Accountability for Murder in the Maquiladoras: Linking Corporate Indifference to Gender Violence at the U. S. Mexico Border



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Accountability for Murder in the Maquiladoras: Linking Corporate Indifference to Gender Violence at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Elvia R. Arriola1


Claudia Ivette-González might still be alive if her employers had not turned her away. The 20-year-old resident of Ciudad Juárez—the Mexican city abutting El Paso, Texas—arrived at her assembly plant job four minutes late one day in October 2001. After management refused to let her into the factory, she started home on foot. A month later, her corpse was discovered buried in a field near a busy Juárez intersection. Next to her lay the bodies of seven other young women.2
The “maquiladora murders” have become a popular subject for writing and activism by feminists, as well as the inspiration for numerous forms of art,3 literary fiction4 and commentaries,5 international conferences,6 movies,7 and marches8 on both sides of the border. A 2004 conference held at the University of California-Los Angeles entitled “Maquiladora Murders”9 drew worldwide attention10 to the cases of hundreds of young Mexican women who worked in maquiladoras—American-owned transnational factories—and met untimely, often brutal deaths. Who killed them is still a mystery.11 What is not a mystery is that incidents of domestic violence and femicide12 in Ciudad Juárez13 have risen in the wake of heavy industrialization along the border; that industrialization was a result of the signing of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, the United States, and Canada.14

In less than a decade, a city that once had very low homicide statistics now reports that at least 300–400 women and girls were killed in Ciudad Juárez between 1994 and 2000.15 Some of the murders fell into a bizarre serial killer pattern.16 Others were suspiciously linked to illegal trafficking gangs.17 Still others involved abductions of young, female maquiladora workers who never made it to or from work and whose bodies were later found dumped in Lomas de Poleo, the desert that surrounds Ciudad Juárez.18 They had been raped, beaten, or mutilated.19

To be fair, the reference to “maquiladora murders” is a misnomer; not all victims have been workers for the vast number of American companies lining the 2,000-mile border that secures an interdependent economic bond between the United States and Mexico.20 However, while the exact number of victims is still unknown, of the estimated 300–400 unsolved murders, about one-third involved maquiladora workers.21 Mexican government officials have not appreciated the negative press surrounding their largest export-processing zone and symbol of participation in the global economy.22 And the public has not been happy either, confused by seemingly bungled and incompetent investigations.23 The lack of coordination among public authorities has only worsened the perception that the government is either too corrupt, indifferent, or incompetent to address the problem of systematic violence against women.24

In Mexico, the maquiladora worker is typically someone with little education or property, and is often a migrant from even poorer regions of the country that now hosts a conglomerate of factories owned by European, American, and Japanese multinational corporations. Thousands of workers in these factories eke out sad lives in shantytowns without water, electricity, or public lighting.25 The most recent arrivals to the Mexican frontera find cities that are unable to meet their housing needs. Dozens of families may stake out plots of land near public utilities or industrial parks26 where they pirate essential public services and live in shacks made of sticks, cardboard, rags, or discarded construction platforms. Some even make their homes next to trash dumps.

Public discourse on the Juárez murders intensified after the 2002 release of the documentary Señorita Extraviada by former Juárez resident and filmmaker Lourdes Portillo.27 The documentary opens with various shots of factories bearing the names of familiar American companies that sell U.S. consumers everything from cell phones to televisions, stereo equipment, computers, electrical appliances, and toys.28 Juárez is portrayed as Mexico’s symbol of the failed promises of free trade; in what activists refer to as the “race to the bottom” of the wage scale, investors compete globally and reap huge profits by creating new low-skilled and low-paying jobs for the working classes. Although a political and economic context is critical for grasping the breadth and depth of the gender violence that accompanies globalization, the film does not dwell on this context.29

Instead, Señorita Extraviada portrays Juárez as a city out of control, unable to respond to violence against poor working women.30 Highlighted are images of indigent, powerless, and grieving families confronting law enforcement and political systems that systematically fail them. The violence of poverty, graphically portrayed in Señorita Extraviada, generates rage and fury as the camera pans over crime scenes littered with the shoes, clothes, and jewelry of a girl’s naked, bruised, or mutilated body discovered weeks after her disappearance.31 In another scene, a coroner confirms that one of the victims in a dual murder case had suffered several massive cardiac arrests as a result of the terror she and the other young girl had experienced in their final moments of life.32 Each story of grief produces waves of sorrow that spread over the families, the city, and the lost image of the characteristically family-oriented Mexican culture.

