Maquila Visit: Behind the Chainlink Fence

Trip Start Nov 25, 2006
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Flag of Mexico  , Chihuahua,
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Few of us ever enter an off-shore production factory, known here as a maquila, where U.S. parts are assembled by local labor force and returned to the U.S. (or whichever their home-office, headquarter country) for sales. I jumped at a chance to visit one.

Anticipating sweat-shop conditions, I noted instead the good lighting, safety equipment, the free child-care facility, free commissary, free medical mini-clinic for the workers. Although a factory environment is less-than-ideal place to spend your time, this electronics-fabrication facility wasn't too bad. We got the royal treatment by the management, who prided themselves on their ability to produce manufactured goods cheaply. [Our cameras were not permitted in the factory.]

It took careful, persistent questioning to uncover that the average laborer there earned just $6/day. [A galllon of milk costs $4 in Juarez, so the cost-of-living is comparable to U.S.] People can work overtime for more money, but no one is allowed to work over 16 hours in a day (!). It takes 2 maquila wages to sustain a family of four, say local activists. Often, the parents work different shifts, disrupting the daily family structure.

The factory officials invited our group to eat in the commissary, but some members of our group could not stomach the discomfort they felt in this environment. The group decided to eat downtown instead. Today I type this entry on my new $550 laptop, considered a low-end machine here in the U.S., it would cost 25% of the annual salary of one of the people who assembled its components for me.

My critics would say, "At least that factory job is better than NO job."
I respond, "Are those our only options?"
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