Military Coup Reverses Honduran Women’s Gains in Human Rights
By Margaret Thompson
In Honduras, the first military coup of the 21st Century is having a devastating effect on human rights, according to the author, a producer at FIRE (Feminist International Radio Endeavour), which was represented in an international delegation visiting the country this month.
August 28, 2009
The military coup d’état in Honduras on June 28 has seriously eroded democratic institutions and hard-fought gains in women’s human rights and human rights in general. That was the finding of Feminist Transgressional Watch, a group of 22 journalists, human rights legal experts and activists from North and Central America and Spain. The group visited Honduras in mid-August during Women’s Human Rights Week to assess reported violations of human rights and observe feminist strategies to resist the military coup.
In one gathering, the delegation met with 18 women who were fired recently from the National Institute for Women (INAM) because they are feminists and opposed the coup. According to Gilda Rivera, director of CEM-H (Women’s Studies Center of Honduras), the coup resulted in the devastation and militarization of such democratic institutions as INAM, which was established in 1998 based on international agreements coming out of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women.
One blatant violation of women’s human rights occurred on July 15, when several members of the Feminists in Resistance group staged a peaceful protest at INAM. They were speaking out against the loss of progress for women after decades of struggle—under a coup regime supported by the ultra right wing, including Opus Dei, a very conservative Catholic group that opposes many rights for women. The defacto Minister of Women María Marta Díaz called in security forces who chased the women protesters, hitting them with batons on their backs and buttocks, screaming verbally aggressive comments such as, “Whores! Go back to your homes!” Gilda Rivera of CEM-H noted that she had never heard of police hitting male protestors on the buttocks with their batons. Leaders of indigenous and Afro-Caribbean organizations who were staging their own peaceful march against the coup came to support the feminists in the attack.
According to Kanya Irias, who was a technical director in INAM, Minister Diaz is a close associate of a military advisor to the new coup regime who was notorious for past brutality.
According to a report at the Forum of the Coalition of Resistance in Tegucigalpa, a young woman denounced her gang rape and torture by police in a radio broadcast. Irma Villanueva told the radio audience that the police grabbed her during a protest march in Choloma, forced her to lie face down in a pickup truck, took her to a remote location, raped her and shoved a police baton into her vagina before leaving her lying on the ground. Referring to the street demonstration, the police shouted at her that she would learn not to be in places where she doesn’t belong.
Rivera noted that feminists overall are strongly opposed to the accelerated militarization of Honduras, which is a reversal of the demilitarization process that began in the mid-1990s. The defacto regime has announced it may implement an executive order for “voluntary” military service offering incentives, which, says Rivera, would basically amount to a forced draft in what is the most impoverished country in Latin America. Such a plan could set the stage for the current mass struggle against the coup to evolve into an armed conflict. Feminists also worry that female recruits would face the risks of sexual assault and harassment that confront women soldiers worldwide. They advocate abolition of the military as a way to work toward peace.
In the meantime, women including Feminists in Resistance will continue to be front and center in the marches. “No more coups (golpes), and no more golpes (beatings) of women!” shout the women as they take to the streets. “Quien somos? Somos Feministas en Resistencia!”
SUMMARY OF FORTHCOMING ARTICLE:
(The full length article is scheduled to appear in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice in 2007)
ACCOUNTABILITY FOR MURDER IN THE MAQUILADORAS:
Elvia R. Arriola
Claudia Ivette-González might still be alive if her employers had not turned her away. The 20-year-old resident of Ciudad Juárez-the Mexican city abutting El Paso, Texas-arrived at her assembly plant job four minutes late one day in October 2001. After management refused to let her into the factory, she started home on foot. A month later, her corpse was discovered buried in a field near a busy Juárez intersection. Next to her lay the bodies of seven other young women.
In less than a decade, a city that once had very low homicide statistics now reports that at least 300-400 women and girls were killed between 1994 and 2000. Along with an increase in murder rates, the rates of domestic violence have increased as the border town of Ciudad Juarez has experienced heavy industrialization since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Some murders have fallen into a bizarre serial killer pattern while others have been suspiciously linked to illegal trafficking gangs with money. Others clearly involve abductions of young, female maquiladora workers who never made it to or from work and whose bodies were later found dumped in Lomas de Poleo, the desert that surrounds Ciudad Juárez. Many of the murdered women have been raped, beaten, or mutilated.
In Mexico, the maquiladora worker is someone typically without much education or property and is often a migrant from an even poorer region of the country. Thousands of workers in these factories eke out sad lives in shantytowns without water, electricity, or public lighting. Dozens of families may stake out plots of land near public utilities or the industrial parks. There they camp out for years, pirating essential public services and building by hand or hiring itinerant laborers to build a shack out of sticks, cardboard, rags or discarded constructor's platforms. Some make home next to trash dumps. They walk on unpaved stretches of land that flood during storms.
Although news of the murders has generated much public discourse about the injustices taking place in Ciudad Juarez, an important factor is constantly overlooked in the discourse. What about the environment allowed the violence to take place? What about the fact that the government is in a cozy relationship with the CEOs of major corporations who come in to Mexico, lease large plots of land, set up factories with 24/7 operating schedules, pay no taxes, do little to make sure the workers they employ will have a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in and enough money to feed their families? What about the fact that the very girl whose body was found mutilated and dumped had worked hard, very hard, for one of those factories trying to improve her lot and that of her family? What of the fact that the same attitude about the murders - we are not responsible - is reflected in the policies of employment that encourage indifference to the workers needs or human rights whether in or out of the factories?
