Products Over People: The problem with maquiladoras

Maquilapolis is making its way to thousands of TVs across the country — many assembled in the very foreign-owned factories the new documentary exposes — and reminding viewers of globalization’s darker side

By Kinsee Morlan first published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/25/2006

Welcome to a world where smock color designates rank and long hours are filled with mind-numbing work — pull, remove, pull, remove, pull, remove — in factory rooms permeated with toxic fumes, where workers make less than $11 a day. It’s the world of Maquilapolis, and once you’ve been introduced, it can be hard to forget. That’s just what filmmakers Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre intended.

“Normally, as an artist,” explained Funari, “you make a film and you say, ‘Well, if it can bring about change, that’s great, but it’s not my goal.’ This is the first time that I said, ‘Yep, that’s what I want it to do. I want it to change the way people think about a global economy.”

Funari and De La Torre’s documentary is an account of the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the workers in Tijuana-through the eyes of the workers themselves. Tijuana is arguably one of the cities most changed by the international pact. Factories have been there since the 1960s, but the 1994 implementation of NAFTA opened the floodgates to a horde of multinational corporations looking for tax breaks and cheap labor in the borderland. Foreign-owned assembly plants, called maquiladoras or maquilas, moved in and found the cheap labor in women, many of them poor migrants from the south. The women became the link between the imported raw materials and the exported finished products.

Nine of these women take the cameras into their own hands in Maquilapolis and tell their heartbreaking yet markedly hopeful stories through personal video diaries.

“The maquila changed everything,” laments one of the women in the opening sequence of the film.

The plight of maquiladora worker is nothing new. The press has written extensively about the working conditions, and David Bacon’s book, Children of NAFTA, gives a detailed account of the struggles, but the film serves as a vivid reminder.

Right fighting

Last week, at a meeting in an old garage used as the headquarters of a Tijuana workers’ information center called the Centro de Información para Trabajadoras y Trabajadores, A.C. (CITTAC), about a dozen people sat around a long conference table. A young Canadian graduate student doing research work on maquiladoras leaned toward an ex-pat retired lawyer who volunteers at the center and nodded toward Carmen Durán.

“She’s a movie star,” the student whispered, recognizing Durán in a poster for Maquilapolis hanging on the wall behind her.

“Yeah,” answered the ex-pat, “and she paints rocks for a living.”

Durán, a petite and attractive woman who always seems to be just one joke away from a smile, stroked her young daughter’s hair as she told the group about the strong fumes and poor ventilation she deals with every day while painting artificial landscape rocks in a maquiladora. She says the managers won’t open the factory doors because they don’t want dust to settle on the wet paint. After she spends hours painting and breathing in the fumes, the rocks are shipped into the United States, where they end up as decorative items in suburban yards.

She’s not complaining, though; she’s actually pretty excited. Durán says she has successfully organized a five-person committee with some of her coworkers and they’ve scheduled a meeting with their bosses. She says they’ll use the meeting to make demands for a cleaner workplace and safer equipment.

“Sometimes we don’t even wear goggles,” says Durán, “they’re old and they don’t fit. They fall off our faces.”

The workers around the table have similar stories. One young man is upset because his bosses are trying to cut his already low pay without reason. Another woman is filing a claim with the Conciliation and Arbitration Board (Tijuana’s labor board) against a company that fired her after she suffered a shoulder injury in a work-related accident. The workers and a handful of CITTAC volunteers listen to the stories, then offer support, advice and possible solutions.

After the meeting, Durán steps outside into the afternoon Tijuana sun and explains why, after taking part in a documentary exposing the terrible conditions inside maquiladoras, she continues to work in one.

“I want to continue the struggle,” said Durán. “I’m in the movement now, and you can only truly understand the struggle by being in it. I feel like I’m part of a world worker movement.”

Declarations like this are what helped Durán emerge as one of the central figures in Maquilapolis. From the moment she introduces herself in the film, she shows a strong personality that no job, no matter how hard, can quell.

Early in the film, Durán works the nightshift, six nights a week, at a Sanyo factory assembling television parts, making $36 a week. She lives in a house made from old garage doors with her three young kids. There’s no running water or sewage facilities, and she still hasn’t found the money to put in a floor. Durán returns home from work at 7 a.m. and spends the rest of the day taking care of her kids. “Maybe I get two or three hours of sleep,” Durán says, “or sometimes I don’t sleep and I just go off to work.”

When Durán sits down in front of the camera, her health problems are revealed-she has visible sores around her nostrils that she says are a reaction to the lead in the TV circuit boards. She also says problems with her kidneys were caused by working in the maquiladora. “They wouldn’t let me drink water or go to the bathroom,” she says.

When Durán loses her job at Sanyo (the factory moves to Indonesia for even cheaper labor), she goes after the company and asks it to cough up the severance pay that Mexican labor law requires. She pursues the claim with the help of Jaime Cota, a legal representative from CITTAC. While her case is in arbitration, Durán takes a job at another maquiladora, this time working for Panasonic making $68 a week.

