Desktop version

Home arrow Political science

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Garment factories in Zapotitlán: the “complementarity” of women’s labor

In an effort to attract foreign investment in export manufacturing, the Mexican government implemented the Border Industrialization Program in 1965 and the In Bond Plant Program in the 1970s. These programs instituted the tariff laws and fiscal incentives that permitted the development of maquiladoras in the country (Fernández-Kelly, 1983, p. 25). In theory, ex-Braceros expelled from the US at the end of the guest worker program in 1964 were to constitute an important part of the workforce for the new plants, thereby stemming undocumented migration to the US. However, in practice, firms contributed to the formation of a new proletariat by employing a majority of adolescent daughters and single mothers as operators on assembly lines. In general, female maquiladora workers lacked employed male relatives in their households. Managers and supervisors preferred women’s docility and dexterity, a discourse that transformed their economic necessity and structural vulnerability into biological and psychological “truths” in an effort to speed production and increase profits (Fernández-Kelly, 1983; Iglesias, 1985).

In an effort to recruit lower-cost labor, Mexico expanded the maquiladora system to other parts of the country in the early 1970s, through “decentralization” (Fernández-Kelly, 1983, p. 38) or “peripheralization” (Escobar Latapi & Martinez Castellanos, 1991; Rothstein, 2007, pp. 68—69). The state reinforced the industry during the 1980s to offset the shocks of the 1982 oil crisis and the IMF-led economic restructuring that followed. Further, maquiladoras contributed to the abandonment of import-substitution industrialization and the opening of the Mexican economy by attracting transnational capital (Flores Morales, 2008, pp. 61-70). While garment production for the national market had existed in Tehuacán since the 1960s and 1970s, the growth of the maquiladora export sector in the 1980s and 1990s boosted the city’s apparel industry. Tehuacán, Puebla’s second-largest city, had earned the unofficial title of bluejean capital of the world by the late 1990s (Barrios Hernández & Santiago Hernández, 2003, pp. 29-30).

Beginning in the 1980s, the first garment factories opened in Zapotitlán, employing dozens of adolescent girls, and single and married women. Subcontracted by larger firms in Tehuacán looking to boost production at a minimum of cost, these clandestine shops offered meager salaries and none of the workers’ benefits required by law. The entry of garment factories coincided with the fall in the purchasing power of men’s wages earned in the quarries and onyx workshops. La necesidad—the need for income—relaxed gendered norms about women’s “proper place” in the home and reduced domestic conflicts for the women who sought employment. Despite low, “complementary” wages, the local garment factories appealed to many women because they did not have to pay for transportation to work. Some women opted for the slightly better pay and benefits offered in Tehuacán’s legally registered maquiladoras once they gained experience in local factories.

Although unmarried daughters turned over all or a portion of their salary to their parents, working in the factory could be experienced as “freedom” from the restrictive norms of the household that dictated their daily chores and movements in the town. Daughters who maintained some control over their wages might gain limited prestige for providing clothing for household members or for being a sponsor for a neighbor’s baptism or wedding. Their subordinate position in the household, however, was not reconfigured. Others handed over their salary to their parents who might give them a small allowance while using the majority for household expenses. Maria, who was 13 at the time she began to work in a maquiladora in Zapotitlan, explained that the work was “nice” (bonito) because of the friendships she made and the freedom she was granted by her mother to play basketball with her girlfriends after work. The work was also difficult (pesado) and tiring (cansado). After a couple of years, she left the garment factory to take care of her sister's children. She explained that this was much easier than standing all day in the factory. Their mother, Maria's sister, labored as a domestic worker in Chicago (Maria, 17, Zapotitlan Salinas, April 2003).

Despite greater freedoms to socialize outside the home and factory, work in the maquiladora represented an increase in women’s overall workload because waged work was added to their obligatory reproductive work. This second shift (Hochschild, 1989) was especially onerous for home workers. In an attempt to push an even greater amount of the cost of production on the workforce, factories allowed women with children and at least two years’ experience to opt for the more “flexible” arrangements of working from home. The clothing factory distributed packages of materials for assembly while workers paid for the sewing machines and electricity used in their homes. Factory managers also required women to pay for the transportation of the materials and finished products to and from the women’s homes. The “flexibility” of watching children during the day and working late into the night was attractive, although the exhaustion and fatigue took a devastating toll on all the garment factory workers, especially affecting home workers’ wellbeing.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics