Becoming Leaders: Women in the Maquiladoras of Piedras Negras, Coahuila

by Elvia R. Arriola, J.D., M.A.

As I think about returning to Piedras Negras, Coahuila for a second set of interviews this weekend with women maquiladora workers, I remember the faces of the first group of obreras I met through the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO, or in English, the Border Committee of Women Workers) who talked about their struggles as poorly paid workers and their continual efforts to obtain a true living wage for themselves and their co-workers. The CFO is a group of women workers who use home meetings to learn about their rights under Mexican labor law and develop strategies for asserting those rights without risking their jobs too much. I pack my bag and review the roadmap from Austin to Eagle Pass, Texas, glancing at the photos of the nine women who agreed to describe their experiences to me as I document the health hazards for maquiladora workers and their families in different cities. I feel inspired by these women’s courage to go on with their lives as workers, mothers and sometimes single heads of household whose physical, mental and emotional health is endangered daily by monotonous work that earns them about $30 per week, unsafe working conditions and the demand for higher production quotas.

As I continue my preparations I wonder if I will run into Amparo Reyes, who is 38, a single mother raising two teenage sons, and a longtime volunteer with the CFO. And I smile, remembering how Amparo cooked for me a simple meal of sopa de fideo and taquitos after our two hour interview. She is currently working for MalcoelMex where the pay is only about 400 pesos per week but, she says, the pressure to meet a production quota isn’t as stressful as when she worked at Dimmit Industries. While the pay is low she knows it will not drop. In contrast, she was fired at Dimmit for being outspoken about unfair worker treatment, especially in the imposition of piece work wages, and doesn’t regret one bit of her activism. “I tolerated them for a total of 8 years.”
When she began working for Dimmit around 1990, Amparo was surprised at how different the treatment of workers was at the border in comparison to a job en el interior when she worked for Tupperware in Toluca, Mexico. She remembers the Tupperware plant manager working right alongside the workers, a decent and customary comida grande offered the employees at a small price, decent Christmas bonuses and a profit sharing plan, and enough money on the weekends to take her two boys to the park and to the movies. She might have stayed at Tupperware but for the impact of a major strike that shut down the factory when the workers felt cheated by the role of the CTM union representative in having their yearly bonuses arbitrarily cut in half.
Because her father had worked on and off at the border for most of her childhood she was encouraged to find work in Piedras Negras. Amparo was hired at Dimmit to work sitting down for long hours sewing on the waistband to a minimum 1200 pairs of expensive dress slacks per day in order to receive the base weekly wage of 300 pesos and 200 pesos in bonus. But to make a more livable wage she produced for about six years at 150% of the expected quota or about 1800 slacks per day. Of course, at the end of the day her face was blackened completely by the lint and dust that escaped the poor ventilation system in the plant. She remembers the terrible coughs she endured almost all of the time as a result of the fibers distinctly visible in the surrounding air and settling on her skin and in her lungs. And of course there is the incredible exhaustion because in the maquiladoras a 10-12 hour workday is typical as is only a half hour break for lunch and a ten minute break in the morning. “I first thought, that’s just the way working conditions are here at the border. In time I began to see the injustices here.”

