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(The full length article is scheduled to appear in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Vo. 5 (Issue 2, Spring/Summer 2007)
ACCOUNTABILITY FOR MURDER IN THE MAQUILADORAS:
Elvia R. Arriola
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.
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 between 1994 and 2000. Along with an increase in murder rates, the rates of domestic violence have increased as the border town of Ciudad Juarez has experienced heavy industrialization since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Some murders have fallen into a bizarre serial killer pattern while others have been suspiciously linked to illegal trafficking gangs with money. Others clearly involve 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. Many of the murdered women have been raped, beaten, or mutilated.
In Mexico, the maquiladora worker is someone typically without much education or property and is often a migrant from an even poorer region of the country. Thousands of workers in these factories eke out sad lives in shantytowns without water, electricity, or public lighting. Dozens of families may stake out plots of land near public utilities or the industrial parks. There they camp out for years, pirating essential public services and building by hand or hiring itinerant laborers to build a shack out of sticks, cardboard, rags or discarded constructor's platforms. Some make home next to trash dumps. They walk on unpaved stretches of land that flood during storms.
Although news of the murders has generated much public discourse about the injustices taking place in Ciudad Juarez, an important factor is constantly overlooked in the discourse. What about the environment allowed the violence to take place? What about the fact that the government is in a cozy relationship with the CEOs of major corporations who come in to Mexico, lease large plots of land, set up factories with 24/7 operating schedules, pay no taxes, do little to make sure the workers they employ will have a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in and enough money to feed their families? What about the fact that the very girl whose body was found mutilated and dumped had worked hard, very hard, for one of those factories trying to improve her lot and that of her family? What of the fact that the same attitude about the murders - we are not responsible - is reflected in the policies of employment that encourage indifference to the workers needs or human rights whether in or out of the factories?
This paper argues that the Juarez murders are an extreme manifestation of the systemic patterns of abuse, harassment and violence against women who work in the maquiladoras, whose treatment derives from privileges enjoyed by the investors who employ them pursuant to the North American Free Trade Agreement. I begin by acknowledging that there is a critical relationship between women, gender violence and free trade as noted by Professor Weissman and others, 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 produces environments hostile to working women's lives, including discrimination, toxicity in the workplace and threats of fatal assault. The unquestioned right to exploit the mostly female working poor incites gender violence while it makes Mexico a major player in global economic politics, even if rapid industrialization is encouraging more domestic violence and occasional incidents of female murder.
A. Gender and Globalization at the Mexican Border: before and after NAFTA.
Globalization today has its fans and its critics. To some, like Thomas Friedman, it is the happy way of the future where people of different nations and cultures will interconnect easily through the Internet, where markets and democracy will flourish and all things stodgy, inefficient and dictatorial (e.g., Communism, Sadam Hussein) will fade. Others are more cautious, calling for better regulatory insight by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financial players in the politics of free trade. Still others see a deadly combination for nations that make too quick a transition to market economies and democracy. Most contemporary discourse surrounding globalization focuses on the economic theories supporting or rejecting the trend; those who view gender and global trade as crucially related are still in the minority in academic discourse.
After observation of the relationship between gender and the operation of the maquiladoras at the Mexican border it is easy to see how gender based attitudes, affect everything from recruitment and hiring (nearly 100% female for workers) to treatment of women in the workplace. When American electrical, television, and stereo component companies such as GE, Sony, and Panasonic, began relocating to Mexico, women were blatantly preferred for the job. Women were seen as better fits; with smaller hands and fingers, they could better assemble tiny parts of export goods such as light bulbs, cassette tapes, and recorders. The ideal maquiladora worker thus emerged as a hybrid of stereotyped images 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.
B. Where the Violence Leading to Murder Begins - The Voices of Experience from Inside the Maquiladoras
Over several years I visited several border towns and began to meet privately with mostly female workers and heard about their experiences. I sometimes met workers in their homes, which were uniformly tiny and clean but quite often without flooring, plumbing or more electricity than a single light bulb. "Fatal indifference" is the best way to describe the totality of circumstances suffered by maquiladora workers - a systematic structural disregard by corporations and their agents for the humanity of the laborer.
III. CORPORATE ACTIVITY AT THE MEXICAN BORDER AND QUESTIONS OF ACCOUNTABILITY.
Stories from the workers in the factories disturb the abstract discourses
of free trade and the supposed mutual economic benefits that flow from
a free trade agreement. A survey of the language in NAFTA will quickly
reveal a skewed set of policies: more rights for the investor than for
the worker or migrant laborer. That imbalance will explain why it is so
difficult to say that corporations can be held accountable for their harmful
activities in foreign countries. Public awareness that corporations do
abuse their privileges in other countries has generated considerable literature
on the possible legal theories that might be used to make the corporate
actor accountable whether under U.S. domestic law, international law,
or under the law of the host country, in this case Mexican tort law. The
next section very briefly explores these options.