The bungled forensic efforts reinforce the violence against the young murder victim who left the house one day and never came home, leaving behind a family desperate for answers and comfort from their community leaders. The film highlights some of the outrageous official responses to the murders. For example, the governor of the State of Chihuahua is shown publicly criticizing the murder victims for the way they dressed or for attending night clubs, thus blaming the victims for their fate and turning the demand for investigations into a mockery of justice.33 After public outcry, the State appointed a female special prosecutor. However, the State then failed to provide her with sufficient power or money to produce satisfactory leads.34

While Señorita Extraviada portrays the problem as the systematic failure of law enforcement and the political system, Diana Washington-Valdez, the reporter who has relentlessly tracked the murders since the early nineties, argues that true justice for the maquiladora murder victims may never come because rampant corruption and secrecy surround efforts to track down the persons responsible for the most chilling serial or ritualistic type killings.35

Yet, an important factor is constantly overlooked in the public discourse about the Juárez murders. Few seriously examine the relationship between systematic violence against women and the changes in the social environment of the city that allows such violence to occur. Along Mexico’s border, and especially in Ciudad Juárez, many changes have resulted from the rapid industrialization produced by Mexico’s intense participation in the global economy.36 The unspoken element of the discourse is the multinational corporations’ complicity with Mexican officials in disregarding the health, safety, and security needs of Mexican women and girls who work in the maquiladoras. Multinational corporations come into Mexico, lease large plots of land, run their factories twenty hours a day, pay no taxes, and do very little to ensure that the workers they employ will have a roof over their heads, beds to sleep in, and enough money to feed their families. Juárez, like many other border towns affected by NAFTA, may have factories and cheap jobs, but such employment has not enhanced peace and prosperity among the working classes; instead, hostility against the poor working women—who form the majority of those employed by the maquiladoras—has intensified.37

To the activists who advocate for justice in the maquiladoras,38 the undeveloped point that surrounds the phenomenon of the murders is the fact that the very girl whose body was found mutilated and dumped had worked hard, very hard, in one of those factories. She was trying to improve her lot in life, as well as that of her family, and no one, not even her own government, cares to take responsibility. What about the fact that the same attitude about the murders—“we are not responsible”—is also reflected in employment policies that encourage indifference to the workers’ needs and human rights, whether in or out of the factories?

I argue that the Ciudad Juárez murders are an extreme manifestation of the systemic patterns of abuse, harassment, and violence against women who work in the maquiladoras—treatment that is an attributable by-product of the privileges and lack of regulation enjoyed by the investors who employ them under the North American Free Trade Agreement.39 I begin by acknowledging the critical relationship between women, gender violence, and free trade that has been noted by some scholars.40 But I also seek to understand how the absence of regulation to benefit workers in standard free trade law and policy perpetuates the degradation of maquiladora workers and creates environments hostile to working women’s lives, including discrimination, toxicity in the workplace, and threats of fatal assault.41 Noted feminist reporter Debbie Nathan rightly criticized Señorita Extraviada for its failure to highlight the presence of the maquiladora industries and their power to set standards of worker treatment that encourage general hostility against poor working women.42 The unquestioned right to exploit the mostly female working poor in Mexico, combined with the effects of rapid industrialization, incites increased gender violence43 while securing Mexico’s significant role in the globalization of the economy at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In Section I of this article, I present the argument, also made by activists at the border, that the Juárez murder phenomenon is a story about systematic abuse and violence against working class employees, which includes exposure to toxicity in their workplace, sexual harassment, and arbitrary disciplinary methods. This systematic abuse is the result of investor privileges, guaranteed under NAFTA and repeated in The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA),44 that virtually immunize the transnational investor from accountability for harm to the worker, anticipated or not, when conducting business in Mexico.

In Section II, I illustrate the legal framework for addressing the questions of accountability that often arise when one is confronted with the realities of systematic violence against women in places like Ciudad Juárez and other locales that are newcomers to globalization.

In Section III, I return to the stories of workers at the border with a focus on individual efforts by workers to bring about justice in the maquiladoras. Although it is important to improve economic globalization analysis with attention to women’s experiences and struggles, it is also important to transcend the essentialist image of all poor working women as victims. Many workers in global factories do not passively sit by, accepting the attitudes of indifference crafted into free trade law and policy and taken advantage of by some companies. There is much that is wrong with current free trade policy and law that could be changed with amendments to NAFTA or CAFTA, or through litigation involving statutes targeting corporations as actors under the color of law. But even without those changes some Mexican workers have found ways to empower themselves, like the legendary David against the giant Goliath corporation, by organizing and protesting to have their rights enforced against abusive employers.