This paper argues that the Juarez murders are an extreme manifestation of the systemic patterns of abuse, harassment and violence against women who work in the maquiladoras, whose treatment derives from privileges enjoyed by the investors who employ them pursuant to the North American Free Trade Agreement. I begin by acknowledging that there is a critical relationship between women, gender violence and free trade as noted by Professor Weissman and others, but I also seek to understand how the absence of regulation to benefit workers in standard free trade law and policy perpetuates the degradation of maquiladora workers and produces environments hostile to working women's lives, including discrimination, toxicity in the workplace and threats of fatal assault. The unquestioned right to exploit the mostly female working poor incites gender violence while it makes Mexico a major player in global economic politics, even if rapid industrialization is encouraging more domestic violence and occasional incidents of female murder.
A. Gender and Globalization at the Mexican Border: before and after NAFTA.
Globalization today has its fans and its critics. To some, like Thomas Friedman, it is the happy way of the future where people of different nations and cultures will interconnect easily through the Internet, where markets and democracy will flourish and all things stodgy, inefficient and dictatorial (e.g., Communism, Sadam Hussein) will fade. Others are more cautious, calling for better regulatory insight by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financial players in the politics of free trade. Still others see a deadly combination for nations that make too quick a transition to market economies and democracy. Most contemporary discourse surrounding globalization focuses on the economic theories supporting or rejecting the trend; those who view gender and global trade as crucially related are still in the minority in academic discourse.
After observation of the relationship between gender and the operation of the maquiladoras at the Mexican border it is easy to see how gender based attitudes, affect everything from recruitment and hiring (nearly 100% female for workers) to treatment of women in the workplace. When American electrical, television, and stereo component companies such as GE, Sony, and Panasonic, began relocating to Mexico, women were blatantly preferred for the job. Women were seen as better fits; with smaller hands and fingers, they could better assemble tiny parts of export goods such as light bulbs, cassette tapes, and recorders. The ideal maquiladora worker thus emerged as a hybrid of stereotyped images based on sex, race and class - she was not only more docile and passive than Mexican men, but submissive, easily trainable and unlikely to pose problems with union organizing.
B. Where the Violence Leading to Murder Begins - The Voices of Experience from Inside the Maquiladoras
Over several years I visited several border towns and began to meet privately with mostly female workers and heard about their experiences. I sometimes met workers in their homes, which were uniformly tiny and clean but quite often without flooring, plumbing or more electricity than a single light bulb. "Fatal indifference" is the best way to describe the totality of circumstances suffered by maquiladora workers - a systematic structural disregard by corporations and their agents for the humanity of the laborer.
1. The Unbearable Pace: "I tolerated them for a total of 8 years."
2. Miserly Wages in Return for exposure to Toxicity.
Maria Elena pointed to dark scarred tissue mostly on the upper side of her feet: old scratch marks and evidence of once-ruptured skin, from a year-long period when her feet had first developed an unexplainable fungus infection that had broken and rotted the skin so badly "that my own brothers and sisters would tell me to stay away from them because of the awful smell." The doctors concluded that the condition was so bad that if she did not find a remedy and did not stop working in the environment that had obviously contributed to the infection, she would lose her feet to gangrene. Her mother told her, "although I appreciate the help from your working I don't want you to lose your feet." Maria Elena quit the job where she had been assembling one section of seatbelts over and over for two years, during which she was exposed to fine chemical dust particles in the fabric of the seatbelt that caused a condition without a permanent cure. Maria Elena's condition is only one of a variety of illness and conditions, including back problems, carpel tunnel syndrome, asthma and disabling allergic reactions which typically accompany the privilege of working in a maquiladora.
The maquiladoras thrive on the structure of a work week designed to produce the highest levels of output. In the United States, the average work week is 38 to 40 hours. However, in the maquiladoras, the average is 5 to 10 hours longer. Maquiladora workers average 48 hours per week, sometimes 10- and 12-hour shifts, no overtime pay, and, in some factories, only one day off per week. One worker named "Angela," who had arrived from Veracruz seven years earlier, earned 750 pesos per week (about $75.00) and felt grateful not to have to work weekends. She said that her daughter was earning much more, about 950 pesos per week, (about $95.00) but to do this she had to work 12 hour shifts, 6 days per week. As one worker stated: "It's really unreasonable because we work from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. To arrive on time, I have to get up at 5 a.m., and at that hour you really don't feel like eating. At 9:30 they give us 10 minutes for breakfast, and half an hour for lunch at 1 p.m."
Global employment then, whether in Mexico or elsewhere, falls into a familiar pattern - one where the policies of worker treatment emphasize rapid production, not worker health and safety or improved living conditions. As some critics note, the new wealth that comes with free trade often benefits a tiny privileged minority not the general population of the poorer country. To care about the workers would entail caring about things that don't factor well in a business driven by commitment to the bottom line, or cost-benefit analysis. The disciplinary methods, the production quotas at any cost, the speed-ups and injuries, punishments for using the bathroom during work time, the exposure to danger instruments or chemicals, all flow directly from the signal by company owners and their agents to supervisors and managers that:
Therefore, adequate safety gear for employees who must work with toxic chemicals, lighting around the factory, security for the workers -- all of these things are not as important as making sure workers do their tasks, supervisors meet the production schedule, and goods are exported and released into the stream of commerce that generates the consumption and the profits that will ultimately line the pockets of the owners and shareholders. These are the consequences of privilege and rights enjoyed by employers under free trade law and policy. It is a policy that doesn't give a damn about workers. The workers, after all, are only an insignificant cog in the wheel of production.
III. CORPORATE ACTIVITY AT THE MEXICAN BORDER AND QUESTIONS OF ACCOUNTABILITY.
Stories from the workers in the factories disturb the abstract discourses of free trade and the supposed mutual economic benefits that flow from a free trade agreement. A survey of the language in NAFTA will quickly reveal a skewed set of policies: more rights for the investor than for the worker or migrant laborer. That imbalance will explain why it is so difficult to say that corporations can be held accountable for their harmful activities in foreign countries. Public awareness that corporations do abuse their privileges in other countries has generated considerable literature on the possible legal theories that might be used to make the corporate actor accountable whether under U.S. domestic law, international law, or under the law of the host country, in this case Mexican tort law. The next section very briefly explores these options.
