Maquila Female Workers in Their Own Words: Fighting COVID and Labor Abuse

  • Opinion by Saul Escobar Toledo (mexico city)
  • Inter Press Service
  • To Enrique González Rojo (1928-2021), friend, comrade in many struggles, admirable poet, and Marxist thinker

The author explains the interviews were conducted by phone in mid-2020; the workers´ ages range from 20 to 40 years; their level of education is elementary and middle school; they come from the countryside or small urban communities where there are few chances to get a job, so they move to the larger cities of the State of Morelos, where the maquiladoras are set to produce for major brands belonging to international consortia.

Their working conditions were already very unfavorable: in the textile sector and specifically in the branch of clothing and footwear, working days exceed eight hours a day, time in which they are permanently seated in non-designed chairs ergonomically, supporting extremely high temperatures in closed places with little ventilation.

The spread of COVID-19 made matters worse. Mainly, the bosses of the maquilas in Morelos did not respect the official recommendations and opted for the dismissal of their employees or cut half of the wages they received weekly.

For example, a worker identified as Lili said, "The company is paying me 280 pesos (14 dollars) a week ..." while another, Anita says, "I am now working cleaning houses, the truth is that $ 400 pesos (20 dollars) the factory is giving me now is not enough”. Other interviewees indicated that they have received half of their salary.

Vicky: "Getting only half the salary the situation is bad, what am I going to do with only $ 400 pesos a week? that’s tough for me, and the company has us on hold, no one knows when I will get back to work ... "

Some more, a little luckier, affirmed that "From April 3 they sent us to rest with a base salary, which is really very little, 833 pesos (41 dollars) a week ..."

There were also cases in which the workers decided to stop working so as not to get infected, and were fired:

Brenda: “… the company chose me to continue working on contingency days, but I saw that several colleagues went home sick with symptoms of COVID-19 and that was why I decided not to expose myself to the Coronavirus, my supervisor was terribly angry with me for making that decision, but I was sure that what I had decided was the right thing to do, to stay home and protect myself. Now I am fired, I was no longer called. "

Almost all confessed going through a very tense emotional situation:

Justina: “Well, personally in the mental sphere I want to take things easy, but it is a bit impossible when I watch television or social networks, since they are flooded with what is happening in the pandemic and with bad news. They have been very outrageous at the time of reporting, I think that's why, so sometimes I can't get to sleep ... "

Finally, the workers were questioned about government aid. All answered they did not receive any support from the federal, state, or municipal governments:

María: " No, at least nothing to me, I only remember that once the assistant of the mayor of the municipality (Emiliano Zapata) was distributing pantries, but they had a cost ..."

Vicky: “Oops! nothing, not a glass of water ...! "

Anita: “The truth is, nothing, at least not even a pantry has arrived here in my neighborhood. "

The author of the compilation concludes that, according to the testimonies collected,

"The more important consequences (observed) were unjustified dismissals ... during these months of health emergency. The major concern of workers is how to generate an income … since the current employment situation looks increasingly difficult. Their mental and emotional health is in constant tension…, especially due to the low economic resources to support their families; besides, they are fearful about the possible spread of COVID-19 when they must exit their homes and go to the streets looking for an (extra) income ... Add to this situation the double and triple work burden. Home education of their minor sons and daughters is generating many more hours of work for them. The care, especially of children, continues to fall primarily on women, just because they are females, with multiple responsibilities and little or no help from their partners, a situation that has led to stress, worry, anxiety, and insecurity, to mention some consequences "

Another important piece of information refers to the behavior of the unions. According to the testimonies collected, Blanca Velázquez assures that in normal times the unions do not defend their affiliates; neither they have done in times of pandemic since they abided unashamedly business decisions and left the worker abandoned to their fate.

Finally, the text calls our attention about the almost total absence of the Mexican State in this situation, particularly the federal government. Rightly concludes the author of this collection, that:

“The social programs that the federal government has promoted for particular sectors, especially vulnerable ones, should be expanded for the workers laid off or when the bosses did not comply with the full payment of wages. We believe that programs for people who were laid off should be promoted immediately or, failing that, (legislate) unemployment insurance to alleviate this serious situation and train those who require it to be able to be employed in other trades or professions”.

Millions of wage earners have been deprived of any help and it has had a high social cost and become an obstacle to economic recovery. It is difficult to understand the reasons that led the government to this oversight. Perhaps they expected companies would pay total wages or that layoffs could be resolved quickly. However, it was likely that they did not, as indeed happened, due to the behavior of many companies in the past decades, as they have constantly violated labor laws and promoted lack of representative trade unions, especially in industry of maquila.

The absence of a worker protection policy during the pandemic seems to be due rather to an economic project based on budget cuts and austere public spending that does not admit emergency measures. The testimonies collected in the book show the unfortunate effects of these decisions. Waiting for the US economy to be the main factor in the recovery may be successful in the coming months. However, it will not correct the damage done to working class families. Nor will boost employment if it is not accompanied by other measures, such as unemployment insurance and promotion of domestic production and consumption.

The words of grief and pain shown in this publication are a very expressive testimony of what the Government of the Republic could have done (as in other countries and even in Mexico City) but refused to do.

Saul Escobar Toledo, Economist, Professor at Department of Contemporary Studies in INAH (National Institute oh Anthropology and History, México) and President of the Board of the Institute of Workers Studies “Rafael Galvan”, a non-profit organization. His recent work : “Subcontracting: a study of change in labor relations” will be published soon by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Mexico City.

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© Inter Press Service (2021) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service