Knowledge about working conditions, low pay and resistance to independent union organizing in the maquiladoras is fairly well documented. Less well documented is the specific nature of the physical, mental and emotional injuries workers experience in the maquiladoras and the success or failure in having those injuries acknowledged, treated and compensated. With a public discourse that can at once decry the horrors of the typical maquiladora and at the same time say that some are “not so bad,” it’s easy to be left with an uneasiness about making generalizations. Any visit to a border city and personal engagement with the workers themselves will in fact reveal a range of concerns that go beyond the issues of limited purchasing power from an average maquiladora paycheck and the inadequate representation by the government-dominated CTM (Confederación de Trabajodres Mexicanos). Over and over, the CFO volunteers I’ve met urge that health and safety issues are a primary concern, whether it is prevention from injury due to the monotonous work, from exposure to toxic substances, or the exhaustion, migraines and stress from having to worry about the cost of basic needs or the fear of not keeping up with the production quotas. “They yell at us to hurry up,” says 39-year-old Maria del Refugio López Torres, about the supervisorial styles at Littel Fuse Co., where she assembles thousands of light bulbs and fuses per day. Marina Briones, who is 24 and works at Malcoelmex, which produces auto parts, uttered her biggest complaint as, “the typical workday [of 10-12 hours] is so long that I come home too tired to do any housework or to talk to anyone.” The NAO Complaint: Health and Safety Risks
Personal testimonies provide substance and direction to those engaged in social justice action at the Mexican border. In the maquiladora industry, because of the well known reprisal for efforts to engage in independent union organizing, anecdotal evidence can be crucial, even if the testimony gathered is anonymously taken in order to save someone’s job. On June 26, 2000, for example, a collective of workers’ groups at the border, human rights advocates and law school clinics filed a complaint under NAFTA’s labor side agreement before the National Administration Office (NAO) in Washington, D.C., complaining about the occupational health and safety risks at two auto parts manufacturing companies in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. The original data supporting the complaint had been brought to the attention of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), who worked with Professor Monica Schurtman at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio for over two years to establish the factual, scientific and legal basis for charging the Mexican government with failure to enforce the relevant health, safety and labor standards laws to protect workers at Auto Trim and Custom Trim/Breed Mexicana. ??Viewed as the next best thing to an actual lawsuit against a violating company, the NAO complaint at least provides a documented allegation by more than two dozen workers whose anonymous testimony identifies fairly typical realities in a maquiladora employee’s workplace. Among the allegations were: total lack of a health and safety infrastructure, poorly stocked in-plant infirmaries, the absolute disregard for worker health in the use of chemicals, glues and solvents, and the emphasis on production and quotas at the expense of training on the use of dangerous materials or concern for the physical or emotional impact of the long workday on a worker. As a result, severe musculo-skeletal damage (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome) and cuts and gashes are common, as are more subtle forms of long-term damage from exposure to toxic chemicals or because of poor ventilation. At least one fact from the NAO complaint of Matamoros workers bears strong similarities to the complaints of workers in Piedras Negras-the disabling fast and repetitive work, assured by the constant oversight of dozens of floor supervisors. Several affiants in the NAO complaint described musculo-skeletal damage from monotonous work patterns that have resulted in workers becoming permanently disabled even while still in their early twenties. As one 25-year-old anonymous worker said, “I do not have the strength to hold a glass or a book sometimes.” Another said, “in the winter time I cannot do anything because the pain is so unbearable.” ??Cheap Labor for US profits
Foreign investment at the Mexican border is not new. Upon the death of the Bracero Program in 1964, the Border Industrialization Program of 1965 opened the doors to U.S. companies all along the frontera. But it was President Clinton’s enthusiasm for the North American Free Trade Agreement that would radically transform the social, economic and political character of the nearly 2,000 mile long border. In opening the doors to free trade with Mexico, NAFTA was supposed to “improve working conditions and living standards in each Party’s territory.” Only the North American consumers undoubtedly reap the benefits today of a globalized economy; consider the dizzying choices we have to buy with the great U.S. dollar — from the latest styled vehicle and garment apparel, to the handbags, holiday gifts and wrappings, shoes, purses, gadgets, toys and appliances found on the shelves of the ever growing number of “outlet shopping malls” across this nation. There is hardly a household item on the shelves of America’s family department store that hasn’t been assembled by the backbreaking labor in a maquiladora or its equivalent sweatshop in other parts of the world.
The Dimmit Co., an exporter in the apparel industry, has six plants in Piedras Negras for a total of about 1600 workers. The slacks will be re-sold at anywhere from $40-150 a pair back in the U.S. economy while the workers who stitch them will earn anywhere between $25-45 dollars per week. The patterns of employment reported at Dimmit represent an apparent norm, at least for the large employer– a rapidly increasing style of competition in a globalized economy where investors strive to pay the lowest possible wage for the highest possible return. Yet, a simple glance at the living conditions of the typical maquiladora worker who often live in shacks built up with waste material and that lack running water , reveals no such promised “improvement.”
As of 1999 there were over 4200 maquiladoras spread out over the eight cities along the Mexican side of the border. The signs of increasing foreign investment are seen 24/7 in the clogging of traffic by 18-wheelers on south Texas highways as they head for the border with machinery and components to be assembled by desperate-to-work Mexican citizens. But the NAFTA-induced traffic is no longer making the border its final stopping point. The CFO volunteers I’ve met on two recent trips frequently mention the signs of further exploitation developing a few miles away from Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña. Piece work is being offered to be performed at home, where workers will assemble shoe parts and other small export products using unsafe chemicals, glues and solvents without adequate safety gear. I remember the drive in June between Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña and having a CFO volunteer point to humble shacks which were known to be engaged in household piece work where workers use their own water, their own lighting and even the labor of their own children to make a living, without ever being compensated for having turned their home into a virtual extension of the factory. The attraction to the remote villages? They are further away from the increasingly organized workers right on the border.
The CFO’s published critique of El Tratado de Libre Comercio (TLC) (i.e., NAFTA) calls the trade agreement “La Gran Mentira” (The Big Lie). That “Big Lie” told Mexican citizens that by signing NAFTA, Mexico would finally enter the First World economy, that liberal foreign investment would better the conditions of all Mexicans with the promise of higher quality jobs and a permanent rise in the income of the typical Mexican household. Instead, workers like Amparo Reyes have endured years of backbreaking labor not only for paltry wages but also with the constant fear that any resistance to their unjust treatment will result in being targeted for verbal harassment by their supervisors, being told to “quit if you don’t like it,” or being fired and subsequently blacklisted as a troublemaker among all the maquiladoras in their city. ??Workers Fired for Complaining

