<i>Maquila</i> Workers: A New Breed of Women?
The maquilas have created thousands of new jobs, most of them for young women. The factory is a place where all kinds of women come together, where one finds a wide range of human, particularly female, experience. The convergence of this diversity combined with economic independence might just create the mold for a different model of womanhood.
Nelly del Cid, Carla Castro and Yadira Rodríguez
The Honduran Maquiladoras Association has 200 official maquiladoras—cross-border assembly plants for re-export—on its rolls. It also acknowledges that a large number of such plants exist over which it has no authority, perhaps another 50 or so.
The assembly plants are grouped in the country's major cities: San Pedro Sula, Villanueva, Búfalo, La Lima, El Progreso, Choloma, La Ceiba, Siguatepeque and the capital, Tegucigalpa. The majority of these cities are in the north, in strategic proximity to Honduras' major ports.
In this total of some 250 factories, only 20 have unions, the majority of them weak and lacking the capacity to negotiate contracts.
This industry—which as a whole is known as “maquila”—includes investment capital from the United States, Honduras, Korea and, on a smaller scale, Singapore and Taiwan. Businesspeople from the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise (COHEP), however, complain constantly about the preferential conditions the country offers the foreign maquila investors.
The major source of employment nationwide, the maquila is said to have already created 110,000 jobs, with the possibility of more in the future. As in other countries, the majority of this labor force, approximately 85%, is female and between the ages of 13 and 34. In order to better understand this “world,” we spent time with young maquila workers (14-24 years old) from La Lima and El Progreso. Some of them live in the city and others in the countryside.
Door to a new worldMany young people from both urban and rural settings dream of the day they will reach legal age and be able to work in a factory. Provoked by impatience, in many cases brought about by acute economic need, but also by a fascination—especially among young women—with the factory world, many of them find ways to get around the age requirements. There are 14-year-olds who work under false identities, for example.
For these young women, the factory is the door to a whole new world. It offers them the opportunity for new experiences and adventures free of parental control—a novelty not permitted them within the family structure. “Female children are subject to stricter controls than male children. My father always says that women belong in the home, and men belong in the streets.”
At first, the money they earn makes them think they have the whole world at their fingertips. “When I received my first pay I was so happy that when I got home I just kept counting the money over and over. It was like a dream come true.”
Money gives these women buying power, which allows them to emerge from their invisibility and feel important. For better or worse, having money makes them a focus of attention by street vendors and informal credit systems.
On payday, they feel that the world revolves around them. They get more dressed up than usual. When they leave work they go shopping, or out together to eat chicken, hamburgers, pastries, etc. Also on payday, the street vendors come around to offer their wares, or bring merchandise that had been previously ordered.
Production goals the seed of discordThe plants are organized either by modules or by classic assembly lines. Both systems strive for the highest productivity, which is measured by production targets. In the factory, a worker's value is determined by her or his capacity to produce. “Tell me how much you produce and I'll tell you what you're worth.” In the same vein, operators who reach or come closest to the production targets get better pay, in accordance with an incentive system.
The module system is based on groups of 6-8 operators sharing a common production target. All operators within a group earn the same amount of money, irrespective of each individual's contribution towards reaching the goal. Under the module system, collective productivity is what counts.
Production lines, in contrast, have a greater number of operators: 15-18. As with the module system, collective goals are established, but there are also individual goals, and one's pay depends on individual as well as collective productivity.
Both organizational models create conflict and animosity among the workers, who unconsciously begin to internalize capitalist ideology: “What matters is production, not people.” A woman who doesn't keep up with the rhythm of her production line or module is often pressured by co-workers to leave the group, and in some cases, to leave the factory.
Friction between co-workers is greater in the module system than in the line. “I left because I couldn't work fast enough. The operation we were performing was very hard for me, and one woman on the line was constantly badgering me, saying it was my fault that we didn't reach our goal. The other women told me just to ignore her, but I couldn't take it.”
The pressure to reach the target is so strong that many of the women who consider themselves slow make up for it by working during their lunch hour, or coming in early to start producing before the official work day begins.
