From Trade Union World|
For your files: Maquiladoras 1/4/1999
The export processing zones, or free trade zones, those production enclaves with enticing tax advantages designed to attract foreign investors, are also rights-free zones as far as workers are concerned. In Latin America these zones are better known as maquiladoras, or maquilas. Exploitation, of the mainly female workforce, is the rule rather than the exception.
Initially conceived by the Mexican government as a job-creating measure for the north of the country, the 1965 "Maquiladoras Decree" formed the basis of an export development strategy today followed throughout Central America. The maquiladoras, or maquilas, are assembly plants (textiles, electronic components, etc.) usually controlled by foreign enterprises and based in export processing zones. They are supposed to meet everyone's needs. For foreign investors, it is a case of running a labour-intensive operation where wages are very low, while benefiting from exemptions from customs duty and other incentives (tax reductions, infrastructure, etc.) as well as the proximity of the US market where production is then exported.
The incentives often include exemptions from the application of national labour legislation. As a result, restrictions on union organising, collective bargaining and the right to strike are common. In some countries, enterprises are offered, or demand, the guarantee of "social peace" and periods of varying length (sometimes up to 10 years) during which they do not have to negotiate with their workers, or accept the formation of a trade union. It is also common to see enterprises "relocating" production as soon as these exemptions expire.
For the host countries, the installment of the maquilas offers the prospect of foreign currency, and of help in driving the process of economic development and transition. For the countries' workers, they offer the prospect of jobs in industry.
For several years, the sector has grown at a rate of 10 to 20 per cent per year. Maquilas employ nearly one million people in Mexico and another half a million in Central America and the Caribbean. Which amounts to between 25 and 30 per cent of industrial employment in these countries, on average. But reality is a far cry from the model. Wages are low in the maquilas, tasks are repetitive and the days long and arduous. The financial impact is greatly reduced by the customs, tax and material advantages granted. Furthermore, the maquilas do little to contribute to the development of the host countries' economies. The main reason for this is that they are cut off from the national economies: supplies are foreign, so are their markets. There is no transfer of technology. The maquilas remain outward-oriented enclaves, their attention focussed largely on the United States.
Maquiladoras employ a largely female workforce, with women making up to 95 per cent of their staff. Company bosses point to their docility, resistance and dexterity, but the real reason for their choice is the wage discrimination against them. Women workers are frequently the victims of sexual harassment or any other form of physical and psychological violence. Their maternity rights are constantly ignored: they have to undergo pregnancy tests upon hiring, and then at regular intervals; unfair dismissals are also very common for young mothers.
Trade union discrimination is endemic in the maquilas. The freedom to exploit their workforce is often one of the preconditions for setting up operations. Although labour legislation ought to apply in these enclaves, it is rarely the case: employers benefit from the complacency, even complicity, of the public authorities to prevent the free exercise of trade union rights. The illegal practices most frequently cited by the international trade union movement are the dismissal of workers' representatives, black lists containing those workers' names which are circulated among employers, intimidation, harassment and violence.
Despite all that, trade unions have been created in maquiladoras, have negotiated agreements and ensured their enforcement. But this is usually only achieved after long years of struggle, great sacrifice and, sometimes, the death of some of the activists. Often, it takes the creation of a solidarity network at the international level, bringing together the international trade union movement, human rights organisations and consumer groups to change the attitude of governments and employers who believed themselves untouchable.
Views expressed in Trade Union World (except editorials) are not necessarily those of the ICFTU.