But more health problems arise and Durán soon uses up her sick days and eventually gets fired. Fortunately, good news comes just in time. Three months after losing her job at Panasonic, Durán wins a settlement in her Sanyo case-she uses part of the money to install a floor.

Durán’s video diary is the story of just one woman, but-like the rest of the tales in Maquilapolis-she represents an entire class in Tijuana: the working poor. According to a report released by the city of Tijuana this year, roughly 172,000 citizens are employed by maquiladoras. The number is considered conservative by workers-rights advocates who say high turnover rates at the factories make it impossible to get an accurate count. Workers in Tijuana have nearly 100 maquiladoras to choose from, most of which hang signs outside their factories encouraging people to come in and apply for short-term work.

The audience reacts

Last month, about two-dozen people made their way to the third floor of the San Diego Central Public Library to see Maquilapolis. Not far into the film, people in the audience started groaning and shifting in their seats. Most of the products made in the maquiladoras-everything from television sets to medical urine bags to pantyhose-are being shipped to the U.S. Members of the audience seemed to be realizing that their role in the movie is that of the clueless consumer.

Aside from Durán’s story, one other video diary grips the audience’s attention: Lourdes Luján and her fight to clean up the Metales y Derivados site, the now notorious maquiladora that once operated as a lead recycling plant, importing used car batteries and lead scrap to melt into slabs to resell. The site was owned and operated by a man named José Kahn from 1982 until the Mexican government shut it down in 1994. Kahn was sanctioned by the Mexican government, but he fled across the border to Point Loma and the case was never pursued by American officials. The abandoned site Kahn left behind is an ecological nightmare that wreaks havoc on the surrounding community to this day.

After the screening, two of the women in the film, Lupita Casteñada and Luján took questions from the crowd.

“Has anything changed?” someone asked.

“The workers continue demanding respect for their rights,” Luján answered, “but the maquilas have many powerful lawyers, and those lawyers drag things out-the workers usually give up.”

“What about OSHA? What about the EPA?” asked another person from the back of the room. “Those are U.S.-owned factories. I just find it hard to believe we haven’t done anything. Has that site been cleaned up yet?”

“No,” Luján said. “It’s not clean yet, but it’s a goal of ours. We continue to do health surveys and lead tests to document what’s going on.”

“Did they ever find that man in Point Loma?” asked a man in the front. “Where does he live? I’ll write down his address and find him.” The audience riled at the mention of Kahn’s name.

“He died sometime last year,” Luján responded.

“Makes you wish there is a hell and he’s there now,” said the man.

Talking back

The emotional and angry response to Maquilapolis was something the filmmakers had hoped for, but they didn’t know how uninformed people are.

“People have been saying, ‘I didn’t know this was happening. I didn’t know how bad it was. I didn’t know people were suffering,’” Funari said, “‘and that kind of surprises me because I kind of take it as a given that things aren’t working out for the working poor these days.”

Another surprise reaction came a week before the film’s Oct. 10 national broadcast date on PBS, when a representative of Panasonic sent a letter to the broadcasting company expressing concerns.

“They said there may have been some inaccuracies in the film in concern to Carmen’s case,” said Simon Kilmurry, an executive director of P.O.V., the network’s documentary series. “They were concerned that she says she became sick while working at Panasonic.”

Kilmurry said he responded to the letter, but never heard back.

Both the filmmakers said they were shocked Panasonic had even heard of the film, let alone reacted to it. “I don’t know if I’m naïve or not, but I was not expecting them to respond,” said De La Torre. “They’re so big and impossible to locate; I never thought they’d talk back.”

CityBeat asked for interviews with representatives of Panasonic, Sony and Pioneer, but our requests went ignored.

Alan Foster, a spokesperson for Sanyo, said his company had heard of the film, too. “What’s it called?” he asked. “Maquila something?” He said he hadn’t seen it yet, but he’d heard the company wasn’t made out to look very good. “We’re not doing anything other companies aren’t doing down there,” said Foster. “It is what it is-I mean, it’s not something we’re embarrassed about. We’re doing a great job down there.”


Aware of the maquiladora situation in Tijuana long before Maquilapolis came out, a small group of professors and activists in San Diego started an organization in 2003 called the San Diego Maquiladora Workers’ Solidarity Network. The group is the unofficial descendant of the now-defunct San Diego-based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, an organization that played a role in the famous Tijuana labor struggles that began in June of 1997 at the Han Young maquiladora, a welding plant for Hyundai. A strike at Han Young in 1998 was the first, and last, legal strike by an independent union in a maquiladora. (Most factories do supply their workers with unions; however, labor activists call these company-supplied unions “fantasmas”-or phantoms-because most workers don’t even know they exist.) The Han Young workers achieved small victories, but, in the end, the plant closed and nothing changed. Very few independent unions have formed in maquiladoras since; none have been able to organize a successful strike.

Unlike their predecessors, the folks of the Solidarity Network don’t go into the maquiladoras and try to help workers organize unions. Instead, they organize tours. The members say they want to make people in the U.S. and other countries aware of the labor conditions and low wages in the maquiladoras.

