NI: Global Issues for Learners of English > The Issues > Jeans > Sweatshops in Mexico

logoSweatshops in Mexico

Cheap labour

Labour is a lot cheaper in Mexico than in the Unites States, so it is cheap and convenient for American companies to have their products made in Mexico. Not surprisingly, a lot of the factories that made these products were built near the US/Mexican border. These factories are known as "maquila" or "maquiladora".

SWEATSHOP: (n) a place where people work very hard for very low pay.

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, the number of maquila has grown very fast and they are spreading to other parts of the country. Some maquila have only a few workers, others have more than a thousand. Some maquila are registered, but many more are "underground".

THE NORTH AMERICAN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT (NAFTA) is an agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico to ensure unrestricted trade and investment between thses countries.

UNDERGROUND: Secretly and illegally

Bad pay, bad conditions

Pay and working conditions can be terrible. This is what two women told human rights workers about the maquila where they work in Tehuacan, south-east of Mexico City:

Each shift is from 8.30 am until 8.30 pm , but if workers do not complete the number of clothes they have been told to make that day, they must work longer without any pay;

On Saturdays, people must work from 8 am until 5 pm without a lunch break;

Workers are paid between $30 and $50 per week;

Girls as young as 12 and 13 work in the factory;

When workers leave the factory (to go to lunch or to go home) they are searched to make sure they haven't stolen anything;

When women are hired, they are tested to see if they are pregnant. If they are pregnant, they are fired.

If you arrive 15 minutes late, you must work for 3 days without pay.

When one man was sick for a day, he lost a whole week's pay.


SHIFT: (n) a regular period of work

FIRED: if you are fired, you lose your job.

The work can also be dangerous. For example, the women have no protective goggles to wear when they are sewing at their machines. Sometimes the needles break and fly up into their faces.

GOGGLES: (n) eye protection, like large glasses

NEEDLES: (n) metal instrument used for sewing

What can sweat shop workers do?

Although these things are against the Mexican labour law, the women feel as if they can do nothing about their situation. When maquila workers organised an independent trade union about 10 years ago, one of its leaders was assassinated. And on one occasion when some human rights workers visited a maquila, armed guards put guns to their heads. The maquila workers were terrified that their bosses might find out who had been talking.

ASSASINATED: Killed because of their political beliefs and actions

Many of the workers in Tehuacan are members of Mexico's indigenous peoples. Father Hidalgo Anastacio Miramon is a priest who is concerned about the problems of the indigenous workers in Tehuacan. He says that indigenous people all over Mexico are being driven off their land. Their communities are broken, and the people are poor and hungry. The maquila take advantage of this; they recruit indigenous people and then use very harsh methods to try to make them into a new industrial workforce.

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: (n) the original people in a place. In this context, the people whose ancestors lived in Mexico before European settlers and colonists arrived.

Alberta Carino Trujillo, another human rights activist for maquila workers, says:

"Although our people are exploited shamelessly, we have a lot of desire, heart, strength and courage to struggle. The maquilas treat us bad, but we are here to stay."

People who are EXPLOITED have been unfairly treated so that other people can make more money.

Customers can help

Miriam Ching Louie works with Fuerza Unida, a self-help organization for workers in the garment industry (see Moving jobs from North to South). She believes that the garment workers deserve our support. Jeans are fashionable and popular, but we know the truth about how they are made because the garment workers had the courage to speak out. They should not have to struggle alone in their fight for better pay and working conditions.



Links & contacts

North America: the Maquila Solidarity Network / Labour Behind the Label
email: [email protected]
fax: +1-416-532-7688

Europe: Labour Behind the Label
tel/fax: +44-160-361-0993

The article "Life on the line" by Miriam Ching Louie, on which this was based, appeared in the JUNE 1998 issue of the New Internationalist.

© 1998: the New Internationalist

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Last Modified: 23 June 1998

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