assembly line to hurry her along. But in this fishbowl, no one wants to be seen with the clogged line behind her, an empty space ahead of her and managers peering from their offices above. If she does slow momentarily, the supervisor materializes. "Ah, here's the problem. What's wrong, my dear?" For the supervisor is, of course, watching as well as watched. He circles behind seated workers, monitoring efficiency and legs simultaneously—his gaze focused sometimes on "nimble fingers" at work and sometimes on the quality of a hairstyle. Often he will stop by a favorite operator—chatting, checking quality, flirting. His approval marks "good worker" and "desirable woman" in a single gesture.

"Did you see him talking to her?" For the eyes of workers are also at work, quick side-glances registering a new style, making note of wrinkles that betray ironing undone. "Uuf, look how she's dressed!" With barely a second thought, women workers can produce five terms for "give her the once over." A young woman comments that when she started work she used no makeup and only wore dresses below the knee. But then her coworkers started telling her she looked bad, that she should "fix herself up." As she speaks, her best friend affectionately surveys her painted face and nails, and her miniskirted physique. "They say one's appearance reveals a lot," she remarks. Two lines down, another young woman mentions she missed work the day before because she slept too late. Too late, that is, to do her hair and makeup and still make the bus. To come to work is to be seen, to watch and so to watch and see yourself.[11]

The ultimate arbiter of desirability, of course, is neither one's self nor one's coworkers, but supervisors and managers. Workers gossip constantly about who is or is not chosen. For those (few) who are so anointed, the experience is one of personal power. "If you've got it, flaunt it!" a worker comments gleefully, looking from her lace bodysuit to the supervisor hovering nearby. This power is often used more instrumentally as well. On my first day in the plant, a young woman—known as one of the "young and pretty ones" favored by managerial notice—is stopped by guards for lateness. She slips upstairs and convinces the plant manager to intercede for her. She is allowed to work after all. The lines sizzle with gossip.

The few men on the line are not part of these games. Physically segregated from the women workers, they stand rather than sit, attaching screen and chassis to the television cabinet at one end of the line, packing the finished product at the other. They move relatively freely, joking and laughing and calling out—noisy but ignored. The supervisor is glaringly absent from their section of the line, and they comment disdainfully that he's afraid to bother them. Nonetheless, when they get too obviously boastful, he brings their behavior to a halt. Abruptly he moves the loudest of them, placing them in soldering, where they sit in conspicuous discomfort among the "girls," while the men who have not been moved make uneasy jokes about how boring it is "over there."

One young man says he came here intentionally for all the women. "I thought I'd find a girlfriend. I thought it would be fun." "And was it?" I ask. There's a pause. "No one paid any attention to me," he responds finally, a bit embarrassed, laughing and downcast. His experience reminds me of a story told by one of the women workers who returned to the factory after having quit. "It's a good environment here," she says. "In the street they [men] mess with us, but here, we mess with them a little. We make fun of them and they get embarrassed."

In the factory, to be male is to have the right to look, to be a "super-visor." As for the male line worker, standing facing the line, eyes trained on his work, he does not count as a man. In the plant's central game, he is neither subject nor object. As a result, he has no location from which to act—either in his relation to the women in the plant or in relation to factory managers.

What is striking once inside the plant is how much work is involved in the ongoing labor of constructing appropriate "young women"—and "young men"—out of new hires. Gendered meanings are forged within the context of panoptic labor control strategies in which women are constituted as desirable objects and male managers as desiring subjects. Male workers become not-men, with no standing in the game. These identities are defined by management in the structure of the plant, but they are reinforced by workers. Young women workers take pleasure in the experience of being desirable and in their use of this delicious if limited power in attempting to evade the most egregious aspects of managerial control. As male workers attempt to assert masculinity, they become vulnerable to managerial ability to undercut these assertions.

The gendered meanings and subjectivities developed here are familiar. It appears that Panoptimex managers have indeed found their ideal feminine workers, and simply supplemented them with the predictably rebellious young men of international repute. Certainly that is the managers' own understanding. Nonetheless, managers' beliefs are also a product of external rhetorics—in this case, discourses from their own national cultures and from the transnational industry they work for. Closer inspection reveals instead the localized operations of the expectation of femininity, as managers who are committed to the look of things go to unusual lengths to create the subjects they expect to see.[12] Thus, Panoptimex's docile women and emasculated men are local products, created through the self-fulfilling prophecy of management's hiring and labor-control tactics. Here we see the transnational rhetoric of femininity put into local practice.

