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A Sweatshop Story from Chiapas, Mexico

A Sweatshop Story from Chiapas, Mexico
"Chiapas Today" Bulletin, No. 473


Summary: A woman who worked in the only maquiladora operating in San Cristo'bal, Chiapas, tells her story. Her words express with eloquence and an insider's knowledge what it is to work for a company where the plant manager describes his indigenous workers as "beasts of burden" [literally: "mules of burden", or in Spanish "burro de carga"], a quote taken from an interview with Jose' Chehua'n Borges, manager of Trans Textile International, which appears in a new video on the Plan Puebla Panama, produced by CIEPAC and the Catalonian collective "Miradas".


Some weeks ago, CIEPAC published a bulletin titled "Virginia and the maquiladora", (no. 453), written by Francesco Filippi, a young Italian university student who, as a volunteer in CIEPAC, wrote his thesison the maquiladoras in Mexico and Central America. Francesco's bulletin was a mosaic of the testimonies he obtained by interviewing women who work in maquiladoras. Again in Italy, Francesco graduated with the highest honors at the University of Trieste, defending his thesis "Maquiladoras, latinas and latinos: the effects of economic integration on international migration from Central and North America" that can be found (in Italian) on CIEPAC's web site at:

After portraying the exploitation Virginia endures at a Guatemalan textile maquiladora, Francesco poses and answers the question "Could Virginia's story, also be that of a woman in Chiapas? Probably, within a few years." But a young woman showed us that not only could it be, it already is the story of a woman in Chiapas, and undoubtedly that of many women. Florinda told her story to CIEPAC after having worked 15 months at the only maquiladora in San Cristo'bal, known as Trans Textile International (TTI) when it opened its doors in 2002.

In April 2002, Mexico's president Vicente Fox came to San Cristo'bal to cut the new plant's opening ribbon in the presence of Chiapas governor Pablo Salazar and the owner of TTI, textile czar Jose' Kamel Nacif Assiz, the "king of denim". In keeping with the optimistic predictions often parlayed on special occasions, Salazar forecast that the inauguration of TTI would be "the starting point for [Chiapas'] industrial development". [The sordid history of TTI can be found at: < letins/ingles/ing339.htm]

More than three years have passed and little has changed since that blissful ceremony in 2002. We're still awaiting the state's industrialization. Chiapas could have used some jobs within the industrial sector to help detain the hemorrhaging of the state's vitality and vigor, e.g., through emigration of Chiapas' young people to the United States. Counterproductive economic policies, begun almost 25 years ago, and deepened by NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) since 1994, have expelled many campesinos [small holder farmers], throwing them into an urban labor market. Yet the same policies have also destroyed millions of jobs in the industrial sector by exposing Mexico's weak manufacturing sector to competition from "heavy weights" from developed countries. Chiapas campesinos who leave for Mexico's cities find that, apart from working in the informal sector selling trinkets on street corners, their only real option is to continue migrating north.

What has changed is the name of the maquiladora in San Cristo'bal, now called Spintex Company, instead of Trans Textile International. Owner Kamel Nacif has the unsavory habit of frequently changing the name of his many companies, in order to avoid paying debts, taxes and accumulated worker benefits to those laid off. As outlined in the article on TTI referenced above, Mr. Nacif owes some US$ 200,000 to several businesses in San Cristo'bal who refurbished the warehouse rented by TTI. Not even a phone call from governor Salazar was enough to prod Mr. Nacif into paying his debt. Nacif took care of the problem by spending a few pesos for a notary to "disappear" the name and existence of his debtor plant.

Something else that hasn't changed is the exploitation of Spintex's labor force, mostly young indigenous women. Florinda Marti'nez's testimony is ample proof. The following is an individual's vignette, a simple and dramatic story of one worker at Spintex, San Cristo'bal's maquiladora. It's a story that should be read in conjunction with "Virginia and the maquiladora", letins/ingles/ing453.htm, since interesting similarities appear regarding the exploitive conditions in both Chiapas and Guatemala. Like salaries. Apparently the salary at the maquiladora in San Cristo'bal is five dollars higher (per month!) than in Guatemala, but the schedule is formally an hour longer per day. It's difficult to avoid concluding that we are, in fact, in a "race to the bottom", with increasingly harsher conditions for workers that keep companies "motivated" in coming and staying at a particular location.

The interview

Florinda was born in a village of the municipality of San Cristo'bal 26 years ago. She is married, has no children, and has formal schooling to the third grade. Her job at Spintex was her first. What her husband earns is insufficient to cover the household's basic expenses.

MP: When did you begin to work at Spintex?

FM: In March 2003, more or less.

MP: How long did you work?

FM: About a year and three months.

MP: How much did you earn?

FM: When I began I earned a "scholarship" of 600 pesos every two weeks [e.g., 60 pesos or US$ 5.40 per day], and after three months they gave me US$ 900 bimonthly [US$82 twice a month]. During the first six months we have scholarships, supposedly to learn how the machinery works.

