Yesterday I attended a presentation called “Ciudad Juárez: The definitive neoliberal city” and would like to provide a review with brief reflections as it is an important topic in many respects, not least for its bearing on women’s well-being. The presenter was Véronica Leyva, a labor organizer with nearly fifteen years experience in grassroots efforts, including her activities during a decade of employment in the maquiladoras. She was joined by her coworker at the Chicago-based Mexico Solidarity Network, Tony Simon, who also served as translator.  What follows is primarily a rough summary from my notes, but I don’t claim to represent their positions with perfect exactitude.


Ms. Leyva identified one of her goals in undertaking the speaking tour as trying to get beyond depictions of Ciudad Juárez presented in the mainstream media, which requires situating current circumstances in a longer history. In the 1960’s the city was spoken of as an epicenter of economic growth and opportunity, a marquis example of the new face of globalization. The Border Industrialization Program established a “free trade zone” and the buildup of infrastructure for the maquiladoras. Transnational corporations took advantage of largely unregulated, cheap labor south of the US border by relocating factories and encouraging migration from local areas to this production hub. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 accelerated these trends on a steep curve. In the year following its passage the city grew by approximately 100,000 people as busloads of contracted workers arrived, now coming from all over the country with families in tow. Seeing as 80% of the maquiladoras are U.S. owned, the economic recession around the turn of the century dealt a serious blow; from the end of 2000 to 2003 about 100,000 jobs were lost, despite some minor fluctuations.

Ignoring the Human Side of Capital

In this “new era” of the maquiladoras employment qualifications have become more stringent, with the narrowing of job offers to the 18-30 year old demographic and implementation of previously absent – and therefore specious – minimum education requirements. Whereas in their heyday the churning factories did not hesitate to hire teen workers, who saw in the prospect of a job a better chance of contributing to their families’ livelihood, now they discriminate against these young people who have had to forego learning for meager wages. The population influx has far outstripped the capacity of city schools and, as Ms. Leyva pointed out, this is on top of the fact that curricula have been negatively reconfigured by the demands of maquiladora work. Educational repercussions follow on the heels of massive shortcomings in even more basic services. Many of the families arriving in Ciudad Juárez were forced to construct shelters from factory waste products such as cardboard and to assemble these homes in areas without running water, electricity, or refuse disposal – not to mention the deleterious effects of environmental pollution. Mr. Simon summarized the root phenomenon of profit-at-the-expense-of-people well: planning for economic infrastructure does not prepare a city for this human capital.

Women’s Work

Gender analysis forms an essential component of Ms. Leyva’s organizing efforts. When the maquiladoras opened they touted their jobs as particularly suited to women workers, apparently inasmuch as they involved manipulating small parts and pieces. Women thus came to constitute about 70% of the maquiladora workforce in Ciudad Juárez. Ms. Leyva indicated that in fact a major motivation for this claim was to allow for more thorough control of employees, with owners intending to prey on an already vulnerable demographic. Their strategies include a variety of legal evasions, such as setting up “ghost” unions, as well as more direct retribution for employees who attempt to speak up for their rights.  Labor unions instituted at the inception of the border industrialization phase were closely tied to political parties and this entrenched history has proved difficult to overcome. Moreover, because of the classification of the maquiladoras (under NAFTA stipulations, as I understand it) their corporate ownership is able both legally and quasi-legally to skirt certain prescriptions regarding working conditions,[1] as well as to avoid paying in to local social services (registered companies must return 10% of profits to this end). When the 2000 recession hit women’s jobs were often the first to be eliminated and in the greatest numbers; many women worked nights in order to care for families during the day and these shifts were most expendable.  Again, and in a particular way, the women workers of Ciudad Juárez represent the human cost of “flexible capital” so lauded by the neoliberal economic model.

