by Mariana Parra González


Versión española aquí

Figure 1. Dunes and mountains of Coahuila, Mexico. Photo by panza.rayada.



Mariana Parra González is a Mexican student currently pursuing a Masters in Critical Fashion Practices in The Netherlands. Her research focuses on decolonization of fashion, inclusion and representation of minorities and at-risk groups, and the relationship between labor and gender. Growing up in a family dedicated to local garment production, she witnessed the negative impacts fast fashion has on communities. Therefore, she views fashion from a critical perspective, and acts through her practice to create a positive impact in the industry.


Low wages, sexual harassment, bullying, working shifts of more than eight hours without overtime pay, health insurance, benefits, rest days, or retirement: these are some of the working conditions endured by textile workers in the northern border states of Mexico, such as Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas. These conditions respond to a capitalist model of economic development in which high productivity and low cost are the top priorities and where the exploitation, marginalization, and commodification of working-class women is indispensable for the system to persist, as they participate in the processes of reproduction (of workers) and in the production of goods.

This article aims to analyze how capitalism and the feminization of textile work disadvantage women and how this perpetuates undignified working conditions. I also present the case of a man who, due to not complying with the “macho” stereotype, is constantly subjected to various types of violence. The article collects testimony gathered in 2021 and 2022 by the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, an organization that promotes the human and labor rights of maquiladora workers on the northern border of Mexico in order to reduce gender-based violence and to improve the wages and working and living conditions of female workers and their families. [1] In addition to this, you will find an interview by the author in which an independent textile worker talks about her working conditions, and how informality in the industry has affected her personal and professional life.


The Feminization of Textile Work


For centuries, gender stereotypes have been an endemic part of Mexican culture, and the labor market is no exception. In the 2000s, greater attention was given to how these stereotypes connect to the exploitation of workers in the textile industry in the north of the country, a sector that employs 19.6% of women over the age of 14 in Mexico. [2] The National Institute of Women in Mexico published a report in 2007 exploring how gender dynamics at that time contributed to women's access to certain types of employment that were viewed as feminized. [3] Some of these stereotypes confine women to the role of housewife and men to that of provider, a division that reduces women to the private sphere, which is therefore invisible and not valued economically or socially. In the workplace, gender roles have also dictated where, how, and when women can work. This is shown in a series of interviews that the Institute conducted in 2007 with married women or women who lived with a partner, in which 36% of the interviewees suggested that they should ask their partners for permission to work even if they live in precarious economic situations. This current article presents the hypothesis that in this environment women are conditioned not to challenge male authority, as this would imply the man's inability to provide for the family's total income.

It also shows that the main occupations in which women are employed include artisans, domestic workers, office workers, and service workers–jobs that are related to their gender role and identity. This occupational segregation by sex means a social exclusion of women because they are generally placed in occupations with lower status and unfavorable working conditions. For these reasons, it is not surprising that the manual labor required in textile manufacturing has become feminized in Mexico. The reasons companies hire female labor include the perception that women have a greater sense of responsibility and specific skills. Employers believe that “feminine” docility and dexterity in the home could be transferred to the workplace, as they see them as necessary characteristics for the meticulous and repetitive tasks of garment assembly.

In this context, it is necessary to highlight the impact of global capitalism on local communities across Latin America. Mexico's northern border with the United States is a geographically intensive labor and exportation zone for garment manufacturers, where transnational companies (especially those from the USA) benefit from the low hourly costs of the employees, even though they are slightly more qualified workers than at a national level, something that appeals to foreign investors. [4] But what about the workers? The state began to build cheap, overcrowded housing near the companies to ensure an influx of workers. The Bank of Mexico itself highlighted its priorities in one of its bulletins entitled “Mexico has regained its status as a leading center of high-productivity, low-cost manufacturing,” with the goal of making labor costs the cheapest in all of North America. This statement highlights the imbalance and tensions between high productivity and low cost, which can result in unfair trade agreements. These agreements between the U.S. and Mexico have provided more support for U.S. fashion companies than the long-term social, labor, and economic conditions of its citizens working at the border.