The NAFTA complaint process is purely administrative. It might be however, a powerful organizing tool for workers as it can be used to present evidence and personal testimony about the problems that are illegal under existing labor or health and safety laws. The NAFTA labor side agreement, NAALC, codified that the Parties to NAFTA (the U.S., Canada and Mexico) promised to improve the "working conditions and living standards in each Party's territory." The best way to understand a NAFTA complaint is to see it as a reminder to the Party nations that promises were made to treat workers fairly in pursuit of free trade and open economic borders.
The matters which a NAALC complaint can be based on include:
(a) freedom of association and protection of the right to organize;
The labor side agreement has not been received well by labor activists. It creates a labyrinth of procedure that sets no specific standard for enforcement; it merely asks the Parties to enforce their own laws, tells interested parties to go to their appropriate local agencies for enforcement and then, even if a violation is found, the "remedy" is a fine that may not exceed .007 of the total trade in goods between the countries, which is to be spent on the enforcement of labor laws in the country complaint against.
The NAFTA/NAALC/NAO procedure strikes an amazing contrast to the rights and remedies for investors under NAFTA. NAFTA never included workers' rights language; whereas NAALC tells the host government simply to enforce existing law. But investors get quite a different deal that is extremely beneficial to them. The infamous Chapter 11, for example, permits one country's corporations to sue for compensation when another government's regulatory conduct is deemed "tantamount to expropriation." Not only does this reflect an anti-regulatory sentiment in NAFTA, it seemingly protects corporate activity/profit at any cost - even if that means effectively stopping governments from regulating for public health.
B. Women's Bodies as Part of the Free Trade Deal? Women's Rights as Human Rights.
The Juarez murders are being viewed internationally as a grave human rights problem for Mexico. Mexican government officials resist this international scrutiny with classic defensiveness: blaming the victims for their dress or referring to working girls that frequent bars and clubs as immoral. Better to invoke sexism than admit that the murders reveal a masculine attitude of power, along with subordination and fatal indifference to the health and welfare of poor working women.
1. The Maquiladora Worker versus the Multinational Corporation?: The Alien Tort Statute.
Whether the transnational employer's practices, like the harsh disciplinary measures, rise to the level of violating the "law of nations" is the most difficult question to answer under this jurisprudence. It is enough to say that an alleged violation has to meet the "jus cogens" test, i.e., something prohibited and recognized by all nations. These include genocide, slave trade, murder or causing the disappearance of individuals; torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment; prolonged arbitrary detention; systematic racial discrimination; or a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.
The case law interpreting the "law of nations" has obviously looked at more extreme examples of corporations cooperating with governments to produce inhumane conditions for workers, like the forced slavery practices that were enforced by the Burmese government to aid the corporate activities of a global oil company. Maquiladora activists often decry the arbitrary imposition of extended work hours, on short notice, with the penalty of being fired if the worker refuses, just so a production schedule can be met. Maybe such practices are like the imposition of forced labor. Does the murder of a maquiladora worker who would not have been put in the path of danger but for the policy in effect at her place of employment qualify as a "causing the disappearance of an individual" and as a violation of the law of nations? When the host government does not question the use of these and other policies that endanger the worker, is the employer now an actor under color of law? Is the MNC that has a budget larger than that of several countries and whose presence causes massive social reorganization in social and public policy an actor under color of law, with or without the tacit approval of its practices by the host government? These are but questions I suggest for the lawyer interested in creating new legal strategies on behalf of the maquiladora worker.
III. FROM PASSIVITY TO EMPOWERMENT: GLOBALIZATION AND THE WOMEN OF THE COMITE FRONTERIZO DE OBRERAS (CFO).
The CFO, as well as other labor groups, independent unions and individuals around Mexico continues to resist and fight back against the "three-headed monster" that continues to exploit and abuse workers: the government; the corporations that take maximum advantage of labor conditions; and the pro-business, official unions like the CTM that are loyal servants of the corporations.
A. The Movement for Justice by Women Workers
Questions of legal accountability for the abuse of employees of multinational corporations (MNCs), which benefit from free trade agreements such as NAFTA, are complex. In the past two decades, the world has been reorganized along borderless regions by a significant consensus-mostly among the financial leaders of the wealthiest nations-that freer trade among all nations in targeted regions will end poverty and promote democratic forms of government. But to the workers the promises of "la globalizacion" have been a lie. Their experiences betray more stress, constant betrayal from government backed unions that side with management, chronic illnesses associated with the toxicity and the demanding hours, and an inability to make ends meet on the pitiful wages. But the workers I have been privileged to meet also do not give up easily the struggle for justice at the border industries. I am always in awe of the methods of organizing used by the CFO, which are premised on mutual respect, community, safety, creating a sense of dignity in every worker no matter how old, young, educated or not.
The organizing methods of the CFO operate on simple principles. The key is listening to the worker, getting a sense of their needs and only then beginning the process of introducing the worker to the idea of rights that may be relevant and are in print in a copy of the complied Federal Labor Law. The first steps in this educational process are powerful - it empowers the worker to connect the injustices they are enduring inside the factory to the existence of a rule of law that says "this is illegal." They then connect with each other and they understand the need for community, for strategy, for patience. The CFO volunteers constantly stress the importance of acting upon the voice, cause and interests of the workers. Nothing is done until many are committed. The numbers of workers in the factories are too large to risk a firing of just a few workers who can easily be discarded before a problem has been resolved. So they organize patiently, sometimes taking months before a critical mass is formed who will back up the firing of a worker willing to take the heat for speaking up to injustice.
