Sex Discrimination in Mexico's Maquiladora Sector

August 1996, Vol. 8, No. 6 (B)



Maquiladoras, or export-processing factories, along the U.S.-Mexico border account for over US$29 billion in export earnings for Mexico and employ over 500,000 workers. At least half of the Mexicans employed in this sector, mainly in assembly plants, are women, and the income they earn supports them and their families at wages higher than they could earn in any other employment sector in northern Mexico.

These women workers routinely suffer a form of discrimination unique to women: the maquiladoras require them to undergo pregnancy testing as a condition of employment and deny them work if they are pregnant; if a woman becomes pregnant soon after gaining employment at a maquiladora, in some instances she may be mistreated or forced to resign because of her pregnancy. Maquiladora operators target women for discriminatory treatment, in violation of international human rights and labor rights norms. And despite its international and domestic legal responsibility to ensure protection for these workers, the Mexican government has done little to acknowledge or remedy violations of women's rights to nondiscrimination and to privacy. In addition, the Mexican government's failure to remedy discrimination in the maquiladoras infringes on women's right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children. In fact, government employees responsible for overseeing compliance with and enforcement of Mexico's federal labor law—which explicitly prohibits sex discrimination—inconsistently condemn such discriminatory practices; view themselves as incapable of enforcing the law; and, in one instance, defended the pregnancy-based discrimination as reasonable or legitimate.

Pregnancy as a condition is inextricably linked and specific to being female. Consequently, when women are treated differently by their employers or potential employers because they are pregnant or because they may become pregnant, they are being subjected to requirements for employment to which men are not. Thus pregnancy-based discrimination constitutes a form of sex discrimination, by targeting a condition only women experience.

It is difficult for workers—poor, under-educated, and female in a society with 6.3 percent official unemployment (Mexico's official, national unemployment figures are widely acknowledged by the U.S. Commerce Department and other U.S. agencies as being significantly underestimated)—with so few job alternatives to contest maquiladora policies. Most of the women Human Rights Watch interviewed had not finished primary school and had very little work experience outside the manufacturing sector. As a consequence, these women emphasized that their only other opportunity for work is in domestic service, which pays poorly, allows them very little control over their schedules and working conditions, and provides no health insurance or social security. Women repeatedly expressed unwillingness to challenge discriminatory practices in the maquiladoras, given the lack of other comparable employment opportunities.

For the Mexican government, there are economic disincentives to regulating closely the conduct of these companies, given the number of people the maquiladora industry employs and the amount of foreign currency earnings it produces.

In March 1995 the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project sent a mission to Mexico to investigate discrimination against pregnant workers or women who might become pregnant in the maquiladora sector. We interviewed women's rights activists, maquiladora personnel, labor rights advocates, Mexican government officials, community organizers, and victims of sex-based employment discrimination in five cities: Tijuana, in Baja California state; Chihuahua, in Chihuahua state; and Matamoros, Reynosa, and Río Bravo, in Tamaulipas state. We interviewed women who currently or in the recent past worked as line workers or assemblers in forty-three maquiladora plants along the border. Human Rights Watch interviewed women workers from the following factories in Tijuana: (Names in parentheses are parent companies.) Ensambles de Precisión (Los Angeles, CA-based Teledyne), Plásticos Bajacal (Phoenix, AZ-based Carlisle Plastics), Panasonic (Osaka, Japan-based Matsushita Electric Works), Zettler (Aliso Viejo, CA-based American Zettler), KW de Mexico, Dalila (closed), Etcetera (closed), Maquiladora de Accesorios para Mascotas (Chula Vista, CA-based Coyote Pet Supplies), Sanyo (based in Osaka, Japan), Afi de Mexico (closed, made toys for Fisher Price), Exportadora de Mano de Obra (closed, was owned by Downey, CA-based American United Global), Bebe Products (closed), Chappel (100 percent Mexican owned), Intercombustion (Los Angeles, CA-based Lipps Inc.), Temco, Ensambles de Precision de las Californias (Gardena, CA-based Pacific Electricord), Nellcor de Mexicanos (Pleasanton, CA-based Nellcor Puritan Bennet), and Administracion de Maquiladoras (closed, was owned by Temecula, CA-based Hudson Oxygen Therapy Sales, now called Hudson Respitory Care, Inc.).

