Special: writings inspired by the May 2012 delegation to the Rio Grande Valley to witness the human impact of immigration and free trade law and policy at the Mexican border:  click below to access the articles published in Social Justice Today.

SOCIAL JUSTICE TODAY  Fall 2012

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We never had a fixed production standard; we just had to make as many dolls as the supervisor wanted, the number demanded by the buyer. All of us girls stood in a kind of circle, and as the conveyor belt went by, some of us grabbed the dolls to dress them, and the rest did other things to the dolls. The pace was so swift that very quickly the dolls began to stack up. When that happened the supervisor would come to reprimand us, and we just got more agitated.

– Elena, a maquiladora worker.

 

One time I had just spoken with one of the girls about our treatment in the workplace, and right away the boss knew about it. All I tried to do was organize study groups for women who had never finished primary school, because their general awareness is quite limited. Some cannot even add or subtract, which indicates the kind of barriers there are to improving workers’ lives.

– Alma, a maquiladora worker.

 

The Maquiladoras: Licensed to Exploit, Profit, and Oppress

It is not difficult to pick out the setting of a maquiladora in a Mexican border city. Their physical infrastructure broadcasts power: state-of-the-art manufacturing, assembly and packing plants, modern industrial parks, huge truck parking facilities, powerful electric lights, massive water tanks, and in some, beautifully landscaped exteriors. The maquiladora zone is served by large highways, railroad tracks, and trucking terminals. Small airports serve trafficking between sister cities’ twin plants.Warehouses and assembly buildings are policed by guards and officials, who watch day, night, and weekends the entrances of grounds surrounded by tall chain link fences. The atmosphere communicates efficiency and the import and export movement runs as smoothly as possible. The loud sounds of machinery can be heard from a few buildings even late on a Saturday, giving the impression of a twenty-four hour operation. Across the street, in contrast, there are literally rows and rows of tiny shacks mixed in with the occasional string of company houses on unpaved streets. Some of the shacks in the colonias are made of tar paper, cast off pieces of industrial waste, cement blocks, and cardboard. The nicer company houses are brightly painted, but all are hovels in comparison to the wealth and power that emanates from the small industrial city of maquiladoras.

TO READ ENTIRE ARTICLE (pdf)Voices from the Barbed Wires of Despair: Women in the Maquiladoras, Latina Critical Legal Theory and Gender at the U.S. –Mexico Border (Vol 49 DePaul Law Review at 729, 2000).

Go to summary of this article

Continued…As of April 1999, there were 4,235 maquiladoras operating in Mexico. These industries were initiated as part of the Border Industrialization Program, a bi-lateral predecessor to NAFTA negotiated between Mexico and the United States in 1965.Their name is derived from maquila that once referred to the miller’s practice of keeping a portion of the grain as a form of payment. Today, the term maquiladora refers to the factories on Mexican soil that assemble raw material components of foreign- owned enterprises, most of which have been manufactured in America.Generally, they share the following characteristics:

(1) being American subsidiaries or contract affiliates under Mexican or foreign ownership;

(2) principally engaged in the assembly of components (e.g., radio cassettes, television, small appliances), the processing of primary materials or the production of intermediate or final products;

(3) that import most or all primary materials and components from American plants and re-export them to the United States; and that

(4) are labor intensive.

The maquiladoras are also repressive technological and management systems that in just a few decades have transformed the economic, political, and ecological landscapes of the Southwestern region we know as the U.S.-Mexico border. They have been labeled “the terror of the machine,” the historic legacy to the industrialization philosophy of Henry Ford, who introduced automation and the segmentation of workers into unthinking “factory idiots.” [At their core, the maquiladoras do seem to reproduce that mastermind labor philosophy, which viewed it essential for the competitive manufacturer in a capitalist labor economy to strip the worker of any independent possession of skill, knowledge, and power over the end product in order to achieve mass output.

The less the worker knows about the specific connection of a task to another, the better for the manufacturer since thinking prevents high-speed and mass production:

 

I handle thousands and thousands of pieces of card stock daily. I do up to ninety-five or one hundred boxes of 260 cassettes. That is I pack some twenty-five thousand or twenty-six thousand little boxes a day. I get bored, I get annoyed, I curse. I take a trip to the bathroom.

– Angelita, maquiladora worker.

 

In line with this Fordist labor philosophy the maquiladoras have indeed replicated its trio of essential elements–the five dollar day, assembly line production, and the “social department,” the presumed moral authority of the boss to dictate workplace rules of conduct on the line and outside the factory.

 

Yesterday . . . they put me on a task that I don’t do. They assigned me to put cassettes in the cases. I don’t know how to do that the way it’s supposed to be done. I don’t have any experience. The supervisor put me on it because I refused to switch from day to night shift for a few days. She assigned me the job as a form of punishment.

– Angelita, a maquiladora worker.

 

The price of mass production is not only a bored worker but one whose livelihood depends on being able to keep up with an incredibly fast pace of production. As one writer describes the attitude of the maquiladora boss, he is likely to ask himself at the day’s beginning, “how can I get the most out of my workers today, rather than how can I increase productivity?”There is never any concern expressed for the impact of high production quotas on the workers:

 

I have to work rapidly despite perspiration and back pain. If I don’t work rapidly, I don’t meet the quota; then I get nervous and they get on me. There is no feeling more desperate than seeing the pieces accumulate while your companions go on working. On various occasions I’ve had the urge to cry, scream, to leave everything and run out, to start some other job and to stop doing the same old thing.

– Angela, a maquiladora worker.

 

Meanwhile, business merchants of the new “transnational capitalist class” created by the maquiladoras have only praise for this booming industry whose draw to foreign investors is primarily the lowered production costs, i.e., the ability to pay workers in a devalued Mexican currency.An Internet homepage entitled, “Advancing Women,” under the Latino Business link, ironically describes the maquiladora industry as a “marriage of the best of both worlds.”Management firms dedicated to helping American businesses tout the benefits as (1) saving money by performing labor intensive manufacturing and repair operations; (2) enjoying the benefits of NAFTA for exports back into the United States and Canada; and (3) offering an attractive environment for maquiladora manufacturing and repair operations.

According to the Mexican National Institute of Statistics (“INEGI”) the maquiladora industry falls into seven broad categories: textile and garments, electrical and electronic, furniture and wood, services, chemical products, auto parts, and other industries.They employ over 1,000,000 workers in the borderlands alone, a trend which is only moving towards greater and faster development. Critics of the increased expansion argue that the impact of the maquiladora system on the workers is a very high price for modernization in Mexico.Indeed, to other critics the term maquis is a nickname for sweatshop,the “graveyard of American union labor,” or a labor policy that ties women to the “bonds of patriarchy and capitalist exploitation.”