Not all is competition and conflict among co-workers on the line or in the module, however. They commonly create small savings and loan cooperatives at the beginning of the year, which they dissolve in December, when they divide among themselves the savings and what they have earned from the loans and other activities. It is an idea that helps them save money so they can celebrate Christmas a bit more lavishly.
Friendship cliques are essentialMany women develop also good friendships in the workplace, although deep friendships that last after someone leaves the factory are rare. These friendships are especially important among young women who have just left home for the first time. Only in a group do many of them dare move into a world bigger then the one they've known—that of their family and community. They plan outings and purchases with their girlfriends, and broaden their social relationships by visiting each other's homes and communities.
The group also becomes key to establishing relationships with men. The friends either “cheer on” or discourage each other in their romances. They can even go as far as to cut off a member who decides to pursue a relationship that doesn't meet with the clique's approval.
A group of friends is also needed to make factory life bearable. Without a group, it's very hard for a young woman to maintain both her work stability and emotional equilibrium. In contrast, a close relationship between only two operators, separate from a group, is treated with suspicion and harassment. They are often discriminated against and branded as lesbians.
Romantic relationships between men and women also occur in the world of the factory, but the majority of them are short- lived. More often than not, they are little more than “one-night stands” that develop on workers' picnics or other such excursions where the atmosphere is more relaxed and permissive. “I can't believe some of the things that go on at those outings! Kids who barely open their mouths in the factory really let their hair down...”
“Boyfriends from the factory are good for having fun, because when pay day comes, we go out in a group, and he's the one who pays for the movie and dinner. It's a way to have a good time without having to spend my own money.”
There are also rules about dating. For example, “It doesn't look good for an operator to go out with one of the engineers or supervisors, because we know they're only interested in one thing. As the saying goes, ‘A person is judged by the company she keeps.’”
Submissive?Friction between operators and low-level management is quite common. The operators are always suspicious of the line supervisors, which are often also women: “They don't always give us all the incentive pay we deserve. They act like they own the factory and treat us badly.”
From the operators' point of view, the best supervisor is one who motivates them to hit the production targets, is concerned when they get sick, and helps them get permission for absences when they need it. The prevailing image of a supervisor, however, is that of a watchdog: someone who pressures the workers, imposes mandatory overtime to meet production goals, and is always calling the office to complain and get somebody punished.
When they begin working, the girls are usually very submissive and do everything they are told. They “brown-nose” the people at work who have titles, and address their bosses formally. With time and experience, however, they get more hostile towards their supervisors, reserving their submissiveness for the big bosses.
Very few dare to contradict or answer back a boss, because, as at home, they are used to submitting to parental authority, and the boss is like a parent. The supervisor, on the other hand, plays a role more like that of a big sister. The women recognize that she has a certain amount of authority, but when all is said and done, she's just another “daughter,” so they have the right to question and even buck her. In other words, they experience the factory as a larger version of the home environment, where they are merely “daughters of the house” who have no choice but to accept parental controls unquestioningly. And just like at home, they have their ways of mocking authority and are punished when they get caught.
Unionized?The majority of young men and women who come to the factories have no organizational experience. “When a new girl arrives on the scene, she's a little innocent at first and tolerates whatever they do to her. Because she's new, she doesn't know the ropes and is afraid of being fired, so she puts up with everything. With experience, you learn ways to defend yourself.”
Union organizing is prohibited within the factories. Operators are well aware of this and quickly learn that if they want to keep their jobs they better cut a wide path around anything that smacks of a union. But they also learn that when the factory fires somebody for being a union organizer, that person almost always receives 100% of their severance pay and any other money coming to them. In contrast, when someone leaves voluntarily, he or she loses over 50% of it. For this reason, when veteran workers are ready to leave, they often start organizing a union among other old-timers who are also ready to throw in the towel. They put themselves on a list and spread the rumor that they are organizing a union, which is a sure way to get fired and receive full severance benefits.
A culture of fearA culture of fear permeates the maquila environment. Most workers are afraid to stand up to authority, and since the weight of authority is so strongly felt in the factory, they are afraid to seek the help they need to defend their rights. “Why make trouble with the bosses?” is a common response to problems in the workplace, as is “If they don't want to give me anything, just forget it, let them use it to buy altar candles.”