In Section IV, I remind the reader that the phenomenon of the Juárez murders is inseparable today from the various forms of systematic abuse against mostly women workers who have populated the American factories since the pre-NAFTA days of industrialization at the Mexican border. Given the enduring fact that more women than men work in the factories, and the extreme example of abuse of women symbolized in the systematic killings of women and girls who are part of the city’s most poor and powerless, I make an appeal to the feminist activists who are busily creating awareness about the murders. I urge them to take more seriously the issue of the social and economic context of the Juárez murders, so as to influence the shaping of improved public polices that can remedy the gross absence of regulation for corporate accountability and true protections of working women’s rights under free trade law.

I. Beauty and Pain: Globalization and the Women of the Maquiladoras



A. Gender and Globalization at the Mexican Border: Before and After NAFTA

Globalization has its fans and its critics. To some, like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, it is the way of the future, where people of different nations and cultures will interconnect easily through the Internet; markets and democracy will flourish; and all things stodgy, inefficient, and dictatorial (e.g., communism, Saddam Hussein) will fade away.45 Others are more cautious, calling for better regulatory oversight by the International Monetary Fund (IMF)46 and other financial players in the politics of free trade.47 Still others see a deadly combination for nations whose transition to market economies and democracy is too quick.48 Most contemporary globalization talk, including that at the conference that produced this article,49 focuses on the economic theories that either support or weaken the argument for it, such as free trade, capitalism, privatization, deregulation, and the relationship between market growth and social instability in new democracies.50 Those who view gender and global trade as crucially related are still in the minority in academic discourse.51

There is irony in knowing that females continue to dominate as ideal workers in export processing zones, while females are also the consumers most often targeted by ad campaigns to buy the goods coming from these exploitative zones.52 Feminist scholar Carla Freeman argues that globalization discourse is “bereft” of gender analysis because it is hard to connect the “global” with women’s stories and experiences or women-based movements for socio-economic change.53 The problem may be that overall globalization politics appear loaded with masculine power and focus, and so the only way to see gender is to move away from the global to the local. There, in either production or consumption, one will see gender at work.

Women, especially poor women, continue to play a significant role in the work of global employment.54 American companies have been relocating to Mexico since 1965,55 and with the signing of NAFTA, cross-border trade has expanded with new factories being built and jobs created. However, fewer rights for workers at the Mexican border have been guaranteed. As the working women’s group, Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), wrote in their 1999 report Six Years Under NAFTA, free trade had failed them. Under NAFTA, wages and working conditions for maquiladora workers had gone from bad to worse.56

One of the first systematic observations of the relationship between gender and the setup and operations of the maquiladoras at the Mexican border was a study, La Flor Mas Bella de las Maquiladoras,57 by feminist researcher Norma Iglesias Prieto. In her landmark study, Prieto sought to illustrate “a global phenomenon,” encompassing both the maquiladoras and the life experiences of workers.58 She relied upon the voices of experience from inside the factories in the pre-NAFTA period to illustrate how gender-based attitudes affected everything from recruitment and hiring (nearly 100 percent women) to the treatment of women in the workplace. When American electrical, television, and stereo component companies, such as GE, Sony, and Panasonic, began relocating to Mexico,59 women were blatantly preferred for the jobs.60 Why? Women were seen as ideal workers because their smaller hands and fingers could better assemble tiny parts of export goods, such as light bulbs, cassette tapes, and recorders.61 The ideal maquiladora worker that emerged was thus a hybrid of stereotypes based on sex, race, and class—she was not only more docile and passive than Mexican men, but submissive, easily trainable, and unlikely to pose problems with union organizing.62

Not much changed under NAFTA. Women have remained a higher percentage of the workforce63: a younger woman in her teens is still preferred to an older, wiser, and more tired woman who is likely to question the bad pay and treatment or, even worse, may try to organize workers. Prieto concluded that in the pre-NAFTA period, it was clear that the main purpose for the poor treatment of the workers and low standards was to secure an easily discardable “reserve army of labor,” rather than to offer career jobs or stable employment.64 Post-NAFTA, the workers confirmed the continuation of these policies; the CFO wrote that NAFTA had caused “. . . a sharp drop in the standard of living; a marked intensification of the labor process through speed-ups and other tactics, and a sustained campaign to undermine unions, labor rights and social protections.”65

