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Women of the Maquilas
by Dana Cunningham, Huron Valley Greens
Rosalinda came to Nogales with her two small children to work in a maquila (a foreign owned factory or assembly plant) while she attended night school. She lives in a colonia with her younger sister, two brothers and a sister-in-law who is expecting. Rosalinda works nights as a seamstress in a garment factory and has had to send her children back to Navojoa to live with her parents. Living in the unheated shack of cardboard and wood, her two children developed bronchitis. She thinks of them every night when she returns from work.
Often they are in worse circumstances than before, with their family life threatened and not enough money or hope to return home.
Three-quarters of the employees at the 2,000 maquilas along the US-Mexican border are women. The majority of these women are between the ages of 14 and 25 with only a few years of school. Their families have migrated to the border towns in search of a better life hoping they will earn enough to continue their education or to expand the opportunities for their children. Often they are in worse circumstances than before, with their family life threatened and not enough money or hope to return home.
They live in colonias, shantytowns constructed from the garbage of the maquilas. They have open sewers, no electricity, and drinking water is carried from areas where it is supposed to be safe. Few residents can read English warning labels. They often store the water in containers which once held toxics.
The factories prefer to employ young women like Rosalinda. They are fast, docile, well-disciplined workers, who do not question or cause trouble when pressured with increased production quotas and long hours at a monotonous task for sub-subsistence wages.
Yolanda began working at MagnaTek lighting when she was 14. She gives her wages, about $46.00 a week to her blind father. The combined wages of her and her older sister is all there is to support a household of 10 in an economy in which the cost of living is as much as in the US.
Although the legal working age in Mexico is 16, many girls begin work as soon as the factories will hire them. Working in the factories lets them stay close to home and familial responsibilities without the risk of crossing the border illegally each day to go to work. Their wages are given to the head of the household, often their mother, to contribute to the survival of her parents and siblings.
Viewed as undisciplined troublemakers, the men are mostly unemployed or underemployed. Men are more insistent when it comes to receiving enough pay and are more likely to organize. Many go over the border in search of work. It is easier for them, since they do not traditionally have child rearing responsibilities.
It is common for mothers to be widowed or deserted. These women work in the factories to provide for their children. The women with families and those with factory experience often have lower paying jobs than their younger counterparts. The employers claim it is because their added skills and experience are needed. These experienced women do not move as fast as their daughters. They have more responsibilities at home which can lead to absenteeism. They are more likely to have health problems, often work related. They are paid less than younger unattached women.
The turn over rate for these jobs is at least 50% a year. The industry blames the women, but gives them no reason to stay.
Many women will leave to marry, have a child, take care of children, or to rest and recover so she can get another job. Often she will leave voluntarily if her boss suggests it. Other times whole plants are fired before a promised bonus. Then new employees are hired. If NAFTA is passed, the conditions under which these women are forced to work and live due to economic necessity will proliferate.
If NAFTA does not pass, the factories will stay near the US-Mexican border as long as the free trade zone exists. As companies become part of the global economy they have divorced themselves from any personal responsibility or connection to their employees. We must not become frightened and divided. We must not let NAFTA pass unless it contains health safety and labor standards and a means to enforce them. For the life that threatens the Mexican People also threatens the people of the US.
Descriptions of the lives of Rosalinda and Yolanda were taken from the November-December, 1990 Utne Reader, originally from the Tucson Weekly and the May 6, 1991 U.S. News & World Report, respectively.