Along the same lines, most are convinced that “the bosses never lose, because they have bought off the ministries.” This culture of fear combines with the culture of powerlessness to create a mentality that justifies taking advantage of any non- confrontational opportunity that comes their way, including stealing. “When the old geezers fire us they always rob us, so why should I feel bad about stealing from them? Anyway, everybody else who can does it, so why shouldn't I?”
When the women employ legal aid services or the radio to denounce abuses, more often than not they don't tell the whole truth. They exaggerate to improve their chances of triumphing over their bosses since the universal belief in their minds is that the bosses always win. Their lies reveal the anger and powerlessness they feel in the face of eternal winners.
Reluctant to participateOnly a few of the women are aware of organizations like the Human Rights Commission and ERIC, which offer counseling, research and legal services for labor problems. Many of them are afraid to use these services to claim their rights in the workplace.
The majority of young maquila workers are reluctant to participate in any kind of organization if they haven't had prior experience with community or religious groups or athletic teams. Seventy percent of the workers don't participate in any organization, and getting them to attend any meeting requires plugging into their circle of friends. If one can convince two or three members of a clique, it becomes possible to attract the others, always with the risk that if the group's leader leaves, the others will follow.
This conduct reflects women's continuing lack of self-confidence and their fear of facing new situations alone. In an unfamiliar setting, their clique is a fundamental part of their emotional security.
Since the majority of these women have, at most, a sixth grade education, they have a lot of trouble participating in collective discussions once they've joined a group. The most articulate women are usually those with a junior high or high school education, or the few who have gone beyond high school.
When the more introverted women start to feel more confident, and to share their experiences with others, this dynamic triggers a reflection and analytical process that gives rise to changes in how they see themselves, their work and their families.
A macho imageDoes the maquila worker have a special identity? Consciously she doesn't, but she is aware of how other people view and judge her. “Many people think that all of us who work in the maquilas are loose women.” It's the “company you keep” adage at work again.
Why are Honduran maquila workers labeled prostitutes or loose? It's the prevailing notion among men who don't work in the plants, and has to do with the level of independence working women have compared to women who remain in the traditional role of homemaker.
Maquila workers do not live under constant parental supervision and are thus hypothetically freer to have premarital relations or, in the case of married women, affairs.
For example, when a group of female maquila workers announces plans to throw a party, men's reaction is: “This should be good. Maybe we'll score.” As often as not the party turns out to be “a waste” because an overabundance of men and only a few women from the factories show up. The idea of maquila women being “fast” is much more myth than reality. More than anything else, it reflects the double standard of a machista society: men criticize women for being “loose,” but at the same time want to take advantage of their “looseness.”
Free for the first timeFor some of the women, the most important thing they get from working in the factory is economic independence. They are proud of no longer being a burden on their parents and happily acknowledge that the maquila has helped them remain single. “If we had stayed at home, we'd be married and have children by now,” explains one, “because young women who stay alone in the house all day have a lot of time for foolish thoughts.”
“Married women in the factory don't let their husbands boss them around and single women don't think about getting married right away,” says another. They feel like they have had their eyes opened in the factory: “We no longer dream about meeting Prince Charming like when we were girls. We see very well how hard life is, and aren't easily fooled. We're learning to defend ourselves here.”
“I'm bored at home”What influence does themaquilahave on the workers' home life? How are families dealing with the fact that a concept that has dominated their lives for generations—“women stay at home, and men go out to work”—is becoming obsolete? How do these young women reconcile their growing sense of independence and enjoyment of a life that extends beyond the home with the ideology of “man as provider, woman as care giver?”
“For me, staying at home doing housework is boring,” is a frequent comment. “I'm used to my job, and I get bored and antsy being in the house. That's why I go out on Sundays.”
The presence of so many women in the factories is obviously causing radical changes at home. One way this is manifested is in the different status that daughters who work have from those who still don't.
When sons work, they contribute little or nothing to the family. When daughters work, the entire family benefits, either directly or indirectly. The most direct and obvious beneficiaries are the mothers. When a daughter contributes to the home, she never gives the money to her father. She gives it directly to her mother. Most working daughters also usually give more presents to their mothers than to their fathers. The daughter's job helps liberate the mother from her husband's tyranny, because she is no longer as economically dependent on him. As one mother of two working youth puts it, “Now that the children are working, he can leave if he wants to.”
