The Life of a Maquiladora Worker

  By Maria Ibarra with David Bacon

   David Bacon 

   Date: 07-26-96

   Amidst a mounting controversy over working conditions in foreign owned
   sweatshops in the Third World ("maquiladoras" in Spanish), the voices
   of workers themselves are rarely heard. An extended interview with a
   woman in a Tijuana-based assembly plant confirms critics' allegations
   -- low wages, bad working conditions, oppressive fear. But it also
   highlights one aspect rarely mentioned in the debate -- the desperate
   desire of workers to keep their families together in seemingly
   hopeless living conditions. This is the first of an occasional series
   of "voices" -- pieces based on extensive interviews by PNS editors
   with people who address global issues from their direct life
   experience. Photographs illustrating the interviewee in this article
   are available on request from Pacific News Service.

   Maria Ibarra is about 40 years old. She works in the maquiladora
   factory of Maxell of Mexico, one of Tijuana's largest, which
   manufactures tape cassettes and magnetic disks for computers. (Maxell
   is headquartered in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.) She lives in a barrio
   below Otay Mesa, on a dirt street which turns into impassable mud when
   it rains. Her home, shared with another family, is made of castoff
   materials from the factories -- a wooden frame salvaged from
   industrial pallets, with interior walls made of unfolded corrugated
   boxes. She provided this description of her life to PNS associate
   editor David Bacon in a recent interview.


   I've worked in the factory where I am now for three years. Three years
   is a long time, and what I have to show for this time is very little.
   You connect all the parts, do your job and try to keep up with all the
   things the company demands. But the benefits are very small,
   especially in terms of money.

   I make 38 pesos a day -- 264 pesos a week. Our wages are so low the
   company gives us a weekly bonus of food coupons worth 55 pesos. (One
   dollar = 7.50 pesos).

   I have two sons who live with me. My oldest is 19. He has been working
   in a maquiladora for four years, since he was small. He couldn't
   continue going to school because we couldn't get by on what I was
   earning. The younger one is 16, and just started in a small shop where
   they're teaching him the job. Because he's still small, and just
   learning, he's earning enough for his bus fare and his food, and
   that's all.

   As their mother, I felt very bad when they first went to work.
   Children should be in school. I wanted something so different for
   them. When they were babies, I thought they were going to study and
   become something in life. But the economy failed. I was forced to send
   them to work so we could survive. I can't say this really solved
   anything. It was just so that we could live a little better. And it's
   not just my children -- they're just two of many others.

   Between my oldest son and myself, we bring in about 410 pesos a week.
   Water is very expensive. Gas (for cooking) is very expensive. Food is
   very expensive. If we want to eat meat, it can't stretch that far.
   It's more like we eat bones than we eat meat.

   At the beginning of the year there's always a general wage increase,
   but before the increase takes effect, you see the prices going up on
   everything. Everything. Last January, sugar went up a peso. Milk,
   which cost 15 pesos, went up to 17,50. I only make 38 pesos a day, so
   I work half a day for a gallon of milk.

   When I talk to my friends at work, everywhere it's the same. When
   people get married, they both have to work. Young couples leave their
   small children with a neighbor, or with their parents. The salary of a
   single person isn't enough to live on.

   I have hope that things can change, but I see it as very difficult. We
   tried to change things once in my factory. We didn't have any
   transportation to work. At first, we talked among ourselves,
   undercover, because we were afraid. Normally, the majority of the
   people don't really participate in anything. We always fear we'll be
   discovered and fired. Everything has to be done undercover.

   But we screwed up our courage, and we said, well, whatever happens,
   we're going to see what we can do. We got together a group of four or
   five people. To show the company we weren't just by ourselves, we put
   it all in writing, and everyone signed what we wrote. We went to the
   offices of the company and said we wanted busses. We made ourselves
   brave, and we talked, and thank God, we got them.

   Sincerely, I was afraid something would happen to us. The company
   doesn't like people like us -- they call us crybabies. But winning
   really lifted our spirits because even though getting a bus is not a
   lot, it's something. And we save enough at home to buy another
   container of water or a kilo of tortillas. We won something real.

   I asked the assistant manager of our shift why they can't pay us a
   little more. On the other side of the border, people working for the
   same company earn in an hour what we earn in a day. He told us that
   the company came here because we work so cheap. If we pressured them
   to pay more, they would just take the work somewhere else and we would
   be left without jobs. I think this is really just an excuse, to make
   us grateful for our jobs.

   Still, it's difficult to think about my future. I have to take care
   not to lose my job. Once you get to be a certain age, they don't want
   you anymore. I've thought about going across the border, but I'm
   scared to do it. I have my sons. What would happen to them if I left
   them by themselves? There's vagrancy, there's delinquency, there are
   lots of dangers. It could be even worse.

   But the younger one is desperate, and he says he wants to go across. I
   tell him he has to be 18 but he's free. How could I stop him? Here or
   there, who knows what could happen? And over there, it's very bad.
   Because of lack of schooling, he doesn't know English. So what would
   he be going to? To be humiliated? To work? No, no, I tell him, better
   here. But he just says, well, maybe later on then.

   * * *

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