Border Business: Maquiladora Workers Organize For Better Treatment

The Border Committee of Women Workers runs a small textile shop in Piedras Negras promoting fair trade practices.
Hernán Rozemberg
October 12, 2011

Border Business

Mexico's maquilladora (manufacturing) industry has weathered the global economic downturn and is expanding. In a multimedia series, we explore the reasons why.

PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico — Diana Sosa stitched a pant leg for a protective fire suit, that, once fully assembled, will likely end up being used by a U.S. oil rig worker in the Gulf Coast. Sosa has worked at a textile maquiladora here for eight years.

Speaking in front of the factory president, Sosa said she’s thankful to be working there.

“I’d have a hard time finding other work,” said Sosa when asked what she would do if she didn’t have this job. It’s good work that allows her to maintain her family, she pointed out.

But other current and former maquiladora workers disagree. They claim foreign companies open factories here because they can essentially run sweatshops.

“We’re against these multinationals that come here just for cheap labor and don’t follow our laws,” said Julia Quinonez, director of the Border Committee of Women Workers, which runs a small textile shop promoting fair trade practices.

The maquila advocacy group was formed at the Texas border in 1980 by workers who claimed years of exploitation in maquiladoras. Quinonez said she experienced it first-hand here in Piedras Negras when she worked in a now-defunct maquila in her late teens.

Female workers suffer the most discrimination, she said. Even today, she said, maquilas advertise for openings asking for women between 18 and 34 years old. And some employers require women to take a pregnancy test before being hired because bosses don’t want to hire pregnant women.

Photo by Hernán Rozemberg
Julia Quinonez, president of the Border Committee of Women Workers in Piedras Negras, Mexico, shows a T-shirt the organization makes at its small textile shop.

All these practices violate Mexican labor laws, but companies are rarely, if ever, prosecuted.

“We hear about all kinds of problems,” Quinonez said. “From sexual harassment, unpaid hours, you name it.”

One worker — who asked to be identified only as Verónica — said her take-home pay for the week is about $60 U.S. That sounds meager compared to U.S. standards. But it’s more than double the weekly pay for Mexicans currently earning the minimum wage, which is $4.59 a day U.S.

Even then, for Verónica, it’s not enough to sustain her family.

“Between daily expenses and bills, we barely have enough left for food,” she said.

Many workers also complain about being exposed to dangerous chemicals. Quinonez claimed some factories don’t provide protective equipment and they use toxic materials without warning of the dangers.

Before she was laid off this year at a maquila making appliance parts, a worker named Juanita grabbed a product ingredient sticker showing it contained methylene chloride.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers it toxic and it can cause cancer if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Piedras Negras, Mexico

Piedras Negras, Mexico is across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas.

Juanita said she developed a rash after using the substance while cleaning appliance parts.

“It started in one ear and I can barely hear out of it. And now they tell me it’s going to spread all over my body,” lamented Juanita, pointing to white blotches in her face, arms, legs and back.

She said she was not given a reason why she was let go.

Quinonez, the former worker turned activist, insisted these types of cases are common but they’re kept quiet.

Yet, as much as she’s trying to expose abuse, she’s not trying to drive maquilas out. She’s all for giving people jobs. She just wants foreign companies to treat Mexican workers with the same standards they treat employees at home.