A daughter who makes an economic contribution to the household has more decision- making power within the family, and is also freer to make decisions about her own life. The only “right” her parents maintain over her is the right to complain. Complaints such as: “Now that she's working she doesn't even tell us where she's going,” are commonplace. But so are comments like: “Since she began working, she has helped fix up the house. She even built her own room.”
The daughter who works also receives special considerations at home: she does less housework, is allowed to go out, and in many cases even receives support should she get pregnant. With the incorporation of young women into the work force, the rigid rules of control that families impose on their female children have begun to erode.
And when they marry?Does the young factory worker maintain the same level of independence and autonomy if she marries or lives with a man? Some things change. When a working woman moves out of her family's house to live with a man, she loses her absolution from housework, and her life becomes defined by the infamous “double shift.” She must now dedicate the little free time she has—time that was devoted to recreation and being with friends when she was single—to maintaining the home.
Getting married or living with a man means that a woman must submit to the authority of her husband or partner, who in some cases even demands that she stop working. Sometimes, however, a couple's economic situation dictates that this is not a viable option, in which case the man is forced to accept that he cannot control all areas of his partner's life. If the couple works in the same factory, they monitor each other. Fights sparked by jealousy—on women's part as well as men's—are not unheard of in the workplace.
Emotional dependenceMany young women insist on supporting themselves, partly because they are convinced of their capacity to do so, and partly to avoid being economically dependent on their husband or partner. Their dependence on their man is more emotional than economic, which gives them a different profile from women who have never worked outside the home. The latter have a double dependence on men: emotional and economic.
It is clear that the level of independence women are acquiring in the factory before getting married is not enough to make them to question sex roles or women's status in the home and family. It does, however, enable a woman to negotiate the terms of her subservient position from a better bargaining position. The man knows that she knows that she can survive without him.
Despite this advantage, many women still succumb to male domination for emotional reasons. “Women are more weak-hearted than men. We fall in love more easily and are more susceptible to our feelings, and in this sense men are stronger than us.” But even a woman who defers to a man because of love is not as subservient as one who is doubly dependent.
Still better than the fields or kitchenThe incorporation of youth—both male and female—into assembly plant work has also brought changes to the communities, especially in the countryside. The most noticeable change is the increase in rural-to-urban migration. Once young people leave the peasant world, they usually don't want to return, and even become magnets that attract other relatives and friends to the city. “I'll never go back to live in the country, because we're better off here. We can help our parents more by staying here, too, because every month we send them money. When our other sister is old enough, we're going to bring her here, and among the three of us we can help out more.”
The migration of males is provoking a scarcity of field hands that is in turn causing an increase in the pay rate for day laborers. “Today you have to pay 50 lempiras (roughly $3.50) for a day's work, because the workers say that this is what the factories pay. Older men may settle for less, but the young men demand more.”
If the rate of pay for peasant laborers is increasing in the countryside, the salaries of domestic workers in the cities is also on the rise. “Before, a domestic worker's was next to nothing. If she earned 300 lempiras (less than $21) a month she was considered well paid. But now, with the factories, nobody wants to work for this amount. Today the minimum is about 800 (about $55).”
For men as well as women, working in a factory is both more lucrative and more prestigious than working in the fields or in the kitchen. As one farmer explains, “In the fields, they work like dogs and earn next to nothing. So now they prefer the easier life of a factory worker. When they get fired from the factory and you try to offer them work, they're not interested. They'd rather lie around doing nothing. Also, they're ashamed about young girls seeing them with a machete.”
A new economyThe integration of young people into the factories has generated new businesses that profit off of their wages. For example, catalog companies have expanded their markets to include factory communities. Monthly catalogs circulate, offering clothing, perfumes, cosmetics and adornments. This is producing changes in the standards of beauty for both men and women. “I'm going on a diet, because I'm too fat. It would be great to have a body like the women in the catalogs.”
At the same time, “needs” are being created that didn't exist before. “Juana bought this shampoo that she says leaves her hair very shiny, so a bunch of us ordered it to try it out.”