We interviewed women workers from the following factories in Chihuahua: Electromex (Colorado Springs, CO-based Electromech), Industrias de Americas (closed), Sistemas Electricos y Conductores (SECOSA) (Tokyo, Japan-based Yazaki Corporation), Buena Ventura Auto Partes (BAPSA) (Tokyo, Japan-based Yazaki Corporation), and Alambrados y Circuitos Electricos (Detroit, MI-based General Motors).

We interviewed women workers from the following factories in Reynosa: Attel Fabrica (New York, NY-based AT&T), TRW (based in Cleveland, Ohio), Partes de Television de Reynosa (Glen View, IL-based Zenith, now majority owned by South Korea-based Goldstar), La Bonita SeĄorita de Reynosa (closed, was owned by McAllen, TX-based Sportswear International), Erika de Reynosa (Boca Raton, FL-based W.R. Grace), Delnosa (Detroit, MI-based General Motors), Sociedad de Motores Domesticos (Fairfield, CT-based General Electric), Rey Mex Bra (Reading, PA-based VF Corp., supplies bras to Sears Roebuck), Jen-O-Mex (Totowa, NJ-based Jenncraft Corp.), Controles de Reynosa (Milwaukee, WI-based Johnson Controls), Datacom de Mexico (Chantilly, VA-based GENICOM Corporation).

We interviewed women workers from the following factory in Rio Bravo: ITT (based in New York, New York).

We interviewed women workers from the following factories in Matamoros: Trico Componente Fabrica (Richmond, IN-based TRICO STANT Co.), Sunbeam-Oster (based in Fort Lauderdale, FL), MagneTek Componentes Electricos (Nashville, TN-based Magnetek), Nova/Link (made undergarments for Fruit of the Loom until 1993; now subcontracts for Polo and Liz Claiborne), Deltronicos (Detroit, MI-based General Motors), Texitron de Mexico (Chicago, IL-based Midwestco Enterprises), Lepco (Brownsville, TX-based Leonard Electric); and Zenith (based in Glen View, IL., now majority owned by South Korea-based Goldstar).

Where possible, Human Rights Watch has contacted parent companies implicated in this report to alert them to our findings and seek their responses. We have received written responses from Zenith, American Zettler, W.R. Grace, Carlisle Plastics, Pacific Electricord, and Sanyo. The responses range from a complete disavowal of any discriminatory behavior (American Zettler) to promises to investigate the allegations immediately and rectify the practice where appropriate (Sanyo), to admissions that pregnant women are in fact screened out of the applicant pool as a way to avoid paying for maternity leave (Zenith). A copy of the letter Human Rights Watch wrote can be found in the appendices, as well as copies of all the corporate responses we received.

Maquiladora employers discriminate against pregnant female employees, or women who might become pregnant (women of childbearing age, sexually active women, women who use contraceptives), largely to keep costs down. Starting in the 1960s, many U.S. and other companies relocated production to northern Mexico to take advantage of favorable tariff structures for importing unassembled goods and exporting finished products; low wages; and an abundance of available workers. Hiring or employing pregnant women could entail higher costs because Mexico's federal labor law contains explicit maternity provisions. According to the federal labor code, companies are required to protect pregnant women from executing tasks that would cause danger to their health in relation to the fetus; pay pregnant women maternity leave of six weeks before delivery and six weeks after delivery; allow new mothers two paid extra breaks of half hour each to breast feed their infants; and allow pregnant women to take an extra sixty days off while receiving 50 percent of their salary, if they so desire, apart from the twelve weeks of maternity leave, so long as no more than one year after the birth has passed. Thus, while many maquiladoras seek to hire women workers because they are believed to work harder and to be especially equipped emotionally and anatomically to execute such work, employers attempt to weed out potentially costly women workers from the applicant pool and at times force to resign those who become pregnant soon after beginning to work.

In maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexico border, from Tijuana to Matamoros, we found, with few exceptions, that in the course of the hiring process employers require women applicants to submit to pregnancy exams, most commonly given through urine samples. These exams are administered by doctors or nurses employed at individual maquiladoras or by private clinics contracted by companies. Maquiladora staff also try to determine a woman's pregnancy status by asking intrusive questions about the woman applicant's menses schedule, whether she is sexually active, or what type of birth control she uses. Once a woman is hired to work in a maquiladora, should she become pregnant shortly after starting to work, maquiladora managers sometime attempt to reassign women to more physically difficult work or demand overtime work in an effort to force the pregnant woman worker to resign. The results of Human Rights Watch interviews suggest that the longer a woman is employed in a maquiladora the more able she might be to rely on her relationship with her supervisor to avoid being fired if she becomes pregnant. Nonetheless, there are no guarantees.

