R. ARRIOLA, Voices from the Barbed Wires of Despair, Women
in the Maquiladoras, Latina Critical Legal Theory and Gender at
the U.S. Mexico Border, 49 De
Paul L. Rev. 729-815 (2000)
(87 pages ) (This
Summary - 5 pages)
This study uses the lives of working women to ground
a critique of the intersecting relationship between the free trade
policy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and immigration law and policy at the Mexican border.
The term "maquiladoras" is Spanish for
the assembly plants owned by transnational corporations that operate
primarily in the export market for goods such as TVs, VCRs, stereos,
auto parts, appliances, clothing apparel, discount coupons, and
thousands of other products that can be found in U.S.A. factory
outlet malls and popular family shopping stores (e.g., Wal-Mart,
To appreciate where the maquiladoras start we have
to go back to the 1960s.
In 1964 the U.S. formally abolished the Guest Worker program
which had started during World War II and under which Mexican
citizens came here temporarily, usually as laborers for picking
agricultural crops. In
1965 Congress, would initiate the Border Industrialization Program
which was later re-named the Maquiladora Program. In
1993, the US, Canada and Mexico signed NAFTA, giving the maquiladora
program a booster shot for growth.
Maquiladoras assemble rather than manufacture the
parts may be produced in the U.S. or other countries that are
essential to the globalized economy today. In Texas, many of the
maquila factories distribute the manufacturing process into the
production of component parts on the U.S. side and assembly in a Mexican sister city (e.g.,
Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Coahuila). Their
colloguial term is twin plants.
Under NAFTA the goods produced in the sister city are then
exported back into the U.S.A or Canada for sale.
Overall the attraction to the investor is that there are
not only lowered production costs but also reduced tariffs from
so investing on foreign soil.
The term "maquila" once referred to the
portion of grain a miller kept as a payment for his services.
it refers to these transnational corporations which, by virtue
of NAFTA, continue to open up in every Mexican city and town along
the Mexican border or further into the interior.
As of 1999 there were over 4235 maquiladoras just
along the border. A
current advertisement on the Internet for a current guide to the
twin plants estimates in
2001 over 5,000 parent and border companies.
Of course, among pro-labor activists the term "maquis"
is synonymous with "sweatshops"
and their rise is seen as a symbol of the death of American unionism
because on the U.S. side the opening of a maquiladora means that
a company moved away to avoid union wages and benefits. On the
Mexican side, a new maquiladora may create more jobs, but not
necessarily living wages or a higher quality of life as many carry
well the image of the sweatshops where employees labor
long tedious hours, in monotonous repetitive tasks that also often
expose them to toxic materials and dangerous instruments.
This article is not a novel inquiry into the conditions
for women in the maquiladoras.
Nor is it a novel examination of human rights concerns
at the Mexican border, especially as affected by contemporary
immigration law and policy. However, this study differs in offering an analysis of how
the two sets of concerns, labor and women and human rights problems
caused by border law and policy, intersect, and how that intersection
may be understood with a gendered perspective.
Perspective - Part I
The first use of gender as a category of analysis
narrowly focuses on Latinas in the maquiladoras.
Here the study addresses the host of factors in a person's
identity that intersect with gender-- e.g., age, sexuality, class,
culture and race--and that influence the structure and the availability
of the jobs and the forms of discipline and control in these assembly
plants. By so using gender as a category of analysis, one is able
to get very specific in illustrating industry patterns of recruitment
of female workers, hiring, payment of low wages, sexual harassment,
pregnancy discrimination and abuse and discipline in the maquiladoras.
This perspective also provides the theoretical context
for asking-- why is that employers seem to prefer women in the
hiring; why in fact do they prefer very young women, why, for
example, would employers hire applicants whom they know are probably
presenting them with a false birth certificate to show they are
16 and old enough to work according to Mexican labor law,
and not really 14 or 15?
Perspective - Part II
The second prong of the gendered perspective is applied
to the larger context of the maquiladoras industry operating within
the legal and political culture of the Mexican borderlands.
The maquiladora industry has re-shaped and is continuing
to reshape the socio-economic character of dozens of cities along
the border. And
it continues to do so because of a borderlands culture that is
in turn hugely affected by the presence of U.S. lawful activities
at the border, such as INS border patrol, drug enforcement, and
corporate expansionism under NAFTA.
The argument is that one cannot appreciate the presence
of the industry at the border without also seeing how it is ineluctably
intertwined with a closed border (militarized) for migrant laborers.
Free trade policy and immigration policy have a complementary
relationship at the Mexican border--the one creates an open face
for the investor, a welcoming presence identified by the continual
traffic of NAFTA trucks to and fro the twin plants.
The other is a closed border that through increased presence
of militarized border patrol activities, targets for harassment,
and detention those Mexican workers who seek to cross the border
to reunite with families or to search for better job opportunities
in the U.S. than they might find in the maquiladoras.
