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U.S. corporations were originally drawn to Mexico’s maquiladora (export processing)1 sector because it was cheaper to manufacture in Mexico than to manufacture in the U.S. Mexican wages were low and independent unions were few. In fact, an abundant supply of labor, low wages, high productivity rates,2 and reportedly weak federal labor law protection3 are still among the incentives the government still offers to multinational companies to move portions of their production to Mexico.4

Multinational corporations that practice pregnancy-based sex discrimination in Mexico’s maquiladora sector are motivated not only by a desire to avoid having to absorb the costs of potential disruptions in production schedules due to maternity leave schedules or women workers’ reduced capacity to meet physically demanding production quotas. According to the past admissions of some corporations, they are also motivated by a desire to avoid paying maternity leave costs.5 These corporations see hiring pregnant workers as a drain on their resources and as having a potentially detrimental effect on production. Therefore, they seek to avoid what they perceive as potentially unproductive workers and additional costs in the form of maternity payments6 by making female applicants’ negative pregnancy status a condition of employment.

When female workers do become pregnant after being hired, their ability to remain on the job is almost wholly determined by their continued high productivity. The ability to produce at a high rate is linked to assessments of whether a pregnant worker is a "good worker," which additionally increases her possibility of maintaining her job in the maquiladora sector. Artemio Osano, a former line supervisor at Matsushita Electric Componentes de Baja California7 in Tijuana, explained how an emphasis on production is linked to the practice of pregnancy discrimination:

Pregnancy tests were given to all women workers. There was an infirmary which gave the pregnancy tests. Matsushita always gave pregnancy tests because they wanted to make sure workers would work for at least a year. I was not ever told when a worker was pregnant; I knew when it became physically evident. Workers who became pregnant would have their probationary contracts "cut" after the first one or two months. The company would use the pretext that the workers were "bad elements," or say they had bad work records. The truth is that companies discriminate against pregnant workers because of the potential or expected loss of production, not because of the cost of maternity leave, as some companies argue.8

An administrative office worker in BerthaMex9 in Tijuana echoed Osano’s experience, explaining, "[h]uman resources decides who will stay and who will go. It all depends on how much and how well you produce. At times, the managers took the perspective that they must protect a pregnant worker, but only if she had a proven work record. Those pregnant women allowed to stay are accommodated by being changed to less strenuous work."10 Underscoring the emphasis on production as a barometer for whether a corporation allows a pregnant worker to remain, Maribel García, who works at Samsung, commented that in her factory, "If you get pregnant before you get a permanent contract, you make sure you produce."11

Whether motivated primarily by the desire to avoid paying government-mandated maternity benefits or by the desire to avoid potential slow-downs in production, corporations openly and systematically discriminate against women. The Mexican government’s failure to address pregnancy discrimination by U.S. and other corporations is in part driven by an unwillingness to challenge a maquiladora sector that is a critical source of both employment and foreign exchange.12 Currently, a total of 2,600 maquiladora factories employ 873,748 Mexican workers.13 At least 450,000 are women. While most of the maquiladoras are owned by U.S. corporations, investments from Asian and European14 companies are increasing at a rate of 7 percent a year.15 These maquiladoras manufacture athletic wear, televisions, computer keyboards, cellular telephones, venetian blinds, furniture, toys, baby clothes, and Christmas ornaments, among many other products.

Maquiladoras remain the fastest growing industrial sector in Mexico, and a 1997 Business Week article noted that, "Soaring exports from these plants [maquiladoras] are helping Mexico pull out of its worst recession in sixty years."16 Indeed, with inflation at 30 percent (down from a high of 52.2 percent in 1995),17 more than a million jobs lost in 1996,18 and the need to create jobs for the one million people who enter the labor force each year,19 the Mexican government views the maquiladora sector as a prized engine for economic growth. One women’s rights activist observed: "To protect the maquiladoras is of paramount importance to the government. There are three untouchables in Mexico: the Virgin of Guadalupe, the president, and the maquiladoras."20

According to U.S. Embassy officials in Mexico City, the Mexican government has a great desire to attract and keep foreign investment, and this desire prevents Mexico from pushing corporations regarding labor standards. John A. Ritchie, the labor attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, explained to Human Rights Watch that providing jobs is a higher priority for the Mexican government than pressing multinational corporations on labor rights abuses. He told us, "The government is aware of the pregnancy testing issue. But municipal officials say ‘jobs, jobs, jobs.’ Money is generated by the maquiladoras for public services."21 He explained that local and state government leaders along the U.S.-Mexico border also fear that if they push the maquiladora sector too hard on rights issues, that multinational corporations will move to other Mexican states or to Asia.22

