U.S. corporations were originally drawn to Mexicos 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 Mexicos 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 Osanos 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 governments 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 womens 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 governments 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 sectors 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 Mexicos 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 womens ". . . 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 womens 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 familys 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 childrens 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 womens 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 womens 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, womens rights activists, and labor and human rights organizers underscored the connection between womens 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.