Alienation and Commodification: more on human capital

Among the slew of ill effects arising from the maquiladoras’ dominance, Ms. Leyva lamented that one can no longer point to so-and-so the shoemaker or so-and-so the tortilla maker; a sense of pride, identity, and place in community stemming from one’s work is effectively ruled out.  She noted an interesting distinction between factories and maquiladoras: whereas the former generate a finished product, the latter produce only components. Those same little pieces that so suit women’s hands constitute merely an anonymous link in increasingly complicated component chains that will eventually, somewhere, be assembled into sellable wares. As workers are alienated from the products of their labor, so, too, are consumers alienated from the capital behind the products they consume.  In the words of one of my professors, “Hello Karl Marx!”  (And for those interested we might add, “Hello Catholic Social Teaching!”) Marx discussed the organic composition of capital, that is, fellow human beings and a series of energy and resource transfers.  It is the defining mark of commodification to hide this composition from view. I think Stan Goff’s reflection on a gift from his wife, mutatis mutandis, elucidates well the dynamic at hand:

I look at my bathrobe in the store and I see its utility and its price.  Unless I do some research, beginning with the tag on the back of the neck that says, “Made in Turkey,” I don’t see the American directors of the company that profit from it, I don’t see the proletarian Turkish women in the sweatshop where it is produced, I don’t see the Turkish comprador who collects and export fee, or the army, etc.  There is a history embodied in this bathrobe that is concealed beneath its appearance – an appearance I take for granted, as if it were natural, as if this bathrobe grew on a bathrobe tree. This concealment of social relations within the commodity is fetishization. It allows the working woman who bought it for me in the United States – in her role within the international division of labor as consumer – with no awareness of the working women half a world away, who worked all day for a pauper’s wages to produce these robes, and thereby concealed is the whole international structure in which the U.S. produces dollars and Turkey produces things-to-get-dollars.[2]

The women toiling in the maquiladoras are among those globally whose unremunerated or poorly remunerated labor keeps the global economy moving, satisfying the demand for ever larger figures in profit columns. At an estimated average wage of $8 per day (for 9.5 hours per day, five days per week) the women of Ciudad Juárez find themselves in the latter category. While Ms. Leyva affirmed that advocating for a just wage is one important avenue towards a better quality of life (and you can see Katie’s recent post on a similar topic), she consistently returned to the necessity of addressing the wider social, economic, and political conditions under which these exploitative maquiladoras can bank on being a “financial savior.”

Unanswered Questions

In this larger conversation the issue of drug trafficking and related violence must factor prominently.  Ms. Leyva had a number of revealing and disturbing things to say about the joint decision by Mexican President Felipe Calderon and the U.S. to militarize the border (think: $1 billion and a lot of weapons) as well as the tactics of narcotics cartels.  These considerations were threaded throughout her presentation in a way I have not replicated here, only for the sake of length.  Additionally she ran short on time and was not able to speak about the spate of femicides in the area, though her work with the Mexico Solidarity Network includes research in this area.  I would like to take up both of these topics in a subsequent post.

In acknowledging the complexity of multi-faceted and interconnected problems Ms. Leyva demurred from simple solutions.  I appreciated that when several questions following her talk took the form, “Would it be better if [one bad option] or [another bad option]?” she did not hesitate to say, basically, “neither,” and to affirm that real answers are hard to come by.  She stated that the purpose of her speaking engagements is first of all to generate questions.  I hope we can take the time to ask some of ourselves.

[1] Ms. Leyva acknowledged that in some cases conditions at the maquiladoras could be considered favorable, at least relatively speaking (ie. air-conditioned). However, such conditions clearly do not obtain in the home environments of the workers.

[2] Stan Goff, Full Spectrum Disorder (NY: Soft Skull Press, 2004), p. 200.  His book chronicles his time as a Special Operations soldier in a series of U.S. military invasions (from Haiti, to Vietnam, to Latin America, to Somalia, to Iraq).  The passage I cite is located in an interesting discussion of “social entropy” as a measure of worldwide capitalist interactions.  It is no accident that his critical analysis of the military-industrial complex as a correlative characteristic of neoliberal economic policies aptly complements the presentation on Ciduad Juárez.