Such is the current situation of 31-year-old Juanita López Torres who was suspended from her job last June 5th because she was identified as a troublemaker, along with her co-workers Raquel and Norma Mendoza Sosa and five other Dimmit employees. While they await the results of a hearing on their charge of an unfair labor practice for the arbitrary two-year suspension, they daily come to terms with the knowledge that there is a price to pay for fighting for one’s rights. Raquel who is 30, and her sister Norma 38, recall June 5, 2000, the day they were suspended from Dimmit for two years per the order of the company and the CTM, Mexico’s officially recognized union. With an astonished look Raquel reported, “They marched us out as if we were criminals and we didn’t know why they were suspending us.” When we asked for an explanation they wouldn’t give it to us.” I told him you don’t have a legal right to do this. If you are terminating me I am entitled to my severance pay.” Raquel believes that she and a co-worker were suspended because they questioned the decisions a supervisor made over an incident involving the repair of a machine at their workstation. After nine years Raquel knew when a repair job was being done right or not. The mechanic who was assigned did not repair it and when he had to return a few times because it had stopped again, he tried to cover up his inefficiency by telling the supervisor that Raquel and her co-worker were just lazy and they didn’t want to work.

We told them that this mechanic didn’t know how to fix the machine. They eventually saw that the breakdowns happened because they ran the machines too fast. They then lowered the speed and that affected our production quota. We complained to the union representative and told them to look into the problem because just lowering the machine speed and forcing us to live on 200 pesos per week was not worth our coming in from 7 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon. ??An Injured Finger? Amputate

Personal testimonies also validate the worker’s realities by providing a kind of psychological satisfaction from exposing the emotional injuries that accompany the physical wounds or the institutional disregard for her well-being. The telling of the story gives historic meaning not only to the oppression but also to her active agency in history when one day she gives up the passive victim role and speaks up. Juanita Torres an ex-Dimmit worker, remembers the difficulty she had convincing first the in-house medic and then the Seguro Social that a severe rash on her upper body was caused by the chemicals in the fibers of a pant style they worked on for several weeks. Workers typically complain that most maquiladoras in Piedras Negras, with their cheap laminated warehouse style construction and few or no windows, make the workplace either too hot and stuffy in the summer or too cold in the winter. Juanita knew that the combined effect of poor ventilation, the dust and fiber particles and her body sweat had mingled and settled on her exposed arms and neck. With an even greater sense of horror, Juanita recalled an event illustrating how the poor medical treatment available to the workers can sometimes be worse than the injury. Because of the rapid pace at which the stitching machines are run, accidents involving fingers and hands are common. One such time Juanita had an injured finger that would not heal, all because the medic had bandaged it much too tightly, cutting off circulation. When they suggested the possibility of amputating her finger, Juanita ran out crying and didn’t go back. Instead, she ultimately healed the finger herself during her period of disability by patiently applying home herbal remedies. ??”Oh no . . . they can’t change me ever again”

All eight of the Dimmit workers suspended on the 5th of June, including Juanita, Raquel and Norma, out of 1600, had at one time or another questioned some aspect of their treatment by supervisors or the conditions of pay and now were suffering the penalty. But all eight found each other and together they appear to be strong in their determination not to give up the charge or give in to the pressure to take the legally mandated severance package, which they know would not be on their terms. With the help of CFO volunteers, they stood out in front of the plants and spoke to workers leaving the grounds telling them what happened and seeking their support. Eventually 150 workers joined them in a march through downtown Piedras Negras and before the end of the month of June, the movement had led to a walkout of all 1600 workers from Dimmit’s six plants along with a demand that a worker-elected committee of independent union representatives be recognized.
Raquel, Juanita and Norma remain, however, out of work. “Of the 150 who supported us and were also suspended, only 130 were re-instated; the other twenty had to accept a settlement on the company’s terms because they were all single mothers and the sole support of their families.” Raquel and the other members of the original eight who were unfairly suspended have decided to await the results of the hearing before the Conciliación de Arbitraje which settles disputes under Mexico’s labor laws. They have decided to pursue the claim of either re-instatement to their jobs or at least a termination that includes their backpay and an appropriate severance package. When I asked her if she felt the suspension for two years was due to her activism Raquel said yes, because with “the little bit we know [about our rights] we would not let ourselves be stepped on. If something about the job was affecting us unfairly, we would not be quiet.”

The movement for justice isn’t quiet at the frontera city of Piedras Negras which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary as a municipality of the State of Coahuila. The voices of women who are mothers, sisters, daughters and workers are appealing to the conscience of their employers, their privileged and overly bureaucratized union representatives, their government officials and to other workers in an increasingly globalized economy to unite for justice in the maquiladoras at the Mexican border. They are women who in simply fighting for their rights are becoming leaders of long overdue social changes in the border industries. As I pack my tape recorder and tapes I remember the moment when Amparo and I laughed heartily in our interview as she remembered why she had been fired from Dimmit after eight years. “They did it because I was organizing…for hanging out [with the CFO] as they say. Oh no… they can’t ever change me again.”


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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