Many roles in the textile sector have no educational requirements and companies know that the population is in need of employment. Young and poor women are thus used as a convenient workforce,both willing to adjust to the demands of a 50-hour working week and accept wages of $2645.94 MXN ($133.02 USD) per month in 2011, a wage that is 1.46 times lower than that of their male counterparts. [5] Because their employment conditions are unstable and their work is considered second class and of little economic value, women are viewed as unskilled, weak, and temporary workers and are often exploited by companies that prefer to hire them as they can be paid lower wages than men.

Figure 2. Pyramid Of The Sun west border, Teotihuacan, Mexico. Photo by Cvmontuy

Testimony

 
The feminization of textile work greatly increases exposure to violence and negative situations for people working in the sector. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, if girls are subjected to gender stereotypes, they are more likely to develop depression and be more exposed to violence. [6] Conversely, boys are more often involved in physical violence and are more prone to suicide, as they are taught to be strong and not to show sensitivity. A tangible example of the consequences that feminized people in the textile industry have to endure can be found in the following testimony.

The interviewee will be referred to only by the gender they identify with and their age, in order to protect their identity.

The first story is about a 54-year-old man who works for a textile company in Coahuila that produces garments for brands such as Levi's, Lucky Brand, Dickies, Cintas, Stitch Fit, and Encompass. He works in the laundry area with a schedule of 7:00 am to 7:00 pm and a salary of $1,200 MXN ($58 USD) per week with health insurance and housing benefits. He told the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras that he is bullied and harassed by his (male) colleagues because he is a very serious, quiet person with a stutter. They treat him badly, make offensive jokes, verbally attack him, hit him on the back, and have even offered him money in exchange for sexual favors. On one occasion, a colleague showed him a $500 MXN note and offered it to him, telling him that he would have it in exchange for sexual relations; whenever these encounters occur, everyone laughs. This responds to the idea of sexual vulnerability held about women, where they have to endure sexual harassment or even be forced into sex, and while this worker is not being forced to have sexual encounters, he is still being verbally assaulted for not engaging in the “macho” stereotype. By not displaying strength and independence, characteristics linked to masculinity, he also faces abuse from his superiors. A former supervisor who is now a regular worker beats him, taking advantage of his former position of power. In addition, the area manager and the shift manager mock him and call him a fool, throw objects at him, and give him much more work than he is supposed to do. His wife told the committee that there was a week when he did not get paid because there are days when he does not go to work because he is afraid of being beaten up inside the company. He has complained to his supervisor, but he has not been helped and has even been told that he is to blame for not defending himself. Comité Fronterizo de Obreras has realized that he is afraid and has not complained to the managers for fear of retaliation.

Because of these types of situations, the work of organizations such as the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras Border Committee of Women Workers is important for bringing about meaningful change for the benefit of textile workers. They have served as a bridge for communicating injustices between workers and companies, and they provide emotional support that a worker would not otherwise get so easily, which is why they support men (testimony above) and women who endure problems such as chauvinism and sexism in the workplace. In addition, they have helped elderly workers and pregnant women in the same company to take their health conditions and need for continuous breaks from work seriously. They approached the committee to take part in support talks and successfully demanded changes in their working hours.


“Here it's about trusting the word of others because I've never had to make contracts with anyone, they just come, they bring me the goods, I make them and I hand them over, without signatures and without anything.”


Interview


Unfortunately, not all workers have the ability to demand improvements in their working lives. This is demonstrated by the following interview with a 58-year-old woman. She runs an independent and informal garment workshop in her home, where she sews clothes together with other female associates and does not have any benefits or health insurance. A couple of years ago, her husband passed away, leaving her financially destitute and at the mercy of whatever work came her way. She was swamped in debt and had to auction off her house. After a while, she was able to buy a small piece of land on the outskirts of the city and has slowly rebuilt her new home and work space. She agreed to do an interview in January 2022 to tell us how she started in the business, the complications she has experienced as a freelance worker, and her hopes for the future.