The NAFTA complaint process is purely administrative. It might be however, a powerful organizing tool for workers as it can be used to present evidence and personal testimony about the problems that are illegal under existing labor or health and safety laws. The NAFTA labor side agreement, NAALC, codified that the Parties to NAFTA (the U.S., Canada and Mexico) promised to improve the "working conditions and living standards in each Party's territory." The best way to understand a NAFTA complaint is to see it as a reminder to the Party nations that promises were made to treat workers fairly in pursuit of free trade and open economic borders.
The matters which a NAALC complaint can be based on include:
(a) freedom of association and protection of the right to organize;
The labor side agreement has not been received well by labor activists. It creates a labyrinth of procedure that sets no specific standard for enforcement; it merely asks the Parties to enforce their own laws, tells interested parties to go to their appropriate local agencies for enforcement and then, even if a violation is found, the "remedy" is a fine that may not exceed .007 of the total trade in goods between the countries, which is to be spent on the enforcement of labor laws in the country complaint against.
The NAFTA/NAALC/NAO procedure strikes an amazing contrast to the rights and remedies for investors under NAFTA. NAFTA never included workers' rights language; whereas NAALC tells the host government simply to enforce existing law. But investors get quite a different deal that is extremely beneficial to them. The infamous Chapter 11, for example, permits one country's corporations to sue for compensation when another government's regulatory conduct is deemed "tantamount to expropriation." Not only does this reflect an anti-regulatory sentiment in NAFTA, it seemingly protects corporate activity/profit at any cost - even if that means effectively stopping governments from regulating for public health.
B. Women's Bodies as Part of the Free Trade Deal? Women's Rights as Human Rights.
The Juarez murders are being viewed internationally as a grave human rights problem for Mexico. Mexican government officials resist this international scrutiny with classic defensiveness: blaming the victims for their dress or referring to working girls that frequent bars and clubs as immoral. Better to invoke sexism than admit that the murders reveal a masculine attitude of power, along with subordination and fatal indifference to the health and welfare of poor working women.
III. FROM PASSIVITY TO EMPOWERMENT: GLOBALIZATION AND THE WOMEN OF THE COMITE FRONTERIZO DE OBRERAS (CFO).
The CFO, as well as other labor groups, independent unions and individuals
around Mexico continues to resist and fight back against the "three-headed
monster" that continues to exploit and abuse workers: the government;
the corporations that take maximum advantage of labor conditions; and
the pro-business, official unions like the CTM that are loyal servants
of the corporations.
A. The Movement for Justice by Women Workers
Questions of legal accountability for the abuse of employees of multinational corporations (MNCs), which benefit from free trade agreements such as NAFTA, are complex. In the past two decades, the world has been reorganized along borderless regions by a significant consensus-mostly among the financial leaders of the wealthiest nations-that freer trade among all nations in targeted regions will end poverty and promote democratic forms of government. But to the workers the promises of "la globalizacion" have been a lie. Their experiences betray more stress, constant betrayal from government backed unions that side with management, chronic illnesses associated with the toxicity and the demanding hours, and an inability to make ends meet on the pitiful wages. But the workers I have been privileged to meet also do not give up easily the struggle for justice at the border industries. I am always in awe of the methods of organizing used by the CFO, which are premised on mutual respect, community, safety, creating a sense of dignity in every worker no matter how old, young, educated or not.
The organizing methods of the CFO operate on simple principles. The key is listening to the worker, getting a sense of their needs and only then beginning the process of introducing the worker to the idea of rights that may be relevant and are in print in a copy of the complied Federal Labor Law. The first steps in this educational process are powerful - it empowers the worker to connect the injustices they are enduring inside the factory to the existence of a rule of law that says "this is illegal." They then connect with each other and they understand the need for community, for strategy, for patience. The CFO volunteers constantly stress the importance of acting upon the voice, cause and interests of the workers. Nothing is done until many are committed. The numbers of workers in the factories are too large to risk a firing of just a few workers who can easily be discarded before a problem has been resolved. So they organize patiently, sometimes taking months before a critical mass is formed who will back up the firing of a worker willing to take the heat for speaking up to injustice.
More recently the work of the CFO has seen a new stage of the effects of personal empowerment. Sometimes workers who win at labor board arbitrations come out with generous lump sum settlements that allow them to leave maquiladora work and open small businesses, like beauty shops or food stands. A few years ago a few workers took a bold step and ventured into the world of fair trade, instead of free trade. With the help of the CFO and U.S. allies knowledgeable about business they took their former garment factory skills into the creation of Fábrica Dignidad y Justicia, a fair trade company run mostly by women who are working decent hours, earning a living wage, producing goods that people want (T-shirts and canvas bags) and engaging in labor they can love and be proud of.
B. The Nemesis of the Activist Workers - Hostile Governments and the
Delusions of Global Democracy.