Local government officials in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez share the federal government’s enthusiasm for the sector, and the maquiladoras have buoyed border economies. Some 510,000 workers are employed in factories at the Mexico-U.S. border, where 70 percent of the industry is located.23 Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez have the greatest number of plants, with 567 and 278 factories respectively,24 although the maquiladora sector in Ciudad Juárez actually employs more workers than that of Tijuana.25

At present, women constitute more than half of the maquiladora sector’s employees, a percentage that has dropped over the past several years as the maquiladoras transform from low tech, low skilled assembly operations to higher skilled and higher technology operations.26 The maquiladora sector is replacing more light, low-tech electronic assembly with higher-skilled auto parts and heavy machinery factories. In 1975 women constituted 78 percent of the maquiladora workforce. By 1993 the number of women workers in the maquiladora sector had fallen to 59 percent.27 Of the 711,392 laborers currently employed throughout the sector, 42.6 percent are men and 57.37 percent are women.28

The long-standing predominance of women workers on the assembly lines in Mexico’s maquiladoras is no accident. Maquiladora managers have traditionally recruited women on the basis of perceived or imputed characteristics of women as being more docile, better workers, more reliable, and better at executing repetitive assembly work. According to an anthropologist who studied women in the maquiladora sector in the late 1970s, maquiladora managers and promoters explained their preference for women workers as based on women’s ". . . putative higher levels of skill and performance . . . the quality of their handwork . . . their willingness to comply with monotonous, repetitive and highly exhausting work assignments; and . . . their docility which discourages organizing efforts by union leaders." 29 Two decades later, according to women’s rights and labor activists, as well as the women workers themselves, little has changed about managers’ motivation for hiring female workers.

While maquiladoras have always sought to recruit women workers, they have been most interested in those who were not pregnant and who then, in their perceptions, would not affect adversely their economic interest and competitiveness. These attitudes toward women workers have contributed directly to pregnancy-based sex discrimination.30 A 1987 book exploring the lives of women on the U.S.-Mexico border cities interviews with several maquiladora managers in Mexicali (the capital of the state of Baja California) who maintained that ". . . single, childless women make better employees than married mothers. Domestic and child rearing responsibilities, employers believe, often interfere with optimal on-the-job performance. Lack of concentration, absenteeism, and frequent resignations . . . are common among wives and mothers, who put their family’s welfare above their job-related responsibilities."31 Thus, while maquiladoras have deliberately recruited women, and there has been adeliberate attempt by the maquiladoras to attract females to these positions, these same women are directly penalized for their reproductive choice and subsequent child care responsibilities.

Women working in the maquiladora sector have been slow to challenge directly the discrimination, in no small part because of the severe economic consequences of job loss (or of not being hired); lack of knowledge about labor rights and how to use the conciliation and arbitration system;32 and fear of retaliation. The labor force at the border contains a larger proportion of single women than the Mexican average,33 and their income is essential to their own and their children’s support. The majority of the women Human Rights Watch interviewed had children, were single, and were economic heads of household.

Moreover, female maquiladora workers have few labor skills that would help them find comparably paid work elsewhere in Mexico.34 According to an essay that explored women’s work and unemployment in northern Mexico, there are few viable alternatives for employment for women at the Mexico-U.S. border outside of the maquiladora sector:

For the woman who must support herself and perhaps other family members, maquiladora employment is preferable to domestic service, prostitution or petty sales, which may be her only options. Because gender-typed definitions of "appropriate" roles for women tend to exclude them from many occupations, and because few women have the necessary training for better female jobs such as nursing or teaching, many women have few alternatives to maquiladora employment.35

Human Rights Watch interviews confirmed women’s dependence on the maquiladora sector for work. The vast majority of the women we interviewed had formal work experience only in the maquiladora sector. In instances in which women quit or lost their jobs, when they looked for work again, it was invariably in the maquiladora sector. With few exceptions, most of the women thought they would spend all their working lives working in one maquiladora or another.

