Muchacha in the maquila

Teresa Healy explores how US car giants employed women in Mexico as a stick with which to beat male workers


Gendered Struggles against Globalisation in Mexico
Teresa Healy
2008, Ashgate
184 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IT MAY BE impossible to establish a direct causal relationship between the murder of young women in Ciudad Juárez – between 1993 and 2003, for example, Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights reported 263 unprosecuted cases of murdered women and 4,500 disappearances from the city – and the gender dynamics of globalisation, but it is almost certain that the issue of femicide and the restructuring of industrial Mexico are related.

For Ciudad Juárez is “maquila city” and the women worker was at the very heart of a new model of industrial development in the country based on maquiladoras in which labour rights based on a partriarchal union hierarchy were dismantled and men’s work and women’s work began to look more alike.

Teresa Healy’s pioneering study of trade union struggles within the auto sector introduces the reader to this crucial theme and how gendered changes in the composition of the workforce were key components of efforts in the 1980s to deunionise Mexican labour and exploit an unskilled, low-wage workforce.

Gendered Struggles against Globalisation in Mexico is a pivotal work because it investigates and seeks to explain the feminised nature of so much industrial production in the country – particularly on its northern border – in the era of NAFTA and free trade. In so doing, it exposes the truly cynical nature of capitalist restructuring in Mexico behind such anodyne slogans as commercial “liberalisation”. It is no coincidence that women – double victims both of an economic system that prized male labour and a macho culture that subordinated them within the home (employing scandalously high levels of domestic violence) – found themselves favoured subjects within Mexico’s new model. The author writes:

“When capitalists build new plants in the middle of a desert they are not filling up empty space. Yet even while NAFTA was being negotiated, it was not uncommon to encounter the perception in Canada and the United States that the new factories on Mexico’s northern border were springing up in a context of absence: absence of community, absence of union struggle and absence of history. The reality is that these plants arrived into a whole nexus of social relations within which production was already occurring. Otherwise, the fact that a young, educated, Spanish-speaking woman of colour was chosen the preferred worker would have no meaning at all. The location of new investments in the ‘greenfield’ was an overt repudiation by globalising capitalists of the social structures that had once been central to their own interests during the period of social compromise. Subsequently, maquilisation shaped the restructuring of the older, industrial centre. There, degraded labour relations became normalised; first because feminisation had already made flexibilised labour relations viable and, second, because the internationalisation of dominant patriarchal ideas had made flexibility desirable.” [p. 152]

Hegemonic masculinity

Healy argues that gendered identities are a key, but often overlooked, part of the Mexican state structure and the organisation of the economy in all its 20th-century manifestations and transitions. The author explains that relations of power other than social class are involved in the constitution and transformation of historical structures: working-class men are also enmeshed in gendered relations, enjoying power relative to working-class women; and at the same time, there is a “hegemonic masculinity” in which one dominant form of masculinity stands above another.

An important antecedent to globalisation was the effort by the large US auto producers to shift their competitiveness problem to Mexico by taking advantage of the maquiladora programme to open export-processing zones along the northern border.

In the 1980s, maquilas – which had developed primarily as assembly plants that took advantage of preferential tariff regimes by virtue of their proximity to the US – began to lose their enclave status within the national economy and to offer a model for industrial restructuring. A key prior condition for such a change was the subordinate position of women in society and the labour market, because a key characteristic of maquila development had been a labour force with a large proportion of women in it: by 1979, the maquiladora sector as a whole employed 76.6 per cent women.

As the maquilisation of Mexico spread, managers at auto giants such as Ford de México sought to strengthen their control over the production process by actively changing the gender make up of the labour force: whereas in old auto factories in the industrial core, the workforce was virtually all male, in the new factories that took a leaf from the maquilas’ book there were early indications of its feminisation.

When the dark prince of Mexican capitalism – Carlos Salinas de Gortari – took over in the late 1980s, the country was ripe for an expansion of production for export, and fertile territory for the new high priests of “competitiveness”. By the late 1980s, the maquiladora industries were growing at rates far exceeding national averages for industrial growth. Their expansion depended on the combination of low wages and rising productivity – and these industries were notable, in particular, for having no effective union representation. As a result, restructuring had a considerable impact upon traditional, patriarchal trade unions. Healy writes:

“… as productivity was identified as the crucial problem for the United States economy in the 1980s, this became the refrain in Mexico as well. The reclassification of jobs and skill, the intensification of work and the reduction of wages thus became the basis for international competitiveness. Restructuring entailed a new level of North American economic integration, defeats of struggles for democratic, autonomous and independent trade unionism, and the reorganisation of work in more intense and flexible directions. These three aspects of restructuring had a profound impact on working-class representation as Mexico became more outwardly oriented.” [p. 114]

While Gendered Struggles against Globalisation in Mexico is, primarily, a study of “hegemonic masculinity” and the impact of economic restructuring in the auto sector upon caudillismo in Mexican trade unions, it is an eye-opening introduction to the little-examined links between gender and economic change.

It offers insights into the ways inequalities between men and women continue to be used against workers to divide and weaken them, and potential explanations for relationships that might otherwise be hard to explain, such as the continuing violence towards women alongside their incorporation into the workforce. As Healy points out, the authority of the “worker-father” became decentred not because gendered relations have become more equal, but because this classic social subject has been beaten by more powerful groups of men.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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