Regardless of how and why free trade pacts are promoted and set in place, it is mainly corporate CEOs and stockholders who reap the benefits of treaties. These pacts provide the legal framework that allows expansion of markets and reorganization of labor operations throughout the world. And as key actors in economic globalization, corporations stand in place of governments that want freer trade, presumably to ensure the social and economic conditions that secure peace. Arguably, this important role fulfilled by the multinational corporation clothes it in a blanket of authority or quasi-governmental agency. Should there not be more courage on the part of legislators to hold the multinational corporation more accountable?
One might ask why is it necessary to focus on the multinational corporation and not on the more complex relationship between the maquiladora worker, her government or even other explanations for the gender violence (e.g., cultural patterns of sexism). It is because:
Corporations are enormously wealth and powerful enough to supplant governmental
power and authority
When the policy for promoting globalization is structured to promote fatal indifference to the plight of global workers, left undisturbed and without effective amendments to future trade agreements, globalization of the economy will continue to guarantee less rather than more global freedom. Meanwhile, free trade, as opposed to fair trade, advances with more corporations and their high paid directors raking in profits as they globe trot in the corporate race to the bottom of the wage scale in third-world countries. And with increases in globalization there may continue the other developments that follow the profits of jobs that have not reduced poverty, workers complaining of systematic abuse, and female murder in the maquiladoras of the world.
Feminists and others who are speaking out about the Juarez murders have an important task ahead of them. If the patterns of gender violence that come with globalization are to be halted in other parts of the world, then from a platform of global sisterhood it is the responsibility of feminists in first world countries to ask for changes in the law and social policy of trade. It is a responsibility to educate the policy wonks, to elect the legislators who will study the issue with nuance to the political economics of racism, classism, and sexism. Progressive globalization analysts, like influential Joseph Stiglitz, also need to re-examine their critiques that focus only on economic disparities from pushing more and more poor countries to participate in the global economy.
Feminists need to put the story of the Juárez murders into a context that appreciates the powerful attraction governments have to participate in the global economy. Meanwhile, globalization critics need to consider the impact of globalization on women's safety in the workplace, their homes, and their communities and question the integrity of the familiar argument that globalization benefits all-even when the evidence of egregious harm is abundant and contrary.The fact that a third-world country is pressed by major economic institutions to open its doors to foreign investors in exchange for new jobs and wealth, but must also abandon concern for basic human rights and safety for its citizens, is unconscionable. Yet it is modern reality. Globalization of a poor nation's economy exacts a heavy price in guaranteeing the production and reproduction of gender-based violence and femicide.
I have introduced some of the stories and testimony gathered on many visits to the border as a supportive ally of women working in the maquiladoras and more recently as a committed educator trying to introduce students to the human face of free trade. What I have hoped people would witness is how a combined host of variables, including typical corporate decisions about discipline for workers as well as the clear bias that favors investors in free trade law and policy, produces a hostile work environment with a discriminatory effect on women and female children. What happened to Claudia Ivette Gonzalez and other maquiladora workers, is inseparable from the employer's attitude about workers inside the factories. If he doesn't care about the injuries and the toxicity in the factory why would he care about the safety of a young girl who sets out on foot in the early hours, headed for parts of the city known to lack adequate street lighting, public security services, much less public traffic that would make her trip home more secure?
The year 2006 was a difficult one for immigrants of Mexican descent in the United States. A Republic majority in Congress pushed the anti-immigrant agenda by exploiting the rhetoric of anti-terrorism. The unarticulated racism of the proposals was frightening. Undocumented workers of all backgrounds live in the U.S., but the targeting of the most hostile policies is always directed at the Southern border and at Mexicans, while the elephant in the living room is ignored - the role NAFTA has played in luring rural families north to the maquiladoras only to discover nonliving wages, no place to make home, and frightening social conditions that threaten the safety of their health and their families. Because of the historic presence of women in the maquiladoras, gender discrimination once in place turned into gender violence with the push for trade liberalization and NAFTA. Ciudad Juarez is still Mexico's shining star as a major center for commercial activity as an export processing zone. But it is also a haven for violence against women, enough of whom were factory workers that one cannot deny the subtle but real effects of the global corporation, with the acquiescence of the government, in producing the environment suitable for the rise of the maquiladora murders.
Sadly Claudia Ivette Gonzalez is a martyr for justice in the maquiladoras, a place where workers have no expectation of safety in or out of the workplace and settings where supervisors can take actions against workers that become the structure of fatal indifference. Claudia's abduction, and that of so many of the victims of Juarez who were maquiladora workers, is the ultimate act in the name of free trade and globalization. She is the sacrificial female body that has been dedicated to the gods of production and profit. Her body may have been abducted and grossly violated by whomever found an easy target that morning but the life preceding her brutal killing already had already been defined as insignificant: a fleck in the fabric of global production.