Reflections on domestic and workplace violence that women workers experience in the maquiladoras in the Coahuila border zone
by Maria Elena Martinez, M.Sc. Psychology
Work on gender equality is central to building a human rights culture, to breaking stereotypes, and to reach a healthy and equitable culture.
Framing culture as a cross-functional factor in the dynamics of establishing personal relationships, beliefs, behaviors, and values that each person brings to a relationship serves as a context for the experience presented here. The roots of domestic violence, and thus of workplace violence, are part of our culture and society. Domestic violence has serious effects on women’s entry into the labor market and on their productivity, which is even more important if we consider the generalized violence that affects women from the poorest sectors of the population, in which the need to generate income is vital to family subsistence. This informs the experience and recent observations from my participation in a delegation that allowed me to visit both Austin, Texas (USA), and Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, a border zone marked by the invasion of giant transnational corporations known as maquiladoras.
Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (ACTF) and the Comité Fronterizo de Obreros (CFO), both of which collaborate between the two border zones to benefit maquiladora workers, coordinated and facilitated the trip. These organizations call for consciousness-building and support for and amongst workers and migrants, protecting civil and human rights, and contributing to developing solidarity between zones.
The border zone is remote, forgotten, a place where people arrive and hope to find ways of survival, to be able to work, and to meet their and their family’s basic needs. Due to maquiladoras being strategically built in an area where labor and land acquisition are cheaper, employment opportunities, and proximity to the United States, make it suitable for people to settle in the border zone. Women in the border zone do not have many opportunities to study or continue into the university, and they represent cheap labor for the maquiladoras.
In Allende and Piedras Negras, Coahuila, there is an ecosystem that functions exclusively to produce goods for export. One of these goods is the production of different parts and materials for automobile assembly, of which there are various companies that manage the maquilas in this area. During this assembly work, sexual harassment and abuse occur openly in the work place during work that is shared with people of the opposite sex. As explained by one of the women workers, while they are constructing harnesses, standing, moving around and in vulnerable positions holding the pieces they are assembling, men pass by, brushing their bodies from behind, from the front, and from all sides. Women are unable to defend themselves. If they report this behavior, they run the risk of being discriminated against.
These women’s lives happen within these metal structures, where a thousand or more abuses of the most vulnerable people are hidden. Their lives revolve around these maquilas, a large majority of workers’ homes are close to these huge structures. Once more they are being robbed of their resources, their labor in exchange for a few pesos, which are insufficient for their basic needs.
Knowing about human trafficking, which has been considered a form of modern enslavement, it is difficult not to think about the reality of the workers at the border in Mexico as a modern form of enslavement. The difference is that this format, through the factories and the maquiladoras, is a legalized enslavement. Daily, workers are obligated to work long periods, in unhealthy conditions, and under the pressure of meeting a certain quota of product. Since their wages do not cover the costs of their basic needs, the majority of the workers undertake informal business arrangements, such as house cleaning, making and selling meals, and buying and selling various items to increase their income and be able to cover their expenses.
Women in the border zone, women who are strong and fighters, who go to their work daily in spite of the weather, the harassment, and the illnesses, deal with the adversities within the oppressive context in which they are forced to work. Some of them have been able to participate in the GEMA (Gender and Empowerment for Women in Action) program, which focuses on worker’s rights, gender, and violence. GEMA is an example of the effectiveness of group work amongst women as a tool in the struggle against domestic and workplace violence.
This participatory process has allowed women workers in maquiladoras to undergo an introspective development that has improved their capacity to establish health relationships, both interpersonal and with themselves, contributing to their growth as human beings, as well as leadership development and attention to reporting abuses in the workplace.
The GEMA program, as offered by the CFO, is important to the organization growth, It is also important in educating and constructing a supportive culture, which could be key to working toward a life free of domestic violence, as well as workplace violence.
We need to analyze then, the power dynamics in the workplace where despite the recognition of the need for equal rights, there is a huge gap between the reality that women experience as they constantly suffer from sexual and labor harassment and the application and compliance of these rights. Currently, workers’ rights are being violated at another level due to the new reality we live in because of Coronavirus. During the pandemic, there has been an increase of workplace abuses, worker exploitation, and lack of preventive care to protect workers for whom it continues to be necessary to work despite the fact that their jobs have not been declared essential.
In this moment, the CFO has reported that maquiladoras have reduced the salaries of workers by 50%, increasing the severity of an already precarious economic situation. The issue of power relations runs deep and is embodied in the dynamics of control of the strong over the weak. The person being victimized lives subordinated to the demands of the person acting out the aggression, whether this person is their partner, their boss at their workplace, or the transnational company. Mostly, it is women who are being affected.
