Just Breathe: Yoga for Maquiladora Workers

Just Breathe: Recovery for the Body of the Maquiladora Worker (2012) 

Elvia Rosales Arriola, Executive Director, WOMEN ON THE BORDER

What if Women on the Border, as an aspect of our mission to educate,  could take stress- relief training to the women in the maquiladoras?  What if some of that stress-relief training were grounded in the ancient practice of yoga or meditation?   Why would this be an appropriate project to begin with, and why should we try to seeking funding for it? A fellow Board of Directors member smiles and nods in enthusiastic agreement that this is a “fundable project.”   I love it when my Board members smile.  Josefina’s light brown eyes seem to twinkle and enhance the shine of her bright red lipstick, while Judy’s brown hair which  stubbornly refuses to gray, wraps a deeply pensive forehead with soft curls and an open mouthed grin that inevitably precedes the beginning of an often complex, articulate response.

Lively discussion followed as we connected the idea of another way for our small organization to fulfill its mission of supporting the empowerment and training of workers in the maquiladoras.  We had all met courageous working women through the Quaker sponsored NGO, Comitee Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO) (Committee of Women Workers at the Border) and had all heard either on delegations, workshops or conversations with a CFO activist,  the number one complaint from workers – the crushing standard work schedule in the U.S. owned factories.

While on the American side of the Rio Grande employers are governed by the expectations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires overtime payment after 40 hours, under the North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and now CAFTA,  U.S.-based multinational corporations have been free to adopt a minimum 48 hour work week.  That would not be so bad if workers could count on never having to work beyond the already tough schedule.  “They tell us on a moment’s notice that ‘You have to stay over, or you have to work another day this week to meet a production schedule.  We can’t say no or they threaten us with docking our pay, insubordination or even firing us.”

A number of us had heard words like these that workers had repeatedly offered to describe the attitude toward the worker’s needs by companies operating under NAFTA who supply the U.S. market economy with appliances, cars, computers, cell phones, clothing and toys all along the 2,000 mile Mexican border.  Why in fact, try to keep a “difficult” worker when she can be easily replaced by ten more desperate for work and less likely to turn into a worker who voices complaints about her working conditions?   That’s why it’s more typical to hear from workers that a standard work week includes 10-12 hours per day, and more often six days rather than five per week.  “A.” , a woman Director Rosenberg and I met in Ciudad Acuña  in 2005 worked in the ALCOA factories and helped out her daughter with childcare when A.  herself wasn’t working.  Driven by the higher cost of living at the border and the depressed wages that are typical in that city A.’s daughter endured a 12 hour workday six days per week in order to bring home 950 pesos per week, or about 95 U.S. dollars.  As a single mother she couldn’t afford not to work.

Of course the effect on the body of this standardized treatment in the factories that bring American consumers a range of increasingly cheap household, office and automotive goods in today’s globalizing economy can be devastating to a woman’s long term health.  “They penalize us for taking breaks and going to the bathroom. So I learned to hold it and got very sick with a bladder infection.”  When I interviewed R. in her tiny home in one of the government subsidized housing projects for maquiladora workers I expressed some confusion about the meaning of being penalized for going to the bathroom.  We sat in her incredibly tiny home which housed her, R.’s husband and her three children in two, what seemed to me like closet-sized bedrooms, with an attached larger room that was divided into living/ dining/ kitchen and that opened out to the pinched space of a patio holding a wash sink and faucet.  I remember thinking at the time that the entire house could fit in my own dining room, living room and kitchen in my Austin house.  Out of the corner of my eye as we chatted, I could see the ceiling high piles of clothing and children’s toys taking up half of the available space in the childrens’ room.  (Always in the back of my mind when I visit workers in their homes is the silent thought – how do they live in this space?  Where’s the privacy for the little girls?)

R. offered me coffee that morning as she answered my questions that I’d been asking many workers as a way of understanding the health effects of the stress filled maquiladora industries that up until then I’d only read about in one or two sociology texts.  I later understood that R.’s story about her bladder infection and the standard disciplinary methods in the high production factory is  all too common a complaint, especially among female workers.  And it makes sense if one thinks of how important it is for a factory trying to meet the demands of the competitive export processing market that a worker’s continuous production is deemed essential.

In assembly work one worker’s mindless repetitive task is connected to that of another, and another down the line.  If one leaves it slows up the next person.  If that person’s task slows down the whole line is waiting.  Running to take even a quick pee in a factory, like ALCOA, likely to house 11,000 workers in six plants and one city alone at the border, can result in loss of time in the sheer walking distance of a work station to a toilet facility.    So unscheduled breaks present a “problem” to the production manager, who responds to the factory owner, who submits reports to corporate headquarters, who in turn report to the shareholders.     R. said, “I got to the point where I was so good at ignoring my bladder’s signal that I lost all sensation.  Now I couldn’t go and I got very sick.”

As the Women on Board meeting continued we each might have been drawing upon any one of dozens of memories gathered from delegations to the border and encounters that have formed the basis of a solidarity connection with the CFO membership.  In the spirit of supporting women whose lives at the physical border are affected by the metaphoric borders of race, class, age and nationality, we dared to think about a rather subversive project — getting a health counselor or yoga teacher or stress management trainer to visit with the women of the CFO for a few days or weeks and leave behind as we return to our privileged lives  a bit of new potentially empowering or healing information.