More recently the work of the CFO has seen a new stage of the effects of personal empowerment. Sometimes workers who win at labor board arbitrations come out with generous lump sum settlements that allow them to leave maquiladora work and open small businesses, like beauty shops or food stands. A few years ago a few workers took a bold step and ventured into the world of fair trade, instead of free trade. With the help of the CFO and U.S. allies knowledgeable about business they took their former garment factory skills into the creation of Fábrica Dignidad y Justicia, a fair trade company run mostly by women who are working decent hours, earning a living wage, producing goods that people want (T-shirts and canvas bags) and engaging in labor they can love and be proud of.
B. The Nemesis of the Activist Workers - Hostile Governments and the Delusions of Global Democracy.
Regardless of how and why free trade pacts are promoted and set in place, it is mainly corporate CEOs and stockholders who reap the benefits of treaties. These pacts provide the legal framework that allows expansion of markets and reorganization of labor operations throughout the world. And as key actors in economic globalization, corporations stand in place of governments that want freer trade, presumably to ensure the social and economic conditions that secure peace. Arguably, this important role fulfilled by the multinational corporation clothes it in a blanket of authority or quasi-governmental agency. Should there not be more courage on the part of legislators to hold the multinational corporation more accountable?
One might ask why is it necessary to focus on the multinational corporation and not on the more complex relationship between the maquiladora worker, her government or even other explanations for the gender violence (e.g., cultural patterns of sexism). It is because:
Corporations are enormously wealth and powerful enough to supplant governmental power and authority
When the policy for promoting globalization is structured to promote fatal indifference to the plight of global workers, left undisturbed and without effective amendments to future trade agreements, globalization of the economy will continue to guarantee less rather than more global freedom. Meanwhile, free trade, as opposed to fair trade, advances with more corporations and their high paid directors raking in profits as they globe trot in the corporate race to the bottom of the wage scale in third-world countries. And with increases in globalization there may continue the other developments that follow the profits of jobs that have not reduced poverty, workers complaining of systematic abuse, and female murder in the maquiladoras of the world.
Feminists and others who are speaking out about the Juarez murders have an important task ahead of them. If the patterns of gender violence that come with globalization are to be halted in other parts of the world, then from a platform of global sisterhood it is the responsibility of feminists in first world countries to ask for changes in the law and social policy of trade. It is a responsibility to educate the policy wonks, to elect the legislators who will study the issue with nuance to the political economics of racism, classism, and sexism. Progressive globalization analysts, like influential Joseph Stiglitz, also need to re-examine their critiques that focus only on economic disparities from pushing more and more poor countries to participate in the global economy.
Feminists need to put the story of the Juárez murders into a context that appreciates the powerful attraction governments have to participate in the global economy. Meanwhile, globalization critics need to consider the impact of globalization on women's safety in the workplace, their homes, and their communities and question the integrity of the familiar argument that globalization benefits all-even when the evidence of egregious harm is abundant and contrary.The fact that a third-world country is pressed by major economic institutions to open its doors to foreign investors in exchange for new jobs and wealth, but must also abandon concern for basic human rights and safety for its citizens, is unconscionable. Yet it is modern reality. Globalization of a poor nation's economy exacts a heavy price in guaranteeing the production and reproduction of gender-based violence and femicide.
I have introduced some of the stories and testimony gathered on many visits to the border as a supportive ally of women working in the maquiladoras and more recently as a committed educator trying to introduce students to the human face of free trade. What I have hoped people would witness is how a combined host of variables, including typical corporate decisions about discipline for workers as well as the clear bias that favors investors in free trade law and policy, produces a hostile work environment with a discriminatory effect on women and female children. What happened to Claudia Ivette Gonzalez and other maquiladora workers, is inseparable from the employer's attitude about workers inside the factories. If he doesn't care about the injuries and the toxicity in the factory why would he care about the safety of a young girl who sets out on foot in the early hours, headed for parts of the city known to lack adequate street lighting, public security services, much less public traffic that would make her trip home more secure?
The year 2006 was a difficult one for immigrants of Mexican descent in the United States. A Republic majority in Congress pushed the anti-immigrant agenda by exploiting the rhetoric of anti-terrorism. The unarticulated racism of the proposals was frightening. Undocumented workers of all backgrounds live in the U.S., but the targeting of the most hostile policies is always directed at the Southern border and at Mexicans, while the elephant in the living room is ignored - the role NAFTA has played in luring rural families north to the maquiladoras only to discover nonliving wages, no place to make home, and frightening social conditions that threaten the safety of their health and their families. Because of the historic presence of women in the maquiladoras, gender discrimination once in place turned into gender violence with the push for trade liberalization and NAFTA. Ciudad Juarez is still Mexico's shining star as a major center for commercial activity as an export processing zone. But it is also a haven for violence against women, enough of whom were factory workers that one cannot deny the subtle but real effects of the global corporation, with the acquiescence of the government, in producing the environment suitable for the rise of the maquiladora murders.
Sadly Claudia Ivette Gonzalez is a martyr for justice in the maquiladoras, a place where workers have no expectation of safety in or out of the workplace and settings where supervisors can take actions against workers that become the structure of fatal indifference. Claudia's abduction, and that of so many of the victims of Juarez who were maquiladora workers, is the ultimate act in the name of free trade and globalization. She is the sacrificial female body that has been dedicated to the gods of production and profit. Her body may have been abducted and grossly violated by whomever found an easy target that morning but the life preceding her brutal killing already had already been defined as insignificant: a fleck in the fabric of global production.