Panoptimex is a compelling case not because it is typical, but because it is unusual. It stands out for the remarkable accuracy with which its workers incarnate—literally bring to life—the image of homegrown feminine docility, an image that in fact is generated not in their homes, but in transnational managerial rhetoric and imagination. Panoptimex workers are classic simulacra, embodiments of a fantasized reality.[13]

In focusing on the symbolic practices and formative descriptions of shop-floor life, rather than on gender demographics or managerial portrayals of workers, a distinctive set of social processes come into focus. We can see how subjects are evoked on the shop floor, rather than imported from outside the factory. And we can begin to describe the local conditions necessary for transnational images of docile feminity to be construed and acted upon. The workers of Panoptimex do not enter the factory with a gender identity that is already set, but neither do they automatically reflect managerial fantasy. Rather, managers are located within many discourses—the feminine worker is only one. Panoptimex managers also participate in a work world in which the visual is disproportionately highlighted. It is at the intersection of those two frameworks that the painted, permed and pliant Panoptimex woman emerges—born not of a Mexican father and mother, but of transnational perspectives. Panoptimex workers are as much global products as are the televisions they assemble.

Leslie Salzinger is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. This article is drawn from a larger comparison of the distinctive gendered meanings and subjectivities in four Juárez maquiladoras: Gender Under Production: Making Subjects in Mexico's Global Factories (University of California Press, forthcoming).

1. The research on which this article is based is part of a larger study of four maquilas done over 18 months in the early 1990s. I spent three of those months in Panoptimex. During that time, I spent every weekday wandering the shop floor, sitting in the personnel office or interviewing managers. Later, I interviewed ten workers I knew well in my home.
2. All the proper names used here are fictitious.
3. Donald Baerresen, The Border Industrialization Program of Mexico (Lexington, MA: Heath Lexington Books, 1971); also see Rachel Kamel, The Global Factory: Analysis and Action for a New Economic Era (Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, 1990); Norma Iglesias Prieto, La flor mas bella de la maquiladora (Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1987); Lourdes Beneria and Martha Roldan, The Crossroads of Class and Gender (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson, "Third World Manufacturing," in Feminist Review (London: Virago, 1986), pp. 67Ð92; Maria Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, For We Are Sold, I and My People: Women and Industry in Mexico's Frontier (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983); Annette Fuentes and Barbara Ehrenreich, Women in the Global Factory (Boston: South End Press, 1983).
4. Ruth Pearson, "Male Bias and Women's Work in Mexico's Border Industries," in Diane Elson (ed.), Male Bias in the Development Process (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), pp. 133Ð163; Altha Cravey, Women and Work in Mexico's Maquiladoras (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998).
5. For excellent histories of this labor market process, see Jorge Carrillo and Alberto Hernández, Mujeres fronterizas en la industria maquiladora (Mexico City: SEPCEFNOMEX, 1985); and Fernandez-Kelly, For We Are Sold. For an overview of the varied ways in which gender has figured in contemporary transnational production, see Aihwa Ong, "The Gender and Labor Politics of Postmodernity," Annual Review of Anthropology, No. 20 (1991), pp. 279Ð309.
6. El Fronterizo, (Ciudad Juárez), March 16, 1981.
7. In the late 1980s, the percentage of men on maquila production lines stabilized at close to 45%. See Avance de Información Económica, (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, Geografía e Informática [INEGI], 1991). Since then, the percentage has remained roughly the same. See Estadística de la Industria Maquiladora de Exportación, 1990-1995. (Mexico City: INEGI, 1996).
8. INEGI, 1996.
9. For a more complete discussion of these issues, see Leslie Salzinger, "From High Heels to Swathed Bodies: Gendered Meanings Under Production in Mexico's Export-Processing Industry," Feminist Studies, Vol. 23, No. 3 (1997), pp. 549Ð574; and Leslie Salzinger, Gender Under Production: Making Subjects in Mexico's Global Factories (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming).
10. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).
11. For further discussion of the role of sexuality in this process, see Salzinger, "Manufacturing Sexual Objects: 'Harassment,' Desire and Discipline on a Maquiladora Shop Floor," Ethnography, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2000), pp. 67Ð92.
12. See Salzinger, "From High Heels to Swathed Bodies," for an analysis of other modes of coping with the disjuncture between expectation and reality, as the managerial rhetoric of femininity produces recalcitrant subjects in the hands of less consistent managers.
13. "Simulacra and Simulations," in Mark Poster, (ed.), Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166Ð184.

Tags: maquiladoras, Mexico, women, feminism, labor rights

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