The women affected by pregnancy discrimination in the maquiladora sector are among the poorest, least experienced, and least educated in the workforce. Most women who work in the maquiladoras do so because their lack of schooling and previous significant work experience renders them unqualified for most other jobs and because work in the maquiladora sector affords them a better wage than they might earn in other sectors. Screened out of the applicant pool and denied jobs in the maquiladora sector, these pregnant women would be rendered virtually unemployable. Women applicants are often single mothers or their families' primary wage earners. Their desperation to get or retain maquiladora jobs combined with ignorance of the law make them reluctant to contest the discriminatory testing or forced resignations. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch is greatly concerned that such discriminatory treatment may directly compromise women workers' regulation of their pregnancies by forcing them into a situation of fearing the loss of their jobs if they become pregnant. In cases when women workers become pregnant, the fear of losing their jobs often compels women to hide their pregnancies, and risk their and their fetuses' well being. In many instances women find themselves in the untenable position of choosing between their jobs and their rights.

Such employment practices constitute discrimination on the basis of sex, an invasion of a woman's privacy, and, in some instances, an undue limit on a woman's ability to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of her children. By failing to address and remedy these practices the Mexican government fails to fulfill its human rights obligation to protect those under its jurisdiction from human rights abuses; promote respect for human rights within its borders; and ensure that those under its jurisdiction are able fully to enjoy and exercise their rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the American Convention on Human Rights, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), International Labor Office (ILO) standards, and the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation. Such discriminatory treatment also contravenes Mexico's domestic laws prohibiting discrimination and guaranteeing the protection of women's reproductive health.

Women victims of sex discrimination in the maquiladoras have few tenable options for legal redress. Various states within Mexico have a human rights commission, and these are tasked, under their charters, to investigate human rights abuses involving public officials, but they cannot investigate private sector labor issues. Government mechanisms such as the Inspector of Labor's Office, which is responsible for assuring compliance with federal labor law; the Labor Rights Ombudsman's Office, which is responsible for offering workers free legal advice and assisting them in the resolution of labor disputes; and the Conciliation and Arbitration Board (hereafter cab), which adjudicates worker disputes and issues binding resolutions, are not legally empowered to address sex discrimination in the hiring process and fail consistently to condemn such discrimination in those instances where women are already employed. Furthermore, none of these offices collects data on cases and their resolution disaggregated by gender or gender-specific claims.

To end the widespread discrimination against women in the maquiladora sector and the related denial of their right to privacy and, in some instances, to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children, Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Mexico, the state legislatures, the Mexican commissions for human rights, the government of the United States, corporations that operate maquiladoras, and corporations that use maquiladoras as subcontractors, to take the following steps:


Human Rights Watch urges the Government of Mexico to:
Uphold international human rights obligations to guarantee the right to nondiscrimination, the right to privacy and the right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of children without discrimination.

Acknowledge and publicly condemn pregnancy discrimination as discrimination based on sex.

Publicly condemn employment practices and procedures that discriminate against women in their intent or impact.

Enact federal legislation that explicitly prohibits any company, public or private, from requiring that women give proof of pregnancy status, contraceptive use (or any other information related to reproductive choice and health) in order to be considered for, gain, or retain employment.

Fortify existing labor-resolution mechanisms by staffing the offices of the Inspector of Labor, the Labor Rights Ombudsman, and the Conciliation and Arbitration Boards with employees who are well informed about federal labor law and by putting resources at the disposal of these offices so that they may enforce federal labor law.

Amend the rules governing the work of the Office of the Inspector of Labor, the Office of the Labor Rights Ombudsman, and the Conciliation and Arbitration Board so that these offices can investigate and adjudicate cases of discriminatory non-hiring as well as disputes involving an established labor relationship.

Under the authority of the Secretary of Labor and Social Security, establish labor offices at the state and local level that have full powers to investigate and remedy discrimination in the hiring process, in compliance with obligations under the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Oblige the Office of the Inspector of Labor, the Office of the Labor Rights Ombudsman, and the Conciliation and Arbitration Boards to maintain statistics on their investigations, case loads and decisions, where appropriate, disaggregated by gender and the type of claim filed.

Establish and enforce penalties, including fines, to punish companies, foreign or domestic-owned, engaged in pregnancy-based sex discrimination, in accordance with CEDAW provisions.

Investigate vigorously all allegations of sex-based discriminatory employment practices and punish those responsible.

Include specific information on efforts undertaken to eradicate discrimination against women in the workplace, including specific measures to end the testing of women for pregnancy, and the use of such information to make discriminatory hiring or firing decisions in its country compliance reports under CEDAW.

