AUGUST 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 8
Down on the Border
by Maria Patricia Fernandez Kelly and Pamala Wilson
Tijuana, Baja California is 15 miles from downtown San Diego, and it only takes 10 minutes to drive from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua to El Paso, Texas. Yet, crossing back and forth from the two sets of cities involves a distance that cannot be measured in miles. The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the longest-and certainly the busiest-in the world. It also separates the most powerful center of advanced capitalism from a cluster of developing nations to the south. Here prosperity meets squalor and the symbols of progress intermingle with the paradoxes of unequal distribution.
Tijuana can be approached from San Diego on a neatly landscaped four-lane freeway that halts abruptly at the San Ysidro check point. Once in Mexico the visitor's perception is assaulted by a juxtaposition of the archaic and modern. Peddlers push carts of fresh fruit past glass-plated buildings. Suburban-style shopping centers share city blocks with houses of scrap wood and corrugated tin. And from their bleak adobe homes in the Colonia Zacatecas, Ciudad Juarez's workers can view the splendor of skyscrapers in the center of El Paso.
But the U.S.-Mexico border is more than a boundary separating a developed nation from a developing one. It is also a live stage where broad international economic and political forces are being played out. Negrete Street, in Tijuana is lined with bakeries, pharmacies, car body shops, and food stands. Nestled among them is the cream-colored facade of IMEC, a factory that assembles electronic parts for several multinational corporations including Xerox and TRW. Inside, over 100 workers, mostly young women, lean over microscopes and perform the delicate but repetitious tasks that transform a silicon wafer into a semiconductor.
In Cuidad Juarez, within or outside modern industrial parks, 40,000 women work in similar assembly plants, some owned by the subsidiaries of RCA, Sylvania, Motorola, United Technologies, Chrysler, General Motors, Ford, General Electric, and National Cash Register. As in the Far East, most women assemble electronics while a smaller number of women manufacture apparel, toys, decorative objects, and other light goods.
They are all part of the "maquiladora" program, a growing industrialization effort started in 1965 by the Mexican government as a way of stimulating growth along the depressed border.
A rough translation for "maquiladora" is "grist mill," where a farmer used to bring his grain for processing and have it returned to him. In the maquiladora plants, American and other companies bring their materials to Mexico, assemble them, and then send them back to the U.S. for either further assembly or distribution.
At present there are almost 700 maquiladoras, the majority located along Mexico's northern border. They hire close to 200,000 people, 85 percent of them young, single women who are the main providers for their families. Maquiladoras form the fastest expanding sector of the Mexican economy, outpacing even petroleum-related activities and tourism. They produce 10.7 percent of total exports and 25 percent of manufactured exports. It is not surprising that government officials consider maquiladoras a key element in Mexico's development strategy.
The Mexican government offers attractive incentives for the establishment of maquiladoras. These include granting foreign companies 100 percent ownership, and exception to the standard requirement that businesses be at least 51 percent Mexican-owned. Foreign companies are also allowed to own and lease land through trust agreements with Mexican banks. In addition, the customs code has been repeatedly modified to permit businesses to bring in machinery, raw materials, and components on a temporary basis, as long as they are used exclusively to assemble exportable goods. Since 1972 these provisos, originally restricted to a narrow border belt, have been extended to cover all of Mexico with few exceptions.
Several peso devaluations in Mexico over the last year have made the pool of cheap labor even cheaper. From January 1982 to September 1982, the cost of a worker's monthly wages to foreign employers shrank by more than half from $323 to $156. At the same time, steep inflation has cut back workers' buying power. The drop in labor costs places Mexico on the same level as Hong Kong and Taiwan and, despite the U.S. recession, foreign investment in the Mexican border continues to expand steadily. Some 121 new plants have opened in the three main border cities since last year.
Besides a preference for cheap labor, many companies also display a keen appreciation for the benefits of political stability and the absence of labor organization. In Mexico managers speak about highly cooperative official unions whose leaders "don't want to alienate us and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. "
What do these trends mean for national and international development? The opinion of local businessmen is well represented by a manager of a Ciudad Juarez maquiladora: "We have brought a second industrial revolution to the U.S.-Mexico border and women have gained the most." Indeed, as a result of their employment in maquiladoras and export processing zones located in other parts of the Third World, hundreds of women have direct access to income for the first time.
Maquiladoras, in general, have been unable to provide jobs for men. In Ciudad Juarez, the majority of industrial workers live with unemployed or underemployed brothers, husbands, and fathers. Many of them are forced to cross the border as undocumented aliens after they are unable to find jobs on Mexican soil. According to corporate representatives, the establishment of maquiladoras in high unemployment areas is far from coincidental. The general manager of the General Electric subsidiary in Ciudad Juarez states that "thanks to the high rates of unemployment and underemployment which in this city reach above 30 percent, we can be very selective with the personnel we hire."