As a practitioner of yoga the number one lesson I recall from my own teachers is to listen to your body.  Treat it with respect.  Give it the room to breathe and to heal.  Practice small techniques for relieving stress. Of course, something like holding toxic fluids in is an extreme example.  Probably no yoga technique could help a driven worker ignore her body’s need for detoxification.  Unless she fully internalizes the guiding principle of self-respect and turns the courage to change from victim to survivor into a way of living and working.

Which is what the CFO does by having workers teach each other how to read the labor law text of their country, how to apply it to a problem or even how to practice through role-play how to respond to the abusive demands of a harassing supervisor. Few workers manage the transition without risk.   R., like many workers whose ambition to excel on the line has intersected with the arbitrary discipline of a typical maquiladora, eventually rebelled.

I remember liking R. a lot, not just because we shared a middle name, but because she opened up to talk about other issues that she felt were important to the working women at the border – like domestic violence.  We continued chatting long after I’d finished the cup of coffee and when I returned to Texas I carried the image of her and the feistiness of her sister N. , mother of six who also worked at the factory with R. and was her nearby neighbor at home.   After R. ’s severe bladder infection her attitude changed about factory expectations and worker treatment.

She began to speak up on her behalf.  She began to question the disciplinary tactics designed to do one thing – get more out of the worker for less.  What did she get?  “They marched us out of the factory in front all the other workers as if we were criminals,”  N. responded as I furiously wrote in my notepad, knowing it would be a very long time before I could transcribe the recording of my interview with her. The supervisors knew RE.  and N.  were related so they rid the factory of what they viewed as two troublemakers who might stir up a factory full of workers to protest against the system that keeps their employers competitive in the global market.

I remember how nervous I was at first about proposing such an idea as a WOB project.  Who’s going to go for this I first thought.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that all the members of the Board understood and agreed,  and that we could turn the rest of the discussion time for this agenda item to ideas for finding some money to fund the travel and expense of a teaching experience for CFO activists.   Another little vision for empowerment had been birthed at the annual WOB Board meeting.  Taking to committed CFO activists some introductory stress relieving techniques that they can pass on to other workers who face an employment system that dehumanizes their bodies by turning their arms, legs, eyes, fingers and heads into machinery parts that must work fast, faster and even faster, day in and day out, with tiny little breaks in between.

As U.S. based allies there’s not much more our little organization, Women on the Border, can do to change the system.  We can’t change the free trade law that supports the corporations and the management styles of the subsidiary factories they own.  As a nonprofit 50lc3 we can’t even legally lobby for any kind of change in the legislation that supports the whole free trade agenda for the U.S.A.’s market economy. We can’t do much to change the indifferent attitudes of the Mexican government officials who don’t enforce well enough the relevant health and safety laws the factory managers are supposed to enforce according to the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) signed on the same day in 1993 that NAFTA became law with President Bill Clinton’s signature.

Both liberals and conservatives have welcomed the prosperity that generally followed the implementation of the NAFTA and most recently CAFTA. But we can help a group of committed workers turned activists to reclaim the humanity of the worker through knowledge, empowerment and training to force the more abusive employers to obey the law.  This year it may be a set of stress relief classes.  Next time it may be a bit of fundraising to help the CFO buy a fax machine for a new volunteer in their ranks.   Or maybe school supplies for the children of workers.  It doesn’t seems like much but the CFO activists welcome the help so that one more woman can attend a workshop on labor rights and not worry that she hasn’t worked enough at the miserly piece rate wages to buy her child’s annual school supplies.

I recently heard the organizer of a major women’s conference in California say that supporting another woman’s empowerment can be an empowering act itself.  I so agree.  I am sometimes overwhelmed by the responsibilities associated with running a nonprofit corporation while also teaching law and doing the rest of my life.  And then I meet one more woman working in the factories and I hear her story and I see what courage and strength it takes to endure and survive.  And I am inspired and we go on and have another meeting and try to do just a little bit more to fulfill our mission.   We got to the end of the spring 2007 Board meeting where the topic of the yoga de-stress techniques with renewed energy and a daunting new task – find a source of money.

Board member Blevins remarked, “I may have connections to the Selma Hayek Foundation or to Eva Longoria.”  Another member said, “Hey, isn’t Jennifer Lopez doing a movie on the murders in the maquiladoras? Maybe we could present our stress relief project idea at a screening of the film and round out the discussion about the murders with hard analysis about globalization…” That was me talking and it opened up another long and lively discussion about the WOB “dog and pony show” fundraising possibilities for education of U.S. consumers who are happy to pay less for everything from furniture to Christmas decorations, but never realize that there’s a woman’s story behind the label and the price tags that characterize today’s global economy.


Interviews with R.  M. and N.  M., Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, September 2000 (Women on the Border research files. – Full names removed).

North American Free Trade Agreement

Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement

@Elvia R. Arriola (2010)


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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