10 thoughts

  1. Hey Beth, this is a fascinating post and now I wish I’d attended the presentation!

    I have a question about the hiring practices of the maquiladoras, which I will try not to put in terms of “would it be better if…”, since you rightly indicate that this oversimplifies! Here goes: do the age and education requirements the maquiladoras recently adopted represent a concern about workplace safety and/or child labor? From the perspective of the American observer (which I necessarily take), it seems like, if maquiladoras are going to be running at all (and, I opine, they shouldn’t), they ought not to employ children especially. To what extent are we butting up against another serious global labor issue if we protest a refusal to hire underage workers?

    This is not the end of the story, since you indicate that working in maquiladoras also presents these young people the opportunity for an education, and that family situations could often require their making an income. I imagine much of this also touches on the nature of the work the people of Ciudad Juárez are doing in the maquiladoras; whether it’s dangerous, requires any sort of (non-specious) education, etc. I just wanted to raise this issue to see what you think. I imagine any labor proposal we would make concerning the maquiladoras is already hairy, since the practice of building towns around foreign-owned factories ought to be done away with wholesale anyway. Thanks for the post Beth!

    1. Hey Sam, thanks a lot for the comment. This is an important point that I know was sort of floating behind what I said, so I’m glad you brought it up. I have to say I’m only speculating as to what the presenters would say since it was a pretty packed hour and we didn’t go into depth on this issue. From what I gather the decision to limit the workforce was not undertaken out of a concern for safety and/or children’s well-being, but rather became an option for the owners when the supply of labor so outstripped the demand for jobs; they could really pick and choose and I suppose viewed this demographic as most capable of high production rates. The speaker made this point in the context of spelling out effects of the economic recession and indicating, I think, how from a neoliberal economic policy perspective the ability of the maquiladoras to adapt quickly to market fluctuations is an asset, while from a human perspective it is a disaster. So, I highly doubt she was trying to give a ringing endorsement of child or teen labor – and in fact emphasized the value of education throughout her talk. But because of the limited capacity of the school system it’s not as though non-working teens would necessarily be in class instead. More likely they would be on the streets and prone to fall prey to invitations from the all-too-ready alternatives offered by drug dealers. (Another chapter of the talk dealt with the enormous concentration of drugs piling up on the Mexican side of the border following increased security in the wake of 9/11; Ms. Leyva said narco distributors were even giving away free drugs for a time, in order to establish a stable supply of addicts in and around CJ. Ugh.) Again, I can’t speak for anyone but myself on this, but I’d agree that other global labor issues, namely children’s safety, are essential, too. I think this particular hiring practice was aired as yet another illustration of the control the maquiladoras exercise: they can restrict options among an already terribly limited range of bad and worse possibilities.

      1. Right on. I agree, this is certainly not the principal concern for the maquiladora owners; rather, it’s an issue that we as American (that is, United Statesian) outsiders get to bat around. Thanks again for a great post and gracious response!

      2. Yea. In my understanding, in the U.S. older teens can work in factories, construction, landscaping, restaurants, so it seems as though there is no good reason to keep older teens from these jobs. Prohibiting a 13 year old from working in a factory is one thing; prohibiting a 17 year old is another thing altogether.

        Your hypothesis that it serves as some sort of labor/social control which in some way advantages capital makes sense to me.

  2. Did Ms. Leyva say why they decided to prohibit teen employment and restrict employment to only those between the ages of 18-35?

      1. thanks, beth! I didn’t see that Sam had already asked my exact question (although in a much more sophisticated manner!)

  3. I attended and this is an excellent post of the presentation. At the end I went over to Veronica to thank her for one of the best, most honest presentations on the US-Mexico border (and I have been to many). I am grateful for the fact that she didn’t allow herself to be cornered by either/or questions. I asked one myself because when I have ran immersions in Tijuana that phrasing undoubtedly always comes up. Her answer was great. It reflected the notion that reality at the border rarely gives in to either/or analyses (to the chagrin of many).

    Congratulations to WIT… I love your blog and have become an avid follower!

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