How and when did you start in the garment industry?

About 27 years ago. I was very young. Imagine, I started working in a workshop where they taught me how to sew, how to sew the seams and other details. I worked there for about six months, and then I moved to another company and I was there for about a year or so. A person there told me that they could lend me machines so that I could take them to my house and start sewing there. He gave me three machines so that I could set up my workshop. Then the people from the company put me to work making men's underpants, and, well, I did the jobs that came my way in one way or another, that is, I don't just make men’s underpants, but everything else that they ask me to do, and I have to teach myself to do everything as I go along.

In all the time you have been working, has any company ever given you benefits or medical insurance, something that you feel protected by?

No, never. Because I have never been registered for health insurance, or anything else. I think that employers should register us so that we can have access to insurance and all those things, but since my workshop is small, I don't think that's going to happen. Because look, the way I work is by taking an order of garments that is not well paid and I don't have that much left. I have to manage what money I have coming in myself, there's not enough to pay for everything! And there is no fixed job for me either, I have to take from one place and another, from wherever I can get it to be able to cover my expenses.

As an independent producer, have you always received payment for the sewing work you do?

Well, I've come across everything. There are some people for whom I do sewing work. I hand them over and they promise to pay me but in the end they leave, disappear, and don't pay me. I've been doing this for a long time and of course it's happened to me. I put my trust in them and there are people who abuse that trust because I work hard, and suddenly they just don't show up after they take away the work we did. That's where we go wrong and lose. Here it's about trusting the word of others because I've never had to make contracts with anyone, they just come, they bring me the goods, I make them and I hand them over, without signatures and without anything.  But I also have a lot of good people who have helped me, and that's why I'm still here.

What would you change in the textile industry to ensure your well-being and that of your colleagues? 

I would just like to have people to support me so that I can have more work, because the truth is that now (after the COVID-19 pandemic) things are very bad. Sometimes it's hard signing contracts with a person, I feel that they are more strict and that everything has to be perfect with the delivery of goods, that when they check all the garments there are no faults. But the best thing is that with that type of work, people or companies do give you contracts and they can also give you benefits, something more formal. That's what I was thinking the other day, if there were higher salaries I could improve things for myself, like getting my own health insurance and benefits to protect my assets. But for now I can't really do anything, the way the situation is right now there's not much I can do. Hopefully that will change in the future. It's been a hard road but look, I've got to do something, right?

This story shows how employers take advantage of their employees' need for work. They presented “giving” her machines to work at home at her own pace as a benefit, yet that meant that she would not enjoy any actual benefits. Additionally, her working hours had to be flexible and she was left with the uncertainty of whether or not she would be able to cover her personal expenses in the process.
Figure 3. The start of the border fence between the United States and Mexico near Sunland Park, New Mexico, U.S.A. and Rancho Anapra, Chihuahua, Mexico. Photo by MJCdetroit.

Final Reflections 


The testimonies reveal the cycle of abuse experienced by the working class on the northern Mexican border, from the use of gender stereotypes to classify textile work as inferior in order to continue perpetuating violence against women, to continuing to provide undignified working conditions and the use of outsourcing to deny benefits and reduce costs. It is necessary to expose this issue as the female population is in an unfavorable employment situation despite what they contribute to the garment and textile industries, thus affecting their economic situation and that of their communities, as well as the employment opportunities made available to them. The over-consumption perpetuated by the capitalist society in which we live has damaged and limited the possibilities of small communities in Latin America, which are exploited for cheap labor and forced to work from adolescence for minimum wages in order to survive. Listening to workers is paramount in order to demand positive changes in their favor, so that they can finally work in decent conditions with fair wages, and without fear of retaliation. 