A series of problems rooted in exploitation take hold, robbing the voices of the people who are at risk daily. The consequences of the constant pressure to perform the expected labor are inevitably psychosocial. From some of the women workers that shared their stories, we heard of the problems that arise due to the various stress factors faced by these dignified women workers. Amongst these are primarily, workplace, economic, and mental abuse, sexual harassment in the workplace, intrafamily and intimate partner violence, and the physical disabilities resulting from so many years of repetitive tasks at work. The workers recognize the seriousness of domestic violence and the effect it has on them, as well as the how this violence is related to continuing workplace violence.
According to Fournier, Ríos, y Orpinas, cited in del Valle, Palú, Plasencia, Orozco, & Álvarez (2008), the relationship of health with violence is much more than recording events. Violence itself implies a threat or a negation of the conditions or possibilities of life and their own survival, with the eminent need to provide care to victimized people.
As far as the psychological effects on victims of domestic violence, depression is one of the most prevalent clinical presentations in victims of abuse (Bryer, Nelson, Miller, & Krol, 1987), and especially forms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), frequently experienced by victims of domestic violence (Aguirre, Cova, Domarchi, Garrido, Mundaca, Rincón, Troncoso, y Vidal, 2010). In the case of women workers in the border area, we need to add the workplace violence they experience within the competitive system that stimulates the efficiency of production – the daily pressure of maximum production—which exhausts and debilitates their mental and physical capabilities. This factor is stripping them of their time on earth as well as their health. Their life expectancy is being reduced along with their subsistence.
Women who are beaten go to work with obvious bruises, one of the workers mentioned, and violence is part of their day to day experience. In this area, as one of the women workers told us, the support for battered women is psychological and legal support when the woman has already been seriously assaulted. There is no preventative support. From a health perspective, the issue of partner violence is a high risk factor, which means it is necessary to increase and improve care for victims.
Contemporary society’s cultural structures, marginalization, and isolation of families are some of the huge obstacles to community support and the formation of a mutual aid group to prevent domestic and workplace violence at the border.
The CFO’s positive experience in developing the GEMA program and the work done with women in other countries where women also face domestic violence and economic insecurity, helped established that one of the most effective psychotherapeutic forms of working with victims of domestic violence was to construct a group culture of solidarity, mutual aid, and consciousness-building about their rights as people and in relationships. This model is organized by using various strategies, including having a safe space for actively listening to women, learning about their needs, and simultaneously, supporting women as they learn their own strengths. Forming support groups is a very concrete way of improving the health and life conditions of women in the border zone.
To benefit the women workers and continue to build on the success of the GEMA program’s work on the prevention of domestic and workplace violence, I propose three points of action that could be implemented by the CFO leadership and membership:
*Education and methods of disseminating information from elementary school age until adulthood for girls and boys, and women and men to be knowledgeable about healthy relationships.
*Creating safe spaces for empowerment where people can process their traumas with the support of others in solidarity and trained professionals to help them exercise their rights as a person and in the partnership.
*International solidarity with the CFO’s organizational processes and their struggle for demands.
Maria Elena Martinez, M.Sc. Psychology
del Valle, J., Palú, A., Plasencia, C., Orozco, M., & Álvarez, O. (2008). Modificación de conocimientos de los integrantes del sector sanitario del municipio “Julio Antonio Mella” sobre violencia intrafamiliar contra la mujer. MEDISAN, 12 (2). Santiago de Cuba. Recuperado de https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=368445247002
Bryer, J. B., Nelson, B. A., Miller, J. B., & Krol, P. A. (1987) Childhood Sexual and Physical Abuse as Factors in Adults Psychiatric Illness. Am. J. Psychiatry,144:11, Nov.
Aguirre, P., Cova, F., Domarchi, M., Garrido, C., Mundaca, I., Rincón, P., Troncoso, P., y Vidal, P. (2010). Estrés postraumático en mujeres víctimas de violencia doméstica. Revista chilena de neuro-psiquiatría, 48(2), 114-122. https://dx.doi.org/10.4067/ S0717-92272010000300004
In addition to the proximity to the United States, maquiladoras are strategically built in an area where labor and land acquisition are cheaper, and the proximity to the United States
 The original uses les trabajadores, which is used in Spanish as a gender neutral pronoun. Everywhere this text signals workers, without the specific descriptor of women, is where les trabajadores has been used.
 As of this writing, July 2020, $1 USD is equivalent to 22 Mexican Pesos.