Interviews by Human Rights Watch with women workers, women’s rights activists, and labor and human rights organizers underscored the connection between women’s dire economic situation and their disinclination to protest pregnancy discrimination. Lucy Unamuno Rivera, a maquiladora worker employed at Howe de México36 in Ciudad Juárez told Human Rights Watch, "Women, even pregnant women, have to be able to find work."37 A woman employed at the NPC38 factory in Ciudad Juárez added, "You fight to get a job. If you get it, you keep it and do whatever you have to do to keep it."39

Fearing the loss of foreign investment, the government of Mexico has abdicated its responsibility to protect women from sex discrimination in the maquiladora work force. Instead, by refusing to take substantive investigative and punitive action, the government of Mexico fails to fulfill its obligations to protect women from labor force sexdiscrimination, and therefore bears direct responsibility for this persistent pattern of sex discrimination in the maquiladora sector, which we document below.

1 The maquiladora sector was originally created with government support in 1965 to stimulate investment, encourage industrial development at the Mexico-U.S. border, and create jobs for unemployed Mexicans affected by the termination of the Bracero (guest worker) program with the U.S. Maquiladoras fill a need: they employ hundreds of thousands of people who, for the most part, have few formal labor sector skills. These corporations import to Mexico, duty-free, parts to be assembled. The finished product is re-exported to the U.S. with a tax assessed on the value added. The value added is the labor of the worker used to assemble the product.

2 Estimates of maquiladora worker productivity levels range from 80 to 100 percent of U.S. levels to 10 to 15 percent more productive than U.S. workers. From "Disparity Between Wages and Labor: Wages Aren’t Commensurate with Productivity," Multinational Monitor, October 1993 and María Patricia Fernández-Kelly, For We Are Sold, I and My People: Women and Industry in Mexico’s Frontier (Albany: State University of New York, 1983), p. 28.

3 After the worldwide recession of 1974-1975, when a third of the maquiladora work force was laid off and many maquiladora companies threatened to move to countries with lower labor costs, maquiladora corporations approached the Mexican government in search of incentives to keep doing business in Mexico. The government declined corporations’ "suggestions" to give the maquiladora operators export subsidies and a reduction or abolition of sales and income taxes but reportedly acquiesced to corporations’ suggestions to exempt the entire maquiladora sector from a number of worker protection laws. For example, allegedly companies were to be allowed to fire "inefficient" workers without severance pay, adjust the length of the workday and the size of the workforce "as needed," and to retain workers on "temporary status" for ninety-days. These changes led to a proliferation of maquiladora factories. From Susan Tiano, "Women’s Work and Unemployment in Northern Mexico" in Vicki L. Ruiz and Susan Tiano, eds., Women on the U.S.-Mexico Border: Responses to Change (Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, Inc., 1987), pp. 21-22 and from Peter Baird and Ed McCaughan, Beyond the Border: Mexico and the U.S. Today (New York, NY: North American Congress on Latin America (nacla), 1979), pp.145-146.

4 Jorge Bustamente, "Maquiladoras: A New Face of International Capitalism on Mexico’s Northern Frontier," in María Patricia Fernández-Kelly and June Nash, eds., Women, Men, and the International Division of Labor (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), pp. 224-256.

5 See Zenith Corporation and General Motors letters in Appendices C and D, respectively. It should be noted, however, that when a female applicant applies for a job, her employer does not know whether she has accrued enough days in the social security system to limit the corporation’s responsibility for contributions toward payment of a woman worker’s maternity leave pay. Under Mexican law, depending on how much time the female worker has accrued in the social security system, either the government pays all her wages during maternity leave or the corporation pays some portion or all of it. Whatever the case, women are guaranteed six weeks of paid maternity leave pre-partum and six weeks of paid maternity leave post-partum. General Motors, which later (March 1, 1997) adopted a policy of no longer requiring female applicants to undergo mandatory pregnancy testing as a condition for employment, earlier wrote, on August 14, 1996, "General Motors does, however, conduct preemployment pregnancy screening and will not hire female job applicants found to be pregnant . . . [This practice] stems from a Mexican law which guarantees financial and medical support to pregnant women . . . General Motors does not like the practice of pregnancy screening but is forced to do so in order to avoid the substantial financial liabilities imposed by the Mexican social security system." Zenith Corporation wrote, on July 12, 1996, "Zenith does not approve of pregnancy screening. However, if it became the first company in these two employment markets [Matamoros and Reynosa] to end pregnancy screening, it would expose itself to substantial financial liabilities in the social security system for maternity benefits."