“For me,” explained Herb Shore, a retired physics professor at San Diego State University and one of the founders of the San Diego Maquiladora Workers’ Solidarity Network, “what we can do is make Mexico a less mysterious place to progressive people on this side of the border.

“And part of what we’re doing,” he continued, “is helping to create a politically aware movement of young people in this country.”

In August, a group of 16 people-a mix of several undergrad and graduate students, a doctor and his wife, a filmmaker, a computer scientist, two psychologists and a retired Marine-met in front of the McDonalds that sits just feet from the San Ysidro border crossing. Shore herded everyone together and pointed the group toward the border. The maquiladora tour, he said, starts on the other side.

Enrique Davalos, a professor of Chicano studies at San Diego City College and a member of the Solidarity Network, met the tour group in a parking lot near the yellow cab stand in Tijuana. Everyone boarded the bus and set off for Otay, the industrial neighborhood on a hilltop in the northeastern part of the city.

After a quick stop near the airport to see art projects along the border fence, Davalos introduced the group to Metales y Derivados, the abandoned lead smelter site featured in Maquilapolis.

“This one is one of the most dangerous, toxic places in Tijuana,” said Davalos. “Now, it looks to be clean, but it’s just superficial, and, actually, the fact that you can see it clean and empty now is a result of more than five or six years of a struggle.”

There are painted warning signs on the side of the wall surrounding the skeletal remains of Metales, but a dirt path cuts right through the site and leads to Chilpancingo, the community in the valley below. Fresh footprints, several made by children, could be seen in the dirt.

“We are here up on a hill,” said Davalos as he stood on the ridge looking out toward the town, “so, essentially, what happens is all the lead dust blows there and affects the community below.”

After a visit to Chilpancingo-where houses are made of pallets and scrap metal, and a polluted river flows across the neighborhood’s only entrance-the last stop on the tour was CITTAC. One of the two fulltime employees at the center, a sharp young woman who goes by the name Mago (she was recently attacked while working in the center and asked that her full name not be used), went to the front of the room and described the typical complaints she hears from workers. She said most maquiladoras require 14-hour workdays. “The Mexican Constitution,” she explained, “mandates an eight-hour workday.” She said that, on average, workers make about $11 a day, but the Constitution demands a living wage. She said the most serious problems, however, are the health impacts.

“For us,” Mago said, “the health issues are very important because many maquiladoras, regardless of what they make, use chemical substances that are harmful to your health.”

Not over yet

“Twelve years after NAFTA’s implementation,” said Amelia Simpson, director of the Border Environmental Justice Campaign a project of the San Diego-based nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), “it’s very, very clear that neither labor rights nor the environment will ever be safe under a trade regime that follows the NAFTA model.”

Glimpses of the work of Simpson and EHC-organizational partners in the making of Maquilapolis-are featured in part of Luján’s video diary. The film documents EHC and the Colectivo Chilpancingo Pro Justicia Ambiental, a group of women activists, including Luján, working together to get the Mexican and American governments to clean up Metales y Derivados.

To date, $750,000 has been spent to remove the piles of old car batteries and rusted barrels filled with lead slag that once covered the dusty lot. But the process has been long-the final cleanup date is projected to be 2009.

Under the La Paz Agreement, NAFTA’s environmental side deal, the issue of enforcement is vague. When someone suspects a multinational corporation has violated environmental law, they can file a complaint with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC). But the only thing CEC can do is write up a report. Released in 2002, CEC’s report on Metales y Derivados confirmed what everyone already knew: the site is contaminated. Dangerous amounts of lead, according to the report, were found as deep as 30 feet, and “urgent action” should be taken.

NAFTA requires that all “risk materials and risk residues from raw materials imported temporarily into Mexico must be returned to the country of origin.” If justice were to be served in full, the contaminated soil would be dug up and shipped back to the U.S. That’s not likely to happen, says Simpson, because under NAFTA, “there’s no enforcement mechanism.

“Metales y Derivados is the poster child for the failure of NAFTA and NAFTA-style agreements to protect the environment,” she said, “because we did exactly what NAFTA says you do-you file a petition, which we did in 1998. Four years later, we got the best you can get from NAFTA, which is a nice book confirming what the community knew.”

The new face of NAFTA

Maquilapolis ends with a shot of a row of the maquiladora workers in bright blue smocks standing side-by-side in the middle of a barren industrial lot making strange hand movements in unison. Their hands are busy, but their eyes are blank. The gestures they’re making are the same ones they make all day, every day while working in assembly lines.

The filmmakers said they noticed the women making the hand movements during initial interviews. They asked the women what they were doing, and they said it was habit-they were working.

“Because they’re doing it all day long, a thousand times a day,” explained De Le Torre, “it becomes part of who they are.”

Maquilapolis will broadcast on KPBS/Channel 15 at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29. The San Diego Maquiladora Workers’ Solidarity network will offer a Tijuana factory tour starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, and Saturday, Dec. 9.,


About Kinsee Morlan

Arts and web editor at San Diego CityBeat. Interested in art and the Tijuana/San Diego border.
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