MP: And after those six months?

FM: Well, in my case they continued paying me 900 pesos even after a year

MP: And afterwards did they give you a raise?

FM: Quite some time passed before they gave me a raise, but afterwards, yes, I earned 1,060 pesos, something like that. Then they raised it a bit more to 1,100 more or less [US$ 100 twice a month].

MP: What did you make at the plant? Sweaters?

FM: No, t-shirts, they said that sweaters weren't making it and they changed to t-shirts, it was a question of sewing the parts that arrived in packages. All the material comes in packages, the sleeves, everything. The operators sew the collars, the sleeves, put on the hem. So that everything comes out well.

MP: You told me of the quotas, that you had to turn out a certain amount

FM: I was never able to be an operator, I was manual, from the time I began to when I left.

MP: What is being a manual mean?

FM: It has to do with taking off the numbering, little numbers that come stuck on the sleeves, on the body of the t-shirt, so the sizes match, everything comes with a number. So I would pull the numbers off and the threads too, the threads that the machines leave, where ever there are threads I would pull them off. That was my work. After a year, they were going to change my job to inspector, but I didn't want it, it's too hard. Inspecting is very hard, all day, without rest, all day we have to stand.

MP: In your work pulling off number labels and threads, could you be seated or did you have to stand?

FM: Well, the engineers didn't want us to sit, no, because if we sat down, they would come quickly and tell us to stand up. It was always like that with the engineers, they would change engineers, but they would all say the same things.

MP: What time did you start and stop working?

FM: We started at 7:30 in the morning and would get out at 5 in the afternoon. We had half an hour to eat lunch, but there were three lunchtimes, at 12, or 12:30 or 1 pm. We weren't given lunch, we had to take everything. There is a lunchroom for those who want to remain inside the plant, but there is also a bit of ground out back and we could go sit there. There is a microwave to heat the food.

MP: Were you given time to go to the bathroom?

FM: Yes, but they watched and kept time, you can't spend much time there.

MP: And could you talk amongst yourselves?

FM: No, if we were caught talking they would say we're wasting time, that we don't work, that we don't do our work well, that we should pay attention to what we're doing. No joking around.

MP: What did you think of your job, did you like it, what did you feel?

FM: Well, when I started, more or less, because we'd get out on time. Everything was going okay, for awhile anyway. Then the engineer told us to stay on in the afternoon, overtime, that we had to fill the quota, get the work out, everything, because the t-shirts had to go out. And with t-shirts sometimes the machines don't get them right, it all depends, the collar, the sleeve, the hem looks ugly. It depended on the type of material.

MP: Did you get paid for overtime?

FM: Yes, but I didn't know how much. It was all...when we got paid six months on, or five months, we would go and get paid with the secretary, but then they gave us a card to go to the bank and get paid, and when they gave us the breakdown, it was all together, salary, overtime and incentives. So we couldn't figure out how much they were paying us for overtime. That was from Monday to Friday, but then they began to tell us that we had to go on Saturday because they need to get production out, and they would pay us some 12 pesos per hour, because on Saturday there is more pay. But sometimes they would say that we had to finish everything, without overtime, without anything. And then they continued like that, no overtime pay, without paying us the day.

MP: Without paying you for Saturday?

FM: Yes.

MP: In other words you worked all day Saturday and wouldn't get paid?

FM: Yes, they would tell us that they would exchange days, and then they wouldn't, that's what would happen.

MP: What benefits did you get? Social security?

FM: Yes, those that were registered with Social Security, but not those who were on "scholarships".

MP: But then after six months did you get Social Security?

FM: Yes, they told me that after six months, but with me it took quite awhile before they registered me. Almost a year went by. Those that are registered are given a card so they can go to the hospital.

MP: You told me about some friends that you have in the plant who aren't paid for overtime...

FM: Right, now they are given a quota that they have to fill, for example, they have two inspectors during the day, one of them goes home at 5 pm, but the other one has to stay until the quota is filled, until the work is done, whatever it takes, 'til 11 or 12 pm.

MP: But aren't those hours paid?

FM: No, that's what the [manager] told me, because I was going to go back to work as an inspector, and she spoke directly to me: she wanted employees who obeyed, who would stay overtime until the quota was filled, who could be told to stay and would obey. They don't want people who disobey. That's what she told me and for that reason I didn't go back. Because they have to fill the quota, no matter what.

MP: Is there any way to start a trade union? I know it's very difficult, but are there people there who would like to join a union?

FM: Yes, when I was working there we wanted to, because they wouldn't let us go home at the regular time, they wanted all of us to stay late, and some work companions looked for somebody to help us so we could avoid getting out late at night. They gave us a quota and we would get out at odd hours, after filling the quota, but then if the other module still had work we had to stay and help, all of us. Sometimes we would get out at 12 am, at times 2 