There's a documentary called Maqulapolis which tells of the daily lives of some Mexican women. They work as maquiladora workers in Tijuana, Mexico's northwestern border with the United States. Maquiladoras means assembly plants, ie factories that assemble different products from industrial parts that come from different parts of the world. They are part of so-called "global value chains", the global workshop. Around Mexico's northern border (around 3000 km long) there are thousands of factories in several different industrial sectors: automotive, electronics, chemicals, medical equipment, textiles and so on. The pre-assembled products are then exported directly to the United States without paying export duties. Above all, American companies but also European or Asian companies benefit from the system. Companies pay extremely low wages to their workers, next to no local taxes, and export at low cost directly to the largest market - the United States.
Maquiladoras has flourished since NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) entered into force in 1994. In 2018, NAFTA was renegotiated and renamed the USMCA (The US, Mexico and Canada agreement). The agreement entered into force this year. In the beginning, the majority of maquiladora workers were women, but that is no longer the case. However, it varies greatly depending on the industry sector and companies.
Vad Maquilapolis-the documentary illustrates is an everyday life that shakes many, especially the corresponding workers in Europe. Workers' homes are built with debris from construction sites in Mexico or the United States: cardboard, sheet metal and plastic. They are located in areas close to maquiladoras factories (which themselves can be very fine modern constructions) with many problems such as pollution in the water, soil, air and very little urban infrastructure such as electricity, sewage and access to clean water. In the documentary, we see how women struggle to achieve a dignified life with very low wages, diseases due to pollution, poor working conditions, including sexual harassment and even worse living conditions. Many of these women are single who, in addition to all the above problems, have to support one or more children. But these women fight and sometimes win as we see in the documentary, even if these victories do not change their situation.
In feminist academic circles, there has been a long debate about the jobs around "maquiladoras". Can they be seen as liberating, do they give more freedom and self-determination to women, or are they oppressive and another aspect of the dominance of patriarchy? I guess the situation for women in Maquilapolis-the documentary could lean in the oppressive direction, the same as for many other female maquiladora workers I myself have interviewed. But unfortunately, there are often no alternative jobs for these women with a low level of education.
But why are women and their male employees not fighting for better working conditions and wages to achieve a better life? The answer is that they can not do it because real unions in these factories are not allowed. At the same time, local, regional, and federal governments in Mexico want to satisfy foreign investors even if it violates Mexican constitutional rights such as the right to organize.
So even for large and well-known Swedish companies such as Electrolux, which have their own "codes of conduct", have signed global framework agreements to respect workers' rights to organize collectively, the situation is the same. Electrolux's factories in Ciudad Juarez have 5000 employees who have not been able to organize as a trade union due to threats from the company. In addition, it is reported that many sexual harassments occur on their premises. In March this year, several of the workers protested after several people died of covid-19. Protective equipment was missing and the company refused to close the factories despite a request from the Mexican government. Hundreds of employees protested and were fired without compensation. Swedish Radio has previously raised the situation, a committed Swedish activist alerted several Swedish unions, which led to a new negotiation between the fired employees and the company.
But the fight is not over. Harassment continues, risk groups for covid-19 are extra vulnerable when the company works on as if the pandemic did not exist. If this happens to a Swedish company that is dependent on its functioning workforce in Mexico, what can we really expect from other non-European companies when it comes to human rights in the labor sector?
The Maquilapolis documentary was filmed in 2006. Since then, not much has happened to improve workers' rights in these factories. If workers have more to say, companies can always choose to move to more favorable environments. There are always poor countries that think that bad jobs are better than no jobs at all. And so the carousel continues.