LOOKING OUT FROM A CARDBOARD BOX: WORKERS, THEIR FAMILIES AND THE MAQUILADORA INDUSTRY IN CIUDAD ACUÑA, COAHUILA
by Elvia Rosales Arriola, J.D., M.A.It was late morning when I parked outside the home of Rosa María Ramos Rivas, "Rossy, " 34 years old and the mother of two young boys. As I stepped out of the car I was careful to zip up my briefcase, a little worried that my tape recorder would fall into the mud left over from the heavy rains that had fallen over Ciudad Acuña, a border town with a booming maquiladora industry that sits on the other side of Del Rio, Texas. Rossy had just awakened, as she works a 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. nightshift at General Electric in Ciudad Acuña. She, her boys César and Marco, and her husband Abraham live in a two room house that she considers an improvement to the days when her family had no more than a blanket and their body warmth for cold nights. "We came here from Comarca Lagunera, Torreón with a wool blanket, a suitcase and our two small children," she told me. They arrived in Cd. Acuña in search of work as they could no longer stay with her husband's parents working as field hands without wages. Until they found work they stayed with a niece, then another, then an uncle of Abraham's.
As soon as one of them had a job an older woman rented them a "cuartito de cartón," a tiny room in a shack built of nothing but scraps and cardboard. When I asked Rossy how they survived under those conditions she said "it was hard, yet better than feeling in the way in someone else's house. Eventually someone gave us a cooking pan, and a chair, then someone sold us a small dresser for fifty pesos and some "tarimas" (factory platforms). We slept on the tarimas because we had no bed, and put up with some really cold nights, all huddled beneath one blanket."
As we talked I looked around at the room with two beds in which the entire family slept, noticing that this was the only room that had a cement floor and I commented, "I guess that's how a lot of families come here?" To which Rossy replied, "the majority come this way." She went on describing the gradual changes in the nine years since their move to Cd. Acuña. "The big change came after about a year when at Christmas, Arneses y Accesorios, where my husband worked, gave out a thick wool blanket to each worker, and my 'aguinaldo' at General Electric allowed us to put a down payment on this plot of land."
Depending on the timing and its valuation in relation to wages, the Mexican tradition of an annual bonus/savings plan for workers known as the Christmas "aguinaldo" can improve the lot of a struggling employee. Rossy referred to the end of their first year in Cd. Acuña with the aguinaldo and the extra blanket as a period when their family turned a corner. But buying the land was only the beginning. Through a government housing assistance program they could buy discounted building materials but then had to hire the laborers to begin building. On the typically depressed wages in Cd. Acuña that average about $25 dollars per week, the process of establishing something akin to a residence took a long time. "We first tried to improve upon the "cuartito de carton." Someone would sell us tarimas and we would add them on. One week it might be three, another week it might be five."
Over the summer I'd slept in Piedras Negras in the home of Amparo Reyes, and had heard her say, referring to the newly installed "real" door to their bathroom, that she and others who helped with home repairs and additions, including her two boys, learned by the task how to become "carpenters and plumbers and whatever else you need." So I asked Rossy if she and Abraham had built the room I now sat in. "Yes, we did, you learn as you go along. We kept building with the tarimas on the cuartito de cartón. But we eventually did the same to this place because someone was trying to squat on our property so we had to move in before the building was finished. So there we were sleeping under the open air and building on with cardboard and tarimas to keep the inclement weather out."
Que Triste Se Oye La Lluvia (How Sad the Rain Sounds)
Every time I listen to the Venezuelan song "Casas de Cartón," which begins with the refrain "que triste se oye la lluvia," I am struck by the brutal honesty of the lyrics referring to the sad sound of the rain on a "casa de carton," the standard housing of the extremely poor throughout Mexico and Central and South America. I first heard its soft melancholic tones as a sound track to a short and poignant documentary produced by Heather Courtney, a University of Texas student who filmed the first delegation of Tan Cerca de la Frontera (So Close to the Border) Austinites who traveled to Mexico to meet maquiladora workers through the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (Committee of Women Workers at the Border, CFO) to learn more about their work, wages and living conditions. Heather's film captures a desolate existence for workers and families who come to the border in search of a better life, often staking their claim to that vision on a plot of unclaimed land in a city that promises work in one of the thousands of Maquiladoras at the Mexican frontera.
In Texas, it is the term "Colonias" that refers to substandard housing and self-help settlements lacking sufficient water or sewer services to meet the residential needs of its predominately Latino population. In Mexican Spanish the term "colonia" is actually a city section, neighborhood or division. I find myself always explaining this to my Anglo partner and friends when they see reference to an address prefaced with the term "Colonia," a legacy of the residential patterns during Spain's active colonialism in Mexico from 1540 through 1821. Colonias do have paved streets and public services, while a neighborhood still in the early self-help settlement stage is more like a "slum of hope" waiting to be integrated someday as a formal colonia and as an addition to the city's working-class districts. But until such neighborhoods do acquire that status, taking as long as twenty years, life in Mexico's " casas de cartón" can be rather grim as illustrated by the period of Rossy and Abraham's marriage when all they owned were a blanket, a suitcase and the clothing on their bodies.
I had actually met Rossy and her husband Abraham over the weekend in a large reunion in Piedras Negras with activists from the CFO and from Austin-Tan Cerca de la Frontera. Rossy and her husband came as CFO volunteers from Cd. Acuña. It had rained and thundered so hard during the morning sessions of the reunion that I found myself talking to the new people I met about how some of the poorest maquiladora workers manage to survive such bad weather conditions. Two young CFO volunteers from Reynosa and Río Bravo were quick to tell me that in their region several dozen families had recently lost "absolutely everything" in a storm that had flooded whole sections of the squatter settlements. Many workers were in the desperate position of trying to recover their meager possessions from the flood, knowing that every hour and day away from work meant fewer wages under the typical piece work and quota wages system in the maquiladoras. As Verónica Quiroz invited me to visit Reynosa and Río Bravo for more interviews, she decried the substandard existence of maquiladora workers, even those who do not live in "casas de cartón," who like her own family, can only afford second-hand clothing and cheap household goods on the shabby wages paid maquiladora employees.