This duality at the border also has a gendered impact
: whereas the presence
of the maquiladoras is largely a story about working women and
exploitation, the story about the border is about mostly male
migrant laborers being drawn to the border looking for work.
However, in some factories it is clear that female workers
are still the preferred employee, and bad wages overall make the
jobs unattractive for male workers desiring to support their families.
Yet the border is a constant attraction for those who may come
to the Northern territories of Mexico in search of jobs or who
may end up working in a maquiladora.
Because crossing the border remains a constant attraction
to many migrants, its militarization has caused hundreds of deaths
of male migrant laborers who drowned or died in mountains and
deserts--all because they were trying to avoid the infrared telescopes,
the helicopters, or the search dogs brought in to control the
border for drug trafficking and smuggling.
I argue that the border today presents two faces:
The gendered impact can be seen in the open
v. closed faces of the border.
While the open one welcomes investors and free trade, it
also produces an international division of labor not only between
Mexican and American workers, but also between Mexican women and
men. Migrant laborers
get hired according to stereotyped assumptions.
More women are in jobs requiring deftness of small hands;
men get to work in jobs requiring heavy lifting.
Wages are gendered;
but no matter what the wage it isn't a living wage. All
of the jobs draw migrant labor of both sexes from Mexico's impoverished
regions in the interior.
The second face is one of a closed
border in contrast to free trade policies induced by NAFTA,
the closed face of the border is about a 24 hour operation of
the border patrol to keep migrant laborers out.
While the open face of the border means more highways to
accommodate the traffic coming from the U.S. side with component
parts for the maquiladoras, the closed face is about keeping migrant
laborers out and the border operations providing a
metaphoric symbol of discipline to the poor Mexican laborer
that he should stay at home.
Daily enforcement of this symbolic message ensures
a perceived success under NAFTA that the American investor continue
to be able to open maquiladoras in Mexico and to be guaranteed
a surplus of cheap, exploitable labor.
it All with Narratives
The above analysis lends itself to a picture that
is best understood with illustrations from workers' experiences.
As much as possible the study relies on the voices of workers
to illustrate the impact of the law and public policies, and their
potential for perpetuating oppression. Narratives,
of course are
viewed as controversial in legal discourse, but this study views
them as powerful, useful and essential.
The study relies on a feminist critical perspective and
an inter-disciplinary perspective for looking at questions of
Narratives help us deconstruct the abstract, the
statistics, and the public rhetoric that is proposing the expansion
of NAFTA type policies through what is being called the Free Trade
Area Agreement for the whole of the American continent.
Narratives even help deconstruct what we like and don't
like about the borderfrom the U.S. perspective of the border
just being a place for great bargains and shopping or now foreign
investments, and what is bad, such as the human rights and labor
of those abuses like the story of the woman who had a miscarriage
right on the worksite because of unsafe working conditions, or
the what it felt for the man who nearly lost a foot or a hand
because of poor training and dangerous equipment, or the one who
can't get a job because she tried to organize a union and she
got fired and now she's blacklisted throughout the entire industry
in that city.
A critically based analysis, or praxis, meaning the
connection between critical theory and practice, absolutely assumes
the relevance of narratives, as an important way of communicating
issues that concerns feminist critical scholars, but also audiences
beyond the legal academy . It
is true that one could always question whether the way in which
a narrative is being used is truly serving the analysis.
One could ask, is this just the telling of a story, or
is the choice of the story told a true aid in addressing the problems
of multi-dimensional aspects of oppression?
And, while narratives can be powerful, they can be risky,
because one may legitimately ask whether the story of one person
speak to the experiences of a whole group. In the end, this study
relied on narratives because they powerfully illustrate the patterns
of treatment and the conditions;
they continue to provide the issues that are open for legal
analysis and that suggest the possibilities for social justice
One needs narratives to bring to life the day-to-day
experiences of oppression, of the migrant farmworker, the domestic
servant, and of all those whose experiences betray all of those
politicians promises that more free trade agreements will
in fact improve the working lives of those hired by the maquiladoras.
Yes, there is always the risk of the disconnect,
that someone won't get the point of the story; while at other
times the narrative is "the light bulb" that goes off
in someone's head and that helps them get beyond abstract terms
like "free trade policies," "transnational corporations,"
or "human rights abuse" and "labor exploitation."
This is a critical legal analysis. Some of the stories
gathered within and that are being gathered in Voices Project
II may trigger strong emotions of anger and sadness.
But lawyers, the kind of people who graduated from our
law schools, are doing that everyday when they talk to juries
and try to get them to feel for one side or the other of a case
they just presented as a story supported with a body of evidence.
So sometimes stories are just communicating an individual
experience, but sometimes they are communicating the universality
and the complexity of personal dynamics that collided with the
assumptions of particular laws and policies.
So, whether stories are personal, or narrated, or part
of a formal research project, they are arguably a very important
deconstructive tool for seeing the multi-layered aspects of the
questions one brings to the table of critical analysis.