The report concluded that other long-standing problems identified with the maquiladora industries, such as child labor and exposure of workers to toxic industrial waste, still plagued the border region. Other blatantly sexist practices, like forced pregnancy testing, only stopped after international exposure of the practice.66

B. Where the Violence Leading to Murder Begins—The Voices of Experience from Inside the Maquiladoras

In 2000, I visited the city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, and met members of the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras and their coordinator Julia Quiñonez Gonzales, a former maquiladora worker turned activist. I had just published an academic study about the maquiladoras relying heavily on Iglesias-Prieto’s work, and that of Devon Peña,67 to capture the workers’ voice of experience under NAFTA.68 I joined a delegation that was led by a new group calling itself Austin Tan Cerca de La Frontera (So Close to the Border),69 which formed after members heard the personal testimonies of several maquiladora workers who had come to share their experiences with local activist and faith-based community groups. Having just concluded my border study, it was a profound experience to see my research come to life and to meet someone whose testimony I had cited from an international women’s rights conference. I was introduced to workers in their homes and listened to them describe bad pay, bodily injury from stress, long schedules, lack of safety, exposure to toxic chemicals, and feelings of betrayal by unions who took management’s side.

Over the next few months, I visited several other cities where the CFO had volunteers and began to meet privately with primarily female workers and listened to them relate their experiences in the maquiladoras.70 I sometimes met workers in their homes, which were uniformly tiny and clean, but often without flooring, plumbing, or any electricity other than a single light bulb. “Fatal indifference” is the only way I can articulate the totality of the patterns described by the workers—a systematic, structural disregard by corporations and their agents for the humanity of the laborer. It is from this perspective that I argue, along with the activists, that the phenomenon of the Juárez murders begins with free trade law’s license of a form of corporate activity that exploits the bodily and spiritual strength of a poor country’s people. However, the workers’ stories also revealed an amazing courage and strength to survive abusive patterns of worker mistreatment and discipline.

1. The Unbearable Pace: “I Tolerated Them for a Total of Eight Years”

Amparo was thirty-eight years old and raising two teenage boys when I interviewed her in Piedras Negras, Coahuila. She was desperately trying to keep the older boy in school so that he might avoid the destiny of the working poor—beginning work in the factories at age fifteen and working ten-hour days, on average, for little pay. Amparo had been fired for being outspoken about the poor treatment of workers at Dimmit Industries, which is now defunct. Amparo was hired at Dimmit to sew waistbands onto a minimum of twelve hundred pairs of expensive dress slacks per day in order to receive the base weekly wage of three hundred pesos and two hundred pesos in bonus (about thirty-five dollars per week). To earn a salary on which she could live, she pushed herself to produce 150 percent of the expected quota, or about eighteen hundred slacks per day, for approximately six years.

Amparo recalled that every day she walked out with a blackened face full of lint and dust left in the factory air due to the poor ventilation system in the plant. A common complaint of the workers was the lack of adequate ventilation in the cheaply built, windowless warehouses that were set up for factory operations. She remembered the terrible coughs she endured almost all of the time as a result of the fibers, distinctly visible in the surrounding air, settling on her skin and in her lungs. She also had to endure the exhaustion of the typical ten- to twelve-hour shift with only a half-hour break for lunch and a ten-minute break in the morning. “I first thought, that’s just the way working conditions are here at the border. In time I began to see the injustices here.” Amparo was one of five workers who had filed an unfair labor practice charge against Dimmit after she was fired for complaining about the piecework policy that kept the wages so low.71 Amparo knew she was in for a long haul by filing a claim, but she said it was worth it because, “I’ve tolerated them for eight years.”72

On that same trip, I met Juanita Torres, who had also been fired from Dimmit as a “troublemaker” who was trying to organize new elections for a better shop steward—one who would not consistently side with the management. Others I spoke to also confirmed a pattern of abusive treatment. “Cuca” Torres, Juanita’s sister, said, “They yell at us to hurry up,” referring to the line supervisors. Cuca was working for Littelfuse Co., which employed mostly women to assemble thousands of light bulbs and fuses per day in the kind of factory Prieto had described in her study. Young Marina Briones, who was working for one of the many ALCOA73 factories in Piedras Negras, said, “The typical workday [of ten- to twelve-hours] is so long that I come home too tired to do any housework or to talk to anyone.”74




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