Comité Fronterizo
de Obrer@s


For the labor rights and all human rights of the maquiladora workers

Home> CFO in the Media 2003
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Free Trade and Women: A Form of Low-Intensity Warfare?

AFSC TAO Newsletter
Summer 2003

by Josefina Castillo, AFSC-TAO Program Coordinator
and Judith Rosenberg, AFSC-TAO Program Committee

Josefina Castillo, Josefa Chaparro (Coloradas de la Virgen), Beth Henson (Sierra Madre Alliance), Ximina Baldenegro (Coloradas de la Virgin), Julia Quinoñez (CFO), Patricia Peña (Fuerza Ambiental) and Ana Maria Hernández (CFO) shared views on women, trade, and development at the Women and War Conference

Governments envision a future where people of different nationalities and cultures will be able to share and trade resources across borders in a manner that will benefit all of humanity. However, the women who gathered for the Free Trade panel of the 2nd Annual Women and War Conference heard different perspectives.

Julia Quiñonez and Ana Maria Hernández from the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO or Border Committee of Women Workers) told about the impact that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has had during the past ten years on workers and women at the border in Mexico. Maquiladoras are foreign-owned assembly plants in Mexico that employ about 1.5 million people, mostly girls and young women from 14 to 20 years old, who earn just a fraction of the wages of U.S. workers. Working conditions are often hazardous, and industrial accidents and toxic exposures are common. In the name of job creation, maquiladoras are exempted from paying taxes to their host country. Most maquiladora workers live in shanty towns that lack basic services such as water, sewage or electricity.

Julia mentioned that trade liberalization has amounted to economic low-intensity warfare. “We wonder whether it’s better to die all at once as they have in Iraq or to die slowly as the workers are,” Julia commented.

Corroborating the testimonies of the maquiladora workers, Josefina Castillo and Judith Rosenberg explored other perspectives on the impacts of international trade agreements. Josefina explained how free trade policies have given multinational corporations access to Southern markets, labor and resources, eliminating all barriers to the repatriation of profits, and handing over control of key resources like oil, water, and grains by means of privatization: re-colonization, pure and simple. While the notion of spurring development in the Mesoamerican region may seem attractive, there are many questions about the proposed development project called the Plan Puebla-Panamá (PPP) and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas that would expand NAFTA-like trade rules to all of Latin America, excluding Cuba. Josefina’s presentation showed how PPP aims to displace whole communities in order to build highways that will serve as corridors for the transportation of goods between Mexico and Central America and open up access to natural resources such as timber and water power.

Judith Rosenberg, speaking as a member of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (ATCF or Austin So Close to the Border), described the origins of the maquiladora system in Mexico and how this process of manufacturing has subjected women to special forms of control and exploitation. Examples of exploitation that impact women workers include so-called pregnancy tests in which women are asked to show their sanitary napkins, and the design of the assembly line in a way that forces physical contact between workers that often turns into sexual harassment. Since women most often head single-parent households, they also suffer more the anguish of inadequate salaries that don’t allow them to provide for their children. Some maquiladoras laud themselves for being accommodating by offering mothers the opportunity to work twelve-hour weekend shifts so that they can stay home during the week to care for their children; meanwhile, many women must sell their blood to hospitals across the border or turn to prostitution to make ends meet.

In 20 years of organizing, the CFO has focused on empowering and developing the leadership of women. Julia Quiñonez recalls that in past times, when a worker was fired, she would cry. Today, equipped with knowledge of the law, a fired worker will say, “Please put that in writing.”

The voices of the women in the Free Trade panel show women have not remained silent. Their struggle and resistance was evident in their words and in the actions they have taken in their communities.


    is produced in cooperation with the
Mexico-U.S Border Program
of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)
Monterrey #1103, Col. Las Fuentes
Piedras Negras, Coahuila
C.P. 26010, México