Both men and women worry about keeping up with the latest fashion, and when it comes to being stylish money is no object. This explains the advent of merchants who sell on credit. Some of them come from the community, and others from outside. They take the workers' orders, and charge double or triple the price of the item being ordered. “What counts is being in style. The money doesn't matter because you pay it off in weekly installments.”
Gradual indebtedness is a new economic reality, more among young women, because they spend a good part of their salaries on clothing and adornments. “We go into debt too,” says one man, but not the way women do. I actually think we're worse. Would you like to know why? Women spend money on themselves so they can feel pretty, and we spend it on beer. They at least have some- thing to show for it. We don't.”
And religion's role?As with the majority of young Hondurans today, religion is not a major concern of young women who work in the maquila. They back off even more when religion demands that they change “worldly ways for God's ways.” “More than anything else, I don't like the evangelists,” says one young worker. “With them, everything's a sin. Listening to music is a sin, women wearing pants is a sin, dancing is a sin; everything that young people like is a sin.” Another added, “I don't go to church, because living according to God's rules is too hard.”
Even in this context of basic indifference, however, religion has gained a certain foothold amongmaquilaworkers due to the coming of the new millennium. There is lots of speculation in the factories about the world ending. “My supervisor, who is an evangelist, says that when the end of the world comes true Christians will disappear for a while. People will say they were taken away by extra-terrestrials, but when the new Jerusalem comes, they will be there.” Alternatively, “In the factory they say you have to accept God and that all the things that have happened are nothing more than indications showing us that the end of the world is near. I don't know whether or not to believe this, but just in case, I took all my money out of the bank and spent it. What good will money do me if the world ends? It's better to enjoy it while I can.”
Such expectations are confusing these young people, mostly due to poor biblical and religious preparation, and because of the great influence in Honduras of religious fundamentalism, evangelist sects, and some Catholic movements. These sects use tragic events such as Hurricane Mitch or the Kosovo war to win over followers. They claim that natural disasters and wars are “signs indicating that the end of the world is approaching.”
Many young people, however, reject these ideas. While they understand that all is not well in this world, they struggle not to fall into the trap of accepting the negative and hopeless explanations of the state of the world that these religious groups espouse.
For young women who do identify with a given religion, the family is still the major influencing factor when it comes to their religious activism. Many of the “conversions” of young factory women have more to do with fears about the end of the world than with knowledge of and convictions about a religious creed.
Any critical consciousness?Many youngmaquilaworkers have little if any clarity about what a nation or homeland is. It is an abstract concept, and for them there is only daily reality, which is sometimes good and sometimes not.
The prevailing viewpoint among males is that the country does not provide them the opportunity to realize their dreams. They think the United States has more to offer—the “American dream.” For these young men, themaquilais a way for them to earn enough money to buy the services of a “coyote,” the popular term for those who specialize in helping people cross the border into the land of “gringo prosperity.” Many women also long to leave Honduras. “The opportunities for improving your life here are few and far between. I've already tried factory work. You can squeeze by on what you make, but it's not enough to support a family on. I'd rather take my chances in the United States.”
In general, most young factory workers don't see a connection, for better or for worse, between their work in themaquilaand the country's development. There are, however, some exceptions. We met a number of young people with a strongly critical consciousness. “Who really benefits from the work I do? Clearly, it's not Honduras. It's the Koreans who export what we produce. The only thing they know how to do is exploit the workers. The money they pay us is barely enough to live on. It's certainly not enough to pay for our children's education or even for us to study. This isn't the way a country develops.”
If many of the young women are still short on a sense of nation, development and their place in all this as a class, they do seem to be developing a new sense of themselves in gender terms. The factory is a place where all kinds of women come together, where one finds a wide range of human, particularly female, experience. The convergence of this diversity combined with economic independence might just create the mold for a different model of womanhood in countries like ours. If this is so, it will take a form we cannot yet imagine, at least not here in Honduras, where themaquilaphenomenon is a couple of decades younger than, say, in Mexico, and where women have not had a revolution that began breaking old molds, as they have in neighboring Nicaragua.
It's a tremendous paradox: at the end of the day, will the maquila’s greatest contribution to Honduras' development be the unfolding of a new gender consciousness among women?
Nelly del Cid, Carla Castro and Yadira Rodríguez are members of the team working with women maquila workers as part of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of the Jesuits in Honduras.