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

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Women workers target Mexico’s ‘maquiladoras’
Conditions in foreign-owned assembly plants are comparable to U.S. factories in the 19th century

The Kansas City Star
Thursday July 1, 1993

By Paul E. Brink

“I always wanted to work for a U.S. company because I had an idea such companies would have good working conditions. But once I started, the dreams were far from reality.”

María Guadalupe Torres, an organizer of women working in the mostly U.S.-owned assembly plants just across de Mexico-U.S. border, devotes herself to making those dream a reality.

Born in 1944, Torres was raised in the shacks of railroad families for whom her mother worked as a domestic. Her father died when she was an infant. After finishing the third grade at age 10, she helped her mother clean houses and look after children.

Mother and daughter crossed the border at Brownsville, Texas, in 1960. Both became live-in domestic workers. Torres’ first job was as a nanny, earning $8 a week.

They worked in Brownsville or nearby Harlingen until María Guadalupe was in her mid 20s. At that point, she located a job in a pottery factory in the Mexican border city of Matamoros. When she started she was told she would not be paid for the first week because she was “in training.”

Torres confronted the owner on the behalf of herself and other workers. He relented, conceding their “right” to be paid. María Guadalupe Torres had won her first labor victory.

She began working in a “maquiladora” (assembly plant) in 1969. The company was Kemet, owned by Union Carbide. Her job involved washing capacitor bodies, bare-handed, in methylene chloride, a volatile solvent that has been linked to birth defects, cancer and liver damage. Sometimes, to little avail, she raised questions about federal labor laws covering health and safety equipment and training.

In 1981, Torres attended a meeting held by the American Friends Service Committee’s Border Project, which organizes and educates women maquiladora workers about their rights under Mexican labor law. She has been an organizer ever since. Six years ago, she quit her job at Kemet to begin organizing full time.

U.S. corporations portray the explosion of maquiladoras as a roaring success for Mexico’s impoverished labor force. Torres’ view contrasts sharply. Maquiladoras, she points out, serve as a magnet to draw thousands of workers –mostly young women – from Mexico’s interior, with the unregulated growth of the plants placing tremendous burdens on the limited infrastructure of border towns.

Few of the mostly U.S. owned companies operating more than 2,000 maquiladora plants follow Mexico’s labor, health and safety laws. María Guadalupe describes working conditions as reminiscent of U.S. factories in the 19th century.

“It’s not enough for the maquiladoras to come to Mexico to exploit cheap labor,” she says. “They are ruining the environment and making the women workers sick, particularly with reproductive problems.”

Torres tells of women breathing solder fumes without knowing that lead can cause birth defects. Warning labels are only in English.

These foreign-owned facilities, she is convinced, have no commitment to the health and welfare of the Mexican work force: “The day I see that the plants are really cleaning up the contamination and pollution, I’ll believe they are going to do something.”

In the last 14 years, some 10,000 women in six Mexican border cities have joined the work of the AFSC’s Border Project. They have formed their own organization, the Border Committee of Women Workers.

With the help of full-time organizers like Torres, workers in some plants have had scores of small but significant victories. They have recovered overtime pay, substantially improved their working conditions and decreased intimidation and mistreatment by supervisors.

“For me to learn of Mexican labor law was like opening a window,” Torres says. She makes it clear that the women are not trying to close plants – they desperately need jobs. They want only to protect their health and that of their children and communities to maintain something as fundamental as their dignity.

The Mexican government needs to enforce its labor and environmental laws. But large responsibility lies with U.S. companies that have abandoned workers and communities in such cities as Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles and Raleigh. U.S. multinationals reap profits at the expense of workers in both the United States and Mexico.

Torres has met with several U.S. congressional delegations investigating abuses by maquiladoras manufacturers. She has taken representatives on tours, graphically dramatizing the need for worker’s health safety and wage protections in the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement.

The question remains whether NAFTA will recognize and protect the dignity, health and future of young Mexican women. María Guadalupe Torres continues her work toward that goal.


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

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