Notes: Pain at the Border: The Feminization and Exploitation of Textile Work in Mexico

[1] A maquiladora is a company that allows products to be manufactured in one country and imported into another without paying tax or duty. The term originated in Mexico and most of these factories are located in Mexican cities on the border with the United States. The capital required to run and set up maquiladoras is usually entirely foreign, generally from U.S. companies.

[2] INEGI, Encuesta Nacional de Ocupación Y Empleo 2010 ENOE (Mexico: INEGI, 2011), inegi.org.mx/contenidos/productos/prod_serv/contenidos/espanol/bvinegi/productos/historicos/2104/702825445072/702825445072_1.pdf

[3] INMUJERES, El Impacto de Los Estereotipos Y Los Roles de Género En México ENOE (Mexico: INMUJERES , 2007), cedoc.inmujeres.gob.mx/documentos_download/100893.pdf 

[4] Patrick Gun Cuninghame, Globalisation, Maquiladoras and Transnational Identities at the Us-Mexico Border: The Case of Ciudad Juarez-El Paso. (Interventions Économiques no. 35, 2007), doi.org/10.4000/interventionseconomiques.648


[5] Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, La Industria Textil Y Del Vestido En México 2011 (Mexico: INEGI, 2011), otech.uaeh.edu.mx/site/cdn/assets/site/files/pdf/patents_eri_text/industria-textil-2011.pdf


[6] Elizabeth Saewyc, A Global Perspective on Gender Roles and Identity (Journal of Adolescent Health 61, 2017), doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.07.010

Additional References

Basulto Castillo, Angélica. La Industria Maquiladora Y La Mano de Obra Femenina. Observatorio Laboral Revista Venezolana, 2008. biblat.unam.mx/hevila/Observatoriolaboralrevistavenezolana/2008/vol1/no1/6.pdf.

Caballero Ramos, Deyra. El capital y la condición de las mujeres. Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos, 2018. redalyc.org/journal/5350/535055132012/html/

De la O, María Eugenia. El Trabajo de Las Mujeres En La Industria Maquiladora de México: Balance de Cuatro Décadas de Estudio. Debate Feminista 35, 2019. doi.org/10.22201/cieg.2594066xe.2007.35.1321

Landau, Saul, and Sonia Angulo. Maquila: A Tale of Two Mexicos. 2000. youtube.com/watch?v=Ss2kvIZ75bQ

Martínez de la O., María Eugenia. Geografía Del Trabajo Femenino En Las Maquiladoras de México. Papeles de Población 12, 2006. scielo.org.mx/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1405-74252006000300005

Navarro, David Moctezuma, José Narro Robles, and Lourdes Orozco Hernández. La Mujer En México: Inequidad, Pobreza Y Violencia. Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Políticas Y Sociales 59, 2014. doi.org/10.1016/s0185-1918(14)70803-7

Olvera, Dulce. Mujeres Acusan Doble Violencia: De Patrones Y Del Estado, Cuando Exigen Sus Derechos Laborales. SinEmbargo MX, 2017. sinembargo.mx/08-03-2017/3164801

Ortiz, Desiree. Las Maquilas Y La Explotación de La Mujer Mexicana. Monografias, 2012. monografias.com/trabajos93/maquilas-y-explotacion-mujer-mexicana/maquilas-y-explotacion-mujer-mexicana

Vega, Andrea. Maquiladoras Trabajan Largas Jornadas, Padecen Malestares Físicos Y Falta de Prestaciones. Animal Político, 2019. animalpolitico.com/2019/06/maquiladoras-trabajan









Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics
Issue 12 ︎︎︎ Border Garments: Fashion, Feminisms, & Disobedience

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement
Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016


Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement


Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership


Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021


Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health


Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood


Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020


Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry


Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017


Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017


Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016


Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016