Workers at maquiladora factories in Mexico told recent visitors from Texas that they are sometimes asked to undo their work entirely or spend long hours in isolated spaces.
“These tactics are a new level in the psychological game, to get people used to the idea that they are kind of owned and really don’t have any worth apart from the company,” says Howard Hawhee, who helped to coordinate a listening tour in late May.
“These kinds of stories are very bizarre,” says Judith Rosenberg, who has been organizing tours across the border since 1999. “These are management techniques that someone compared to Hitler.”
For example, Hawhee and Rosenberg say women in maquiladoras report that they are sometimes asked to prove they are not pregnant by showing proof of menstruation.
“They are very distasteful management techniques,” says Rosenberg. “And you have to call them that because they are used very methodically. This business with the sanitary napkins is outrageous, and people feel the attack on their dignity, the women do. And the men do too.”
In an interview conducted in Austin after they returned (published at stateofnature.org) Hawhee and Rosenberg said they also heard new stories about workers who were directed to undo work or pass their shifts in isolation.
“One is they would have a whole section of people in a factory that for instance manufactures seat covers or seat belts,” reported Hawhee. “And they would do a whole day’s worth of work, you know, sew everything. And the next day when they came back their job was to un-sew it all. Just to make the point that ‘okay, we don’t need you. We just got you around because we like having you around, and that’s all’.”
“Another worker, and I think I heard more than one example of this while I was down there, he said he’d been insisting on some rights that he had under the Mexican Federal Labor Law,” Hawhee continued.
“And the management had been telling him no, so he kind of dug in his heels and wasn’t backing down, so he’d show up to work for his shift and he’d be there for a full day and get paid, but his job was that they would take him to a small room, maybe a six by ten foot room and lock him in. And that’s what he did. And they’d only let him out on breaks and at the end of his shift.”
In response to this escalation in the psychological intensity of management control, Hawhee said workers were asking for help with corporate research.
“So right now there is a period where they are looking to figure out how to do some economic analysis,” says Hawhee, reporting that this is also a new feature of the conversation he is encountering.
Says Hawhee, Mexican workers want to know from workers in the USA, “What kinds of tricks get played? And economically speaking, realistically, where are they? What should we be doing on this end?”
“They’ve got some very specific pieces of information they want so that they can do an analysis and figure out what buttons to push and what buttons not to push,” says Hawhee.
“Realistic” is a word Hawhee used to describe the workers’ attitudes. They want a better life, so they don’t want to act in ways that will run the companies out of town.
“We’re looking for some human dignity,” says Hawhee reflecting the voices he has heard. “We’re looking to be treated like human beings. And we expect to have a modicum of well being in our lives, and especially for our children. And we really don’t mind doing this kind of work, working really hard, and that sort of thing, but we want to be treated right and we want to think that this is going somewhere.”
Rosenberg organizes four trips per year to the maquiladoras, resuming in October. She has avoided public relations tours of factories, preferring to listen to workers.
“We never go in,” says Rosenberg. “It’s harder and harder to get in. But either way, you get a public relations tour and we’ve never wanted to do that. We have this position that if you want to know what’s going on inside the factories, ask the workers. And don’t ask them while they’re in the factories, because they won’t be able to tell you then. There’s somebody breathing down their neck.”
Instead, Rosenberg organizes small tours that pass through worker neighborhoods where visitors from the USA can listen to stories of life and work. She co-founded Austin Tan Cerca (Austin So Close) as a way to support workers’ rights and fight sweatshop conditions in the maquiladoras. In addition to the tours, the group sends money to support an organizer and office in the border town of Piedras Negras.
Rosenberg was drawn into the activism after meeting Mexican labor organizer Julia Quinones of the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras (Border Committee of Workers).
“It’s been a very important thing for me,” says Rosenberg. “I think it’s historically extremely important to all of us, and we don’t know about it.”
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org