Selectivity of this kind translates into discriminatory hiring policies that give preference to young, inexperienced female workers who are unmarried and childless. In Ciudad Juarez, RCA advertises in daily newspapers for workers between 16 and 25 years of age, single, childless, with six to ten years of schooling, and with a minimum six months residence in the city. Women who fit this very specific profile may be found working in electrical and electronics plants. The majority last an average of three years on the job. They are easily replaceable.
Davis Lucas, the vice president for finance at IMEC, a typical electronics plant in Tijuana, states that young women are hired for assembly work because of their "dexterity and patience" and because "most quit when they get married." But as a young maquiladora worker told me, "I have to be patient, you see, I have my brothers and sisters and parents to support. I am the only one who has a job in the house."
Older women who are married or have children to support cannot compete in this sector. They end up in garment shops that operate as cutthroat subcontractors where conditions are worse and the pace of work even more intense. Research also shows that many women who have worked in their youth in electronics maquiladoras must seek jobs at a later point in life in garment factories.
Ophelia, a 31-year-old mother of six, several years ago told the poignant story of her search for a job. "I need a job. My husband left me. He crossed to the other side. Only God knows where he is! Sometimes he sends me money because his cousin reminds him he has a family to support. But I can't count on him.
"They say there are lots of jobs for women in Ciudad Juarez, but I can't vow for it. It's been tough for us. Maybe it's because of the new requirements. Now they want you to be a secundaria graduate. I thought, I hoped that with luck, I might find a job in a garment factory. But neither [my friend nor I] has had any luck. Maybe we should say that we are single. Maybe we should lie and say that we have only one child. But then the rest wouldn't be entitled to medical care once we got the job."
Thus, the personal history of maquiladora workers shows a trajectory of downward mobility. This runs counter to the impressions of businessmen and public officials who erroneously assume that women's income is supplementary and, therefore, an indication of higher living standards. In fact, women look for jobs partly compelled by the scarcity of jobs available to men in their own households. For them, wage employment is a sign of vulnerability, not of strength.
Henry Esparza, director of the brokerage firm Assemble in Mexico is convinced that "Mexico is now, for U.S. companies, the most correct place for investment worldwide." Mexico's proximity to North American markets significantly reduces transportation and management costs and electricity is half as expensive. Firms can also expect to raise productivity 10 to 50 percent by locating there. Esparza attributes this to what he calls "built-in incentives"-because there are no unemployment benefits or welfare in Mexico, workers strive harder on the job.
However, productivity gains are also the result of global industrial reorganization, with the fragmentation of production tasks into small units that can be easily performed in separate geographical areas.
Although maquiladora jobs are not difficult to learn, practice and speed are necessary to fulfill production quotas. Women work in stress-laden environments that often affect their health negatively. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, workers complaints range from respiratory difficulties, the result of inadequately ventilated factories, to skin irritations produced through contact with dangerous chemicals, as well as nervous disorders related to high levels of noise and constant pressure to meet productivity requirements.
It is easy to see why maquiladoras have high rates of turnover. The absence of promotions and wage raises do not create long-term alternatives, nor do they modify women's tendency to see themselves primarily as wives and mothers. When they leave their jobs, they often do so hoping to form independent households.
Employers see the transfer of assembly operations to several different locations as a strategy for diversifying economic and political risk. One manager frankly states that "if we have technical troubles here [Ciudad Juarez] or if there are disturbances of any kind, we can always move part of our operations to our facilities in Hong Kong."
Hired by local intermediaries for impersonal corporations whose headquarters may be located in New York, Silicon Valley, or Tokyo, workers throughout the world face major difficulties in trying to bargain with employers. Claims and demands can be easily crushed by a decision to close up shop and move to still other countries where wages are lower or political conditions even more favorable. In the age of the internationalization of corporate power the best alternative for large-scale organization is the formation of international unions.
Workers in Mexico are also seeking alternatives to reach beyond their limited experience. For example, the Centro de Orientacion de la Mujer Obrera (COMO) of Ciudad Juarez serves as focal point for vocational training. Working-class women have made COMO into an instrument of self-education for maquiladora women workers who lack information about their legal rights, possess little job mobility, and have few ways to voice grievances. Inspired to some extent by the teachings of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who conceives of education as a holistic process, COMO offers courses that raise skills and heighten consciousness about the challenges faced by working women in an international setting.
Perhaps more importantly, COMO has transformed many maquiladora workers into leaders and cooperative organizers in the city and in the countryside. COMO's director, Guillermina Valdes Villalva explains, "Ours is a tightly woven world. Women can't solve their problems nor can they be of use to their communities unless they learn to see themselves as part of an expanding world. Capitalists have understood this. Now it's the turn of workers to respond in kind."
Maria Patricia Fernandez Kelly is a social anthropologist affiliated with the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego, and with the Centro de Estudios Fronterizos del Norte de Mexico in Tijuana. Pamela Wilson studies journalism at San Francisco State University.