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Maquiladoras-NAFTA's Sweatshops
by Gil Villagrán, MSW (gvillagran [at] casa.sjsu.edu)
Saturday May 2nd, 2009 12:41 PM
Maquiladoras, the factories located on the Mexican side of the U.S. border are a direct result of NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement treaty signed in 1994 by Canada, the U.S. and Mexico eliminating most tariffs, allowing goods and capital, but not workers, to cross the borders with minimal limitations or taxes.

The agreement, designed to stimulate trade in each of the three countries, was designed by trade negotiators with corporate backgrounds, to benefit manufacturing corporations. Without subsistence farmers or factory workers from either country at the table, their concerns were left out of the treaty. Life is very difficult for maquiladora workers, but often worse for those left in the villages or urban mega-cities they left behind.
Maquiladoras-NAFTA's Sweatshops

by Gil Villagrán, MSW
While others vacationed this summer at beaches, golf resorts, or ocean cruises, I went to Tijuana on a tour of maquiladoras-the sweatshop factories on the Mexican side of our border. For many years Tijuana was a sleepy border town where San Diego based sailors and college boys went on weekends to cantinas offering cheap cerveza, strong tequila, and for the more adventurous (before this age of AIDS)-prostitutes.

Today Tijuana is a booming, sprawling mega-city of more than two million, with an estimated 150,000 more arriving each year for the last ten years. It is one of Mexico's fastest growing magnet cities on Mexico's border with the U.S., luring Mexico's economic refugees-the unemployed, under-employed, displaced workers and dispossessed farmers from all over Mexico-all desperate for jobs at maquiladoras--massive assembly factories.

These maquiladoras are a direct result of NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement treaty signed in 1994 by Canada, the U.S. and Mexico eliminating most tariffs, allowing goods and capital, but not workers, to cross the borders with minimal limitations or taxes. The agreement's stated goal was to stimulate trade for the benefit of workers and consumers in each of the three countries. This has occurred, but since it was designed by trade negotiators with corporate backgrounds, it has mostly benefited manufacturing corporations. Without subsistence farmers or factory workers from either country at the table, their interests and concerns were left out of formulation of the treaty.

The corporate interests are well satisfied with minimal requirements to build factories or for environmental concerns for toxic discharges or worker safety.

Since the so called "law of the market" dictates wages: the more workers desperate for any job at any wage will determine wages just enough to keep the workers sustained to return to work day after day. The overabundance of workers enables the factories to pay $50 for a 48 hour week. Yes, that is about one U.S. dollar per hour! If the factory were on the California side of the border, the minimum wage would be $8/hr. (the federal wage would be $6.55). It is clear that crossing the border to manufacture products, then shipping those products into the U.S. for American consumers is one heck of a deal for the manufacturer.

However, for the workers, these wages can only provide sustenance if a whole family works, children can and do work when 14 years old. Since maquiladoras are only interested in workers' labor, they do not provide nor have any interest in the healthcare, housing or education of their workers' families. Since the Mexican government, like most governments, is almost always overwhelmed and often ineffective in solving the myriad problems such as healthcare, housing and education, the people must provide for themselves as best they can.

Healthcare for maquiladora workers consists of daily prayers to not get sick or injured, buying a few pills at a time from pharmacy prescribed medications from lists matching medications with symptoms.

Housing for the workers is mostly a do-it-yourself project which begins with buying wood pallets from your employer for a dollar each, dragging them to some squatter village and when enough found and recycled material is collected, a shack is nailed, tied and somehow erected to withstand the almost unbearable daytime heat and nighttime cold, sandstorms, occasional rain, and vermin to raise your family. Eventually stolen electricity may be obtained from overhead wires, perhaps the same for water and even sewage. Occasionally public works officials arrive to disconnect improper and unsafe utilities, but with a modest bribe or after the official leaves, reconnections are made.

Public education for children is limited by space in schools, so an annual lottery determines which children get one year of school until the next lottery. Parents must provide $100 per year per child for basic supplies and uniforms.

Life is very difficult for maquiladora workers, but often worse for those left in the villages or urban mega-cities they left behind. A future article will describe the work inside the factories. The photograph shows a squatter village with toxic refuse into what was once a pristine creek. ∆