THE MAQUILADORA WORKERS OF JUAREZ FIND THEIR VOICE
Companies are attracted to the border because of low wages and lax enforcement of labor and environmental laws. In 2013, the minimum wage in Juarez was less than 65 pesos a day (today about $3.88).
At the beginning of the NAFTA era, this low wage system was challenged by several attempts to organize independent unions. In 1993 a partnership between the Mexican labor federation, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT) and the U.S. union, the United Electrical Workers, mounted a campaign at the General Electric factory, Compania Armadora. Workers were fired, but pressure from UE members in U.S. plants forced GE to rehire several of them. Nevertheless, the FAT lost the election that would have given it the right to negotiate a contract.
Other worker protests took place in the same period. At Clarostat, a division of Allen Bradley Corp. (now Rockwell Automation) workers tried unsuccessfully to organize to raise wages. When one of them, Alma Molina, was fired and then tried to get a job at a GE plant, a manager told her that her name was on a blacklist.
Worker activism of the period was fueled by a wave of birth defects. Between 1988 and 1992, 163 Juarez children were born with anencephaly - without brains - an extremely rare disorder. Health critics charged that the defects were due to exposure to toxic chemicals in the factories or because of their discharges.
In the mid-1990s Mexican and U.S. unions cooperated in opening a Center for Labor Studies to help educate workers about their rights. It focused on the three factories owned by Lear Industries, which supplies car seats to General Motors. Lear still employs over 7,700 people in Juarez.
“When I was being hired, after the interview, they asked me when I would have my next period,” one worker explained. “They said I couldn’t actually start work until I had my period. On the first day of my period, I came back. The nurse was there, and she said, ‘Let’s see it, show me the sanitary napkin.’ They accepted me that same day.”
CETLAC director Guillermina Solis charged at the time that companies didn’t want to hire pregnant women, and even fired women when they become pregnant, in order to avoid government-mandated maternity benefits. Her allegations were supported by the Women’s Rights Project of Human Rights Watch.
Juarez’ worker activism of the 1990s, however, declined as the city’s women became victims of a notorious series of mass murders that terrorized them for a decade. By February 2005 over 370 women had been murdered since 1993. In 2010 alone 247 women were murdered, and between January and August of the following year, another 130.
The mothers of Juarez organized despite the terror to fight for the lives of their daughters. They charged that larger social forces are responsible for creating a climate of extreme violence against women. Juarez has become a huge metropolis built on the labor of tens of thousands of young women, overwhelmingly migrants, who have traveled north from cities, small villages, and rural areas in central and southern Mexico.
“While the city and its industry depend on them totally, they are important only as productive workers, not as human beings,” Rosario Acosta, mother of one of the disappeared women, explained in a 2003 interview. “We’ve opened the big door, our border to the U.S., in order to allow big multinationals to settle in our city. We give them a permit to do absolutely anything. They don’t have to guarantee the most elementary aspects of life, from wages women can live on, to basic service in our communities, or even just security.”
This year the business community of Juarez is celebrating 50 years of the Border Industrial Program, which opened the door to the maquiladora boom. In that time, two and a half generations of workers have passed through the plants. “They were always the fundamental part of production,” concludes Cuauhtemoc Estrada. “But the global economic model imposed on us by free trade meant the objective was always producing the most at the lowest cost. Now we see the result. And as difficult as it may be, workers are determined to change it.”
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