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July 6, 2001
Maquiladora Workers Can't Meet Basic Needs on Plant Wages

Workers in foreign-owned export assembly plants in Mexico are not able to meet a family's basic needs on maquiladora wages, according to a comprehensive study conducted in fifteen Mexican cities. Over 3,500 maquiladoras employ an estimated 1.2 million workers who manufacture products for export.

According to the study Making The Invisible Visible: A Study of Maquila Workers in Mexico-2000, in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, a family of four needs 193.86 pesos a day to reach a sustainable living wage. Based on pay slips collected from a number of maquiladora workers, a majority takes home less than 55.55 pesos (approximately US$6.00) a day, which is 28.6% of what a family of four people needs to meet its basic needs. One minimum wage salary in Matamoros provides only 19.6% of what a family of four needs to earn.

"The wages paid maquiladora workers for a full workweek do not enable them to meet basic human needs of their family for nutrition, housing, clothing and non-consumables," declared Dr. Ruth Rosenbaum, executive director of the Center for Reflection, Education and Action (CREA), who conducted the research. "In the 15 cities surveyed, it would take between four and five minimum wage salaries to meet the basic needs of a family of four. This study documents the huge gap between what maquiladora workers are paid and what they need."

CREA defines a sustainable living wage as a wage that meets the basic needs of a family of two adults and two children, enables them to participate in culturally required activities and allows them to set aside small savings to plan for the future.

"In community after community, maquiladora workers can afford only to live in make-shift houses without water, electricity, and to even talk about nutritious diets for themselves and their children is a luxury," stated Ms. Martha Ojeda, a former maquiladora worker, now executive director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM).

"They work long, productive hours for the world's biggest corporations and still cannot provide the most basic needs for their families," explained Ms. Ojeda. "They cannot even afford to consume the items they produce. This is a violation of Mexican workers' human rights and of the Mexican Constitution that guarantees a living wage. The foreign-based corporations that  benefit from free trade have a moral obligation to pay their workers a sustainable living wage. Even though workers realize that they take a big risk in organizing independent unions, still they challenge the system because it is the only way to improve their working conditions and standard of living."

The study was a joint project of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras in San Antonio, Texas, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in New York City (ICCR), and CREA, a social economic research center in Hartford, CT.

"We found both that workers are paid low wages and the cost of living is high," explained Dr. Rosenbaum. "The study refutes the commonly-stated rationale of officials of U.S.-based companies that workers are paid less in Mexico because the standard of living is lower and products and services are cheaper."

"Companies tell us that they are paying above the minimum wage," said Rev. David Schilling, director of ICCR's Global Corporate Accountability Program, "but our data shows they are nowhere near paying a sustainable living wage. We call on all companies to publicly report what they pay their maquiladora workers and to close the gap between what they pay and what workers need." For twelve years, religious institutional investors, members of ICCR, have been pressing corporations to pay their Mexican employees a sustainable living wage.

"Workers want and need jobs," stated Sr. Susan Mika of the Benedictine Resource Center in San Antonio. "However, at these levels of sweatshop wages, the companies are the major beneficiaries. Workers' dignity and human rights become secondary as the bottom line of profit becomes paramount."

To see another FNS article (in Spanish) on the subject of Mexico's minimum wage written by Raúl Ramírez Baena, the director of the Baja California government's human rights office, go to http://www.nmsu.edu/~frontera/nov00/feat6.html