Encourage state legislatures to amend the charter of the state human rights commissions so that it includes the ability to investigate private action as it relates to the state's human rights obligation to combat sex discrimination.

In compliance with the International Labor Office's Convention Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation [Convention No. 111], Mexico should:
Pursue national policies to promote equality of opportunity and treatment in employment and occupation;

Take practicable measures to foster public understanding and acceptance of non-discrimination; and

Receive and examine complaints of abrogation of non-discrimination principles.

Mexico is also obligated, under the North American Free Trade Agreement's North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, to:
Promote elimination of employment discrimination;

Ensure that its labor laws are enforced;

Initiate, in a timely manner, proceedings to seek appropriate sanctions or remedies for violations of its labor law; and

Publicize the content of its labor law regarding non-discrimination, thereby upholding its obligations under the NAFTA's Article 6, which states, "Each Party shall ensure that its laws, regulations, procedures and administrative rulings of general application respecting any matter covered by this Agreement are promptly published or otherwise made available in such a manner as to enable interested persons and Parties to become acquainted with them."

Human Rights Watch urges Mexico's state legislatures to:
Amend the charters of state human rights commissions so that they are able to investigate and report on unremedied private sector employment sex discrimination.

Human Rights Watch urges Mexico's state commissions for human rights to:
Recognize that unremedied private sector employment sex discrimination is within the mandate of the state commissions for human rights because it is a violation of a woman's right to nondiscrimination and infringes on her ability to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of children;

Incorporate the monitoring of discrimination against women in the private sector labor force into the cases they investigate and report on; and

Monitor and report on steps taken by Mexico to comply with nondiscrimination requirements of international human rights law in a manner that would promote the eradication of discrimination against women in the work place.

Human Rights Watch urges the United States Government to:
Take up the case of pregnancy-based sex discrimination and encourage the Mexican government to take immediate steps to combat it, in any interaction with the Mexican government; and

Encourage the Government of Mexico to meet its obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement's North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, including the enforcement of its own labor law and the elimination of employment discrimination.

Human Rights Watch urges private corporations that own maquiladoras to:
End the practice of requiring women applicants to provide proof of pregnancy status or contraception use or information about sexual habits in order to be considered for or to obtain employment in the maquiladoras;

End the practice of denying pregnant women applicants work by screening them out of the applicant pool;

Explicitly prohibit pregnancy exams for women applicants or any other such method that would invade a woman's privacy regarding her pregnancy status and right to nondiscrimination;

End harassment, intimidation, and forced resignation of female employees who become pregnant;

Reprimand personnel officers and other maquiladora employees who continue to discriminate against women workers by subjecting them to practices to determine their pregnancy status, including the practice of obliging them to provide proof of that status;

Explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sex in all company materials, including materials in Spanish that are easily accessible to both management and workers at all Mexico-based company branches; and

Accommodate pregnant women during their pregnancies, as per international standards and Mexican domestic law, by giving them seated work; allowing them to take maternity leave; and allowing them temporary transfers to less physically taxing work.

Human Rights Watch urges corporations that use maquiladoras as subcontractors to:
Require proof that subcontracting factories are being operated without discrimination, as a condition for a continuing contractual relationship; and

Monitor subcontractor plants on an ongoing basis, by, at a minimum, requiring periodic, timely certification that plants are being operated without discrimination; establishing an independent, impartial group wholly unconnected to the factory to monitor compliance; and periodically visiting the subcontractor plants to review the hiring process and solicit information from workers on the absence of discrimination.



  The Preference for Women Workers
  Discrimination in the Hiring Process
  Post-Hire Discrimination and the Punitive Use of Working Conditions
    Forced Resignations and Attempted Forced Resignations
    Mistreatment of Pregnant Workers
  Pregnancy-Based Sex Discrimination
  International Protection
    Right to Privacy
    Right to Decide Freely and Responsibly on the Number and Spacing of Children
    Ensuring Respect for All Human Rights
  Domestic Prohibitions
  Government Labor Rights Protection Mechanisms
    Inspector of Labor and Labor Rights Ombudsman
    Conciliation and Arbitration Board

Human Rights Watch      August 1996      Vol. 8, No. 6 (B)

To order the full text of this report click HERE.

For more Human Rights Watch reports on Mexico click HERE.

To return to the list of 1996 publications click HERE.

Or, to return to the index of Human Rights Watch reports click HERE.

Back Button