Yet with all of the melancholy that accompanied the stories of the workers' existence I was also struck in this meeting by the range of emotions that could be evoked in a gathering of workers united in a common struggle--from the anger and sadness that accompany the horror stories of bad wages, unsafe and unhealthy workplaces, or hostile employers and union reps, to the joy and laughter shared in the company of U.S. allies as they dramatized for us the victorious outcome of some recent labor conflict. For example, María Elena Robles Guardado, the CFO volunteer for Cd. Acuña who later took me to Rossy's home, seemed both to laugh and cry during a break in our meeting when she shared memories of days early in her marriage when she too lived in a "casa de cartón" and fought the constant leaks during storms similar to the pounding rain and thunder we were hearing outside. With the laughter of relief and a look of remembered despair she uttered, "those were terrible days that I remember too well." I pictured her struggling to find cover for herself and her then baby girl Cindy, who is now six-years old and living with her parents probably in the same home, one not unlike Rossy and Abraham's house--two rooms that have been added on to over the years with metal castoffs, wood and brick.
Ciudad Acuña: Boom Town without a Center
A drive through Cd. Acuña is hard for the compassionate observer. Everywhere are casas de cartón contrasted against cheap shopping bargains, hotels, the Americanized food in the restaurants with welcoming signs in English and trinkets being sold on the sidewalk by the city's most recent immigrants or those deemed too old to get work in a maquiladora. The obvious signs of Cd. Acuña's burgeoning population is in the hundreds of casas de cartón, some built precariously on lands that can count on being flooded during heavy rains.
There are other indications of a city that has grown too fast. For example, on a long break from the CFO-Tan Cerca reunion I walked out to the plaza with two families from Cd. Acuña looking for a "paletería" or ice cream shop for us and about four children. One woman remarked that what was missing from Acuña was a plaza with a central market like that of Piedras Negras (about sixty miles southeast, in Coahuila and on the border as well). Throughout Mexico the plaza serves as a social center of town and is marked by its park benches and shady trees under which families and friends sit. Often there is a nearby "mercado" offering a variety of small businesses and local, affordable food stands. Cd. Acuña, however, displays the subtle yet significant impact of the booming maquiladoras in its cozy economic arrangements between the industrialists and the city's business elite. The larger maquilas typically distribute discount coupons to their employees for food and clothing at the largest grocery stores and major furniture or clothing stores, instead of increasing their real wages or offering premium pay for overtime. Every time I hear of these arrangements I recall early American labor history references to "the company store."
Child Laborers Washed Away in a Storm
I have a photo from my late September trip that is of a small boy pushing a row of shopping carts in the lot of one of these major supermarkets in Cd. Acuña. I took it just after I'd seen a group of young boy children inside the store, wearing uniforms and being lectured by the store manager. Although I know that child labor in Mexico is an issue continually highlighted in the surveys and reports of human rights organizations I still find it appalling every time I receive another confirmation of its existence. I am still stunned, every time I hear another female maquiladora worker tell me in an interview that she is in her early thirties and that she is already a grandmother, or when in response to my question as to when she first started working she says that she started at the age of fourteen in a maquiladora, or that from the age of seven she helped her sharecropper parents pick the harvest.
I later found out that the super markets' small boys in uniform bag and carry out groceries and pick up the shopping carts, but they are not employees, even if store owners seemingly depend on their services. Under Mexico's labor law, a worker must be at least 16 years old in order to earn wages. Instead, the children get tips. It is up to their families to buy the uniforms demanded by employers if they want the job for their children. By October, the picture I had taken of the small boy pushing a huge row of carts in front of my car suddenly took on a different meaning as I drove with Maria Elena Robles toward Rossy and Abraham's house and we approached a bridge near the very same supermarket. Maria Elena informed me of the city's most recent tragedy involving the torrential rains. "Three of those little boys who work the carts died right here. It was raining hard, the bridge flooded and they were going home after the store's closing at 11 p.m. They never made it home because they drowned in the flood."
Booming Maquiladoras and Dehumanized Workers: Cogs in the Wheel of Global Production and Competition
US residents that are learning for the first time about my work in Mexico often tell me that the situation in Mexico's maquiladoras evokes for them the history of the labor movement in this country of a hundred years ago, a time that we associate with the birth of unionism, bitter labor-management struggles and the improvement of working hours, wages and working conditions. Yes, I say to them, and there is a good reason why in city after city Mexican workers are beginning to say no to intolerable wages and working conditions. Four hundred workers at a Cd. Acuña subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) known as Arneses y Accesorios, effectively said no to management when they walked out on October 4, 2000, because nothing had followed from the petition presented to ALCOA'S CEO Bob Hughes, who came to Cd. Acuña on May 4, 2000 and personally heard thirty workers tell him how they simply could not feed and support their families on the miserly wages paid by Arneses.
The Cd. Acuña workers consistently decry the huge wage disparities that exist between them and ALCOA workers in Piedras Negras. Apparently "top wages" at the Cd. Acuña Arneses plants are 450-500 pesos per week (about US$45-$50) but most workers throughout Cd. Acuña, I am assured, earn only 200-300 pesos (US$20-$30 )per week which are seen as barely above starvation level. Juan Tovar Santos, the CFO volunteer who led the October 4th walkout says he's never seen a raise in the nine years he has worked for ALCOA-Arneses. To feed his family of a wife and four children he repairs cars from his home on the weekends.
María Elena Robles' main task as a CFO volunteer in Cd. Acuña is to educate its US allies on the relationship between maquila wages and desperate living conditions. She does this by explaining charts she made that illustrate "la canasta básica." The "basic market basket" chart is drawn from the lived realities of maquiladora workers and shows the average wages in Cd. Acuña and the needs of a typical family trying to feed, clothe, medicate and educate its children. The figures start out with the basics of food, housing, utilities and clothing, and always leave for last the "extras" of medicines and school supplies, books and mandatory public education fees. It is no surprise then, that such typical wages (about US$21- $31) induce so many children to stop their education at the 6th grade and to go out looking for work to help their families, a desperate mission symbolized by the applicant's obtaining a false birth certificate to prove that he or she is 16 and legally able to work.