6 Mexico’s federal labor code mandates twelve weeks of paid maternity leave for women workers, six weeks pre-partum and six weeks post-partum, as well as two additional breaks a day of one half hour each for nursing mothers. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Spanish to English done by Human Rights Watch.

7 Owned by Matsushita-Panasonic of Osaka, Japan. Manufactures batteries and television components. Matsushita-Panasonic was cited in "No Guarantees" for instructing its on-site doctor to test all women applicants for pregnancy and to deny them work if they were pregnant.

8 Human Rights Watch interview, Artemio Osano, Tijuana, May 24, 1997.

9 Owned by North American Communication of San Diego, California. Sews garments and processes bank promotions.

10 Human Rights Watch interview, Julia Muñoz, Tijuana, May 22, 1997.

11 Human Rights Watch interview, Maribel Garcia, Tijuana, May 22, 1997.

12 Fernández-Kelly and Nash, Women, Men and the International Division of Labor, p. 210.

13 This number includes laborers, technicians, and administrative workers. From Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (inegi) (National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information), June 26, 1997.

14 While Mexico’s strongest trade relationship is with the United States, over the past several years it has broadened its trade alliances to include Europe. In July 1998 Mexico entered into an interim political, cooperation, and trade agreement with the European Union. This trade agreement contains a human rights and democracy clause which will allow the European Union greater authority to hold Mexico accountable for its human rights practices, especially in the consideration of continued or increased trade relations.

15 Geri Smith and Elisabeth Malkin, "The Border: A Special Report," Business Week, May 12, 1997, p. 64.

16 Ibid., p. 65.

17 United States Department of State, 1996 Country Reports on Economic Policy and Trade Practices, January 1997.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Human Rights Watch interview, Graciela de la Rosa, Federation Mexicana de Asociaciones Privadas de Salud y Desarrollo Comunitario, femap (Mexican Federation of Health and Community Development Associations), Ciudad Juárez, May 18, 1997.

21 Human Rights Watch interview, John A. Ritchie and Joe Manso, U.S. Embassy, Mexico City, May 27, 1997.

22 Ibid.

23 U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, Border Region,

24 "Reportan un aumento de 21% en maquilas" (An Increase of 21% is Reported in Maquiladoras), Reforma, June 2, 1997, from Resource Center of the Americas, Connection to the Americas,

25 Smith and Malkin, "The Border," p.74.

26 Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (inegi) (National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information), June 26, 1997.

27 Augusta Dwyer, On the Line: Life on the U.S.-Mexico Border (London: Latin American Bureau, 1994), p. 18.

28 Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (inegi) (National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information), June 26, 1997.

29 Fernández-Kelly, "Mexican Border Industrialization," p. 219.

30 Pregnancy discrimination is not practiced only by the maquiladoras. Women who work in the public and private sectors have complained about pregnancy discrimination for years. As a result, in October 1998 a coalition of five Mexico City-based women’s rights groups launched a national campaign to end pregnancy exams and firings because of pregnancy. Components of this campaign include broader dissemination of information on worker rights and legislative reform.

31 Susan Tiano, "Maquiladoras in Mexicali: Integration or Exploitation," Women on the U.S.-Mexico Border, p.84.

32 According to the president of the cab in Tijuana, cases take on average four to six months to resolve. Human Rights Watch interview, Antonio Ortiz Gutierrez, president, cab, Tijuana, May 23, 1997.

33 Susan Tiano, "Women’s Work and Unemployment in Northern Mexico," Women on the U.S.-Mexico Border, p. 29.

34 One study of undocumented immigrant women in the United States revealed that of ninety-two women who had held formal sector jobs in Mexico before coming to the United States, sixty-five percent had worked in the maquiladora sector. According to this study, the first job women hold once in the United States is in domestic services. From Rosalília Solórzano-Torres, "Female Mexican Immigrants in San Diego County," Women on the U.S.-Mexico Border, pp. 54-55.

35 Tiano, "Women’s Work and Unemployment . . . " Women on the U.S.-Mexico Border, p. 36.

36 Owned by Howe & Co. of Victoria, Australia.

37 Human Rights Watch interview, Lucy Unamuno Rivera, Ciudad Juárez, May 17, 1997.

38 Owned by Louisville, Kentucky-based National Processing Co.

39 Human Rights Watch interview, Anna-Patricia Santos Armendáriz, Ciudad Juárez, May 17, 1997.

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