Women, especially poor women, continue to play a significant role in the work of global employment.  American companies have been relocating to Mexico since 1965, and with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, cross-border trade has expanded with new factories being built and jobs created.  However, fewer rights for workers at the Mexican border have been guaranteed.  As the working women’s group,Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), wrote in their 1999 report Six Years Under–  NAFTA, free trade had failed them.  Under NAFTA, wages and working conditions for maquiladora workers had gone from bad to worse.

One of the first systematic observations of the relationship between gender and the setup and operations of the NAFTA factories at the Mexican border appeared in the study La Flor Mas Bella de las Maquiladoras.  Norma Iglesias Prieto’s landmark study took a global view at the what was promised by the investment by U.S. companies at the border and what actually was happening to the workers.  Story after story based on her interviews with working women who were hired under the old Border Industrialization Program revealed the clear gender-based attitudes that affected everything from recruitment and hiring (nearly 100 percent women) to how women were treated in the factories.

Beginning in the early 1970s and 80, as American electrical, television, and stereo component companies, such as GE, Sony, and Panasonic, relocated to the border it was clear that women were the preferred employee.  Why?  Women were seen as ideal workers because their smaller hands and fingers could better assemble tiny parts of export goods, such as light bulbs, cassette tapes, and recorders. The “ideal maquiladora worker” was  a hybrid of gendered stereotypes based on sex, race, and class—she was not only more docile and passive than Mexican men, but submissive, easily trainable, and unlikely to pose problems with union organizing.

In the pre-NAFTA period Prieto’s study showed that workers were not treated well and standards for their safety in the workplace were a low priority because in the end their employers, major multinational companies based in the U.S. simply saw them as a “reserve army of labor.”   Therefore their training in low repetitive low skills tasks had one goal – to produce produce produce.  Not to train for an enjoyable set of skills, one to take pride in and certainly not to induce the idea that a worker might turn this job into a promising career.

Did NAFTA promise change in the emergent Mexican global economy of the 90s?  No. Not much changed under NAFTA.  Women have remained a higher percentage of the workforce: a younger woman in her teens is still preferred to an older, wiser, and more tired woman who is likely to question the bad pay and treatment or, even worse, may try to organize workers.

Post-NAFTA, the workers confirmed the continuation of these policies; the CFO wrote that NAFTA had caused  “. . . a sharp drop in the standard of living; a marked intensification of the labor process through speed-ups and other tactics, and a sustained campaign to undermine unions, labor rights and social protections.”

The activist women of the CFO concluded that other long-standing problems identified with the maquiladora industries, such as child labor and exposure of workers to toxic industrial waste, still plagued the border region.  Other blatantly sexist practices, like forced pregnancy testing, only stopped after international exposure of the practice.

Women, Gender and Globalization?

Most contemporary globalization talk focuses on the economic theories that either support or weaken the argument for it, such as free trade, capitalism, privatization, deregulation, and the relationship between market growth and social instability in new democracies.  Talk about the global economy hardly ever includes the experiences of the workers, nor does it focus on the fact that most of the global workers today whose labor is essential to the success of thousands of multinational corporate investors are female! Those who view gender and global trade as crucially related are still in the minority in academic discourse.

It is ironic that females continue to dominate as ideal workers in export processing zones, while females are also the consumers most often targeted by ad campaigns to buy the goods coming from these exploitative zones.

Feminist scholar Carla Freeman argues that globalization discourse is “bereft” of gender analysis because it is hard to connect the “global” with women’s stories and experiences or women-based movements for socio-economic change. The problem may be that overall globalization politics appear loaded with masculine power and focus.  It’s all about the money, the stock exchange, the talk about companies that need fewer taxes to creates jobs, or companies that don’t pay taxes and don’t create jobs at all.

If anything the big companies take the jobs outside of the U.S., outsourcing in order to be the winner in a global corporate race to pay the lowest possible wages, to get away from the workers demanding living wages through their unions.   In the mix is the unexamined status of the workers,  and of  explicit gender attitudes in the workplace that continue to determine conditions for workers who are simply unable on the indecent treatment and wages to properly care for their children and families.

We need to get gender into the discourse about the global economy!  One way is to move the talk from the big picture of shareholders and multinational companies who desire “free trade” and no taxes to the local picture of production and consumption of those goods produced in the global economy.  Take a look at the lowest level and see gender at work.



Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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