Making Life Bearable In The Maquiladoras
Julia Quinonez maneuvers her 1985 Toyota van around the potholes in the streets of cinder-block houses in Piedras Negras, a town of 200,000 in the flat brushland on the Mexican side of the Texas border, 125 miles from San Antonio. She has spent the afternoon listening to workers describe their jobs, while she sips the Cokes she's invariably offered. The workers gripe about corrupt unions, express enthusiasm for training courses, and worry about workplace injuries.
Sitting in a dirt yard, Quinonez becomes animated as two women tell of a pregnant colleague who spends the working day on her feet. The woman is too frightened to tell her bosses she's pregnant and ask for reassignment. "You've got to encourage her, give her confidence," Quinonez exhorts the two women. She reels off the protections for pregnant workers under Mexican labor law.
TRENCH MATES. As she drives the van to the next neighborhood, Quinonez flaps her hand to stir the hot air. "This is the work I love," she says. "I love to be in the colonias with people."
Quinonez is one of a handful of labor activists, many of them fearless women who have come off the factory floor, now helping to improve conditions in the duty-free assembly plants called maquiladoras along the U.S. border. She runs the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), or Border Committee of Women Workers, which includes men as well as women. Although women workers face special problems, such as sexual harassment and discrimination against expectant mothers, the CFO does not focus exclusively on women's issues. Instead, the group's overarching aim is to educate workers about their rights and encourage them to demand change for themselves. Until badly needed labor law reforms are passed and enforced, groups such as the CFO, which operates in seven border towns, are often the only recourse for workers with grievances.
The million Mexicans working in maquiladoras are a mainstay of Mexico's thriving export economy, accounting for some $25 billion in exports in the first six months of 1998. Wages remain low, although many maquiladoras are sophisticated, capital-intensive factories. The average salary for workers in Piedras Negras plants is $50 per week. "They're producing at First World efficiency levels [and] Third World salaries," says Cirila Quintero Ramirez, a sociologist at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Matamoros.
TURNING A DEAF EAR. While the law provides adequate protections for workers, many factory managers ignore it, and compliant unions look the other way. So, backed by the American Friends Service Committee, the 17-year-old CFO is a voice for disenfranchised workers. It sets up workshops on safety, prods corrupt unions to stand up for members, guides workers through Mexico's legal system, and sends them to the U.S. to speak out about conditions.
Quinonez, 33, married and the mother of four, spent five years packing gauze bandages in a maquiladora, until she was 20. She began questioning conditions at 17, when the union came around collecting for a birthday present for the plant manager. "Why do we have to buy him a present?" she asked. "He's rich; we aren't." She is hardly a radical, however. Her rationale for teaching workers their rights is that "workers with a raised consciousness are the best ones. They know their rights, but they also know their obligations."
The movement is helped by Mexico's slow march toward democracy. In Mexico City, a debate bubbles concerning labor law reform. Independent unions are denouncing secret contracts signed by government-linked unions, which protect management from labor unrest. The CFO will send representatives to an October government forum in Mexico City to document cases of abuse of pregnant workers. A U.S. Labor Dept. report this year concludes that maquiladoras discriminate consistently against pregnant women, sometimes even firing them.
The CFO chooses its battles with care. Many border plants are clean, well-lit, and air-conditioned, and companies offer their workers lunches, transportation, and other benefits. But others flout the law, demanding illegal pregnancy tests from women workers, skirting safety procedures, and ignoring mandated severance payments. Local labor boards usually back management. Rebellious workers are blacklisted.
ROLE-PLAYING. Quinonez counts successes plant by plant. Her method is to "motivate people, give them self-esteem," she says. In one garment factory, for instance, workers were desperate for fans to suck up suffocating dust and fibers, but management ignored their requests. So they came up with a plan of action, first rehearsing the confrontation, with CFO volunteer Armando Velasquez playing the boss's role. "I always have to play the bad guy," he jokes. Then, on the appointed day, one worker allowed the dust to settle on her for an entire shift, instead of brushing it off. Later, blanketed with dust, the worker, accompanied by colleagues, confronted the manager, who agreed to phase in the fans.
Quinonez has picked up many tactics from corporate gadflies in the U.S. In 1996, using proxies belonging to the Congregation of Benedictine Sisters, Quinonez and two Mexican workers attended Aluminum Co. of America's annual meeting in Pittsburgh. They denounced deplorable conditions in ALCOA's joint-venture plants along the border, where dozens of people on the assembly line had been overwhelmed by toxic fumes. Shortly after the meeting, ALCOA fired key managers who had covered up the incident and raised wages in its Mexican plants by $5 per week. Now, ALCOA management regularly consults with the CFO on problems, although an Aug. 18 meeting in San Antonio was canceled because U.S. immigration agents wouldn't allow Quinonez and 10 workers into the U.S. But a glitch like that isn't enough to stop her. "They can take away 20 of us, and there will be 100 more behind," Quinonez says.