On the day after I came back from my latest trip I simply burst into a flood of tears from the raw emotions triggered by witnessing lives of struggle and stories of pain. Were it not for the courage I see in the workers who continue to support and educate each other, I might be paralyzed by the institutionalized arrogance seemingly at play in cities whose economy thrives on the explicit and implicit privileges for investors under NAFTA. I might be so overwhelmed by the more disturbing stories as to think they just can't be true or that the situations are too difficult to challenge. I read a Cd. Acuña newspaper article buttressing an earlier story from a worker about how a group of women employed by Standard Components of Mexico, one of them pregnant, were intoxicated by the fumes from a middle of the night explosion of a can of solvent carelessly left near the factory ovens. The women detected the strong odor at the start of their 6 a.m. shift but the supervisors wouldn't let them stop working. Management didn't evacuate the area or provide medical assistance until seven women complained of headaches, nausea and began to faint. As I put down the article I wonder whether the pregnant woman, Juanita Rodríguez Duarte, may have miscarried knowing from other research that pregnant women in the maquiladoras frequently have miscarriages right on the worksite because worker health and safety are given such a low priority.
The feeling of being overwhelmed with the information is becoming familiar with each visit. Just as I begin to put away the article about the contamination and the pregnant worker, two snapshots fall out of my folder of notes from this latest trip. They depict two children belonging to Nicolás Navarro Moreno, an ex-employee of ALCOA's subsidiary Arneses y Accesorios, who worked for several years in Plant No. 7. Looking at the toddlers I am taken back to the meeting room in a large restaurant in Cd. Acuña where I was handed these two photos by Sr. Navarro while he and Ramiro Minjares Gonzales, also an ex-employee of Arneses, ardently explained to a group of CFO volunteers and allies their problems with ALCOA.
In Cd. Acuña, Arneses y Accesorios' 11,000 factory workers assemble electrical wiring harnesses and components used in the dashboards of several major auto styles sold in the US. Nicolás and Ramiro spoke on behalf of fifty current and former workers, all of whom want ALCOA to stick to an alleged verbal promise they got in 1997 of lifetime medical preventive exams and/or necessary treatments, because from 1989 to 1997 they were exposed to "MOCA," a highly toxic component typically mixed with resins to make plastic molds that encase circuit wiring. The material safety data sheet describes MOCA as 4,4'-Methylenebis (2-chloroaniline), a medium viscosity liquid with a light amber color and a mild characteristic odor that should never come into contact with the skin, eyes or clothing, and that has mutagenic/genotoxic qualities as well as carcinogenic effects.
In 1997, the company's doctors allegedly informed the workers that MOCA caused urinary tract cancer in laboratory animals. Nicolás spoke passionately, handing over copies of his research and medical records to me, to Ricardo Hernández of the AFSC, to Julia Quiñones of the CFO and the CFO's lawyer, Fernando Fonseca, uttering his vow not to give up the campaign to make Arneses follow through with its 1997 promise for medical care. Their campaign has grown out of the recent difficulties workers are having in obtaining the MT-1, the company's assurance to the IMSS or "Seguro Social," that a worker's injuries or illnesses are work-related and therefore that their testing and diagnosis should be provided cost free. Towards the end of our discussion Nicolás handed me the photographs of his two small children, saying, " we know from these studies and other sources that this substance can change a person's DNA structure. I worry about what I might have passed on to these children because we had them when I was still working with this chemical without any adequate safety gear." In fact, it is a widespread problem in the maquiladora industry--the lack of adequate safety gear and appropriate ventilation around a worker's job site. Consequently, as recently alleged in a NAFTA complaint against two companies in Matamoros that, like ALCOA, assemble auto parts using strong solvents and glues, institutional disregard for worker health in the maquiladoras leads to chronic and acute medical problems such as nausea, headache, migraines, chronic breathing difficulties, miscarriages, stillbirths and birth defects, and all are related to workers' exposure to toxic chemicals and waste products.
It should be noted that ALCOA Fujikura Ltd's San Antonio office did not return two FNS calls to comment on these matters.
Of course, no amount of reporting or documentation can make up for the visual symbols of the maquiladora industry's presence at the border and its impact on workers and their families. They are seen just walking through the colonias and barrios filled with children walking out of shacks, without shoes onto unpaved rocky streets that turn into ponds of mud and water during heavy rains, and that are blights on the landscape when contrasted against the fancy buildings and parking lots for the maquiladora management that are located right across the highway. Or there is the emotional and visual impact of visiting a maquiladora worker in a home that may or may not have a toilet, that has walls and ceilings made of cardboard, wood and metal castoffs, as she tells you about co-workers nearly losing fingers and hands to job accidents, spontaneous abortions and poor medical care, or just how she and her family are trying to eke out an existence on the insulting wages that typify the global economy's "race to the bottom."
The competition in the global economy is driven by the promise of higher and higher profits, viewed as obtainable only by lower production costs and the cheapest foreign labor, all at the expense of the worker's right to a life of dignity, health and happiness. One obvious explanation for the depressed wages, at least in Cd. Acuña, is that the city has no significant union presence. It is also rumored that the mayor vows to every new industrialist to keep the city union free. As a result, every new maquiladora, regardless of the public-relations image its parent corporation may communicate worldwide, can quickly become a fief, run by local supervisors who impose strict master-servant methods of production, oversight and worker treatment, with the single aim of achieving the highest level of production for the lowest possible cost. Of course, when production is the goal, then it is more important to get the new employee working rather than to train him or her on safety issues, or teach them enough English to read a warning label about a toxic chemical, or to spend money on expensive protective gear. When keeping the machine running is more important than the impact of the machine on the humans running it, then the workers must be dehumanized. It is an economic system that thrives on turning humans into machine parts themselves, into cogs in the wheel of global production who do not think, do not feel, do not hurt, do not have lives, families or loved ones.
Congo's Rape Epidemic Worsens During U.S.-Backed Military Operation
By Stephanie McCrummenWashington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 10, 2009; 4:09 PM
Call for Papers
Forthcoming Issue: Women’s Rights, Gender Mainstreaming, and Diversity Management in the Arab World
The Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW), at the Lebanese American University, is in the process of soliciting articles for the forthcoming issue of our quarterly publication Al-Raida: http://www.lau.edu.lb/centers-institutes/iwsaw/raida-call-for-papers.html, which will focus on “Women’s Rights, Gender Mainstreaming, and Diversity Management in the Arab World.”
We are interested in receiving academic studies and short critical essays that revolve around the issue in question. Discourse and activism in the field of women’s rights has shifted gradually during the last half century, from a focus primarily on equality for women and men to a more comprehensive approach, encompassing various aspects of social, political, economic, legal, and cultural difference. How has this general trend towards a gendered and diversity-oriented approach affected women and men in the Arab world? Has the MENA region contributed to the global pool of knowledge and experience in this field, both from a scholarly and practical-political perspective?
Topics related to women’s rights, gender, and diversity can include (but are not restricted to):
- Transitions in the women’s rights movement in the Arab world over time
- The shift from gender equality to gender mainstreaming
- Dealing with “The Other”: religious, linguistic, racial, and social difference in the women’s movement
- The development of masculinity discourse
- Legal and political aspects of gender and diversity policy
- Integrating social minorities in the women’s movement: including issues related to disabilities, sexual orientation, and citizenship rights
- Globalization: the role of multinational corporations and international NGOs with respect to gender mainstreaming and diversity
- Diversity in the “ivory tower:” gender and difference in research and higher education
- The impact of Western and regional values on gender and diversity discourse and activism
If you are interested in contributing to this issue of Al-Raida, kindly send your abstract (250300 words) no later than August 15, 2009. All abstracts submitted will be reviewed by AlRaida’s editorial team and are subject to its approval. Once an abstract is approved, contributors will have to submit their paper no later than December 15, 2009. Submissions are accepted in English, Arabic, or French. All non-English submissions will be translated by IWSAW and published in English following the approval of the author.
This journal edition will be edited by Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous, a scholar and trainer in the fields of gender mainstreaming and diversity management, who has previously edited two issues of Al-Raida (101/102 Non-Arab Women in the Arab World, 116/117 Arab Diaspora Women). Kindly send your emails simultaneously to the managing editor, Myriam Sfeir, at email@example.com and to the guest editor, Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Iranian women's rights activist Shadi Sadr beaten, arrested and disappeared
Escalation in arbitrary arrests and disappearances of individuals and human rights defenders
July 17, 2009
Shadi Sadr, a lawyer and prominent women’s rights activist working with the One Million Signatures Campaign, was arrested today by plain clothes security officers and taken to an undisclosed location. The men pulled her into a car as she walked along a busy road and beat her as she struggled to escape.
Ms. Sadr, a journalist, member of Meydaan (Women’s Field), director of Raahi (legal advice center for women), and founder of Zanan-e Iran (Women of Iran--the first website dedicated to the work of Iranian women's rights activists), has written extensively about Iranian women and their legal rights.
Ms. Sadr’s violent arrest marks an escalation in attacks against human rights activists by the Iranian government since demonstrations protesting Iran’s disputed presidential election results. It follows the arrests and disappearances of numerous other human rights defenders, social justice activists, and journalists. Reports from inside Iran indicate that hundreds more protestors have been killed than government reports suggest. Many families are unable to locate their loved ones and are searching through hospitals, photographs of corpses, police stations, prisons, and inquiring at the Revolutionary Court.
WLP is gravely concerned for the safety of Shadi Sadr and women’s rights activists and citizens who have been peacefully speaking out for their basic rights. We are especially concerned about the mounting violence against women by state agents. The murder of 26 year old Neda Agha-Soltani during the initial wave of protests brought the world’s attention to the danger that innocent women are facing as they stand up for their civil rights. Now we have learned of the apparent murder of 28 year old Taraneh Mousavi after she was brutally attacked.
The recent political protests have brought on increased persecution of women’s rights activists, who have been regularly arrested and harassed since 2006 for peacefully advocating for their equal rights before the law. They have faced charges such as "acting against the national security of the state," "propaganda against the state," "disrupting public opinion" and, most recently, for membership in the One Million Signatures campaign itself. Many are serving suspended sentences, and face regular harassment and persecution by the government.
We call upon the women's rights community and all human rights activists and organizations to speak out in defense of Shadi Sadr and all those who are being unjustly persecuted.
Please write to local and international media, mobilize your social networks, and urge your policy makers and embassies as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay to take action to protect the basic human rights of all those who are being abused and arrested in Iran.
The Honorable Ban Ki-Moon
760 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017
Web contact: www.un.org/en/contactus/contactform.asp
A Fearless Activist in a Land of Thugs
Natalia Estemirova, a top human rights activist in the troubled Russian republic of Chechnya and a close colleague of Human Rights Watch, was abducted near her home in Grozny on the morning of July 15, 2009, carried off in a car as people on a nearby balcony heard her call for help. Her body was found later that day in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
Estemirova was a researcher with the leading Russian human rights group Memorial for a decade and had worked closely with Human Rights Watch, including on its recent investigations into the punitive killings and house burnings against people suspected by Chechen authorities of having links to rebels.
In 2007 she was given the Human Rights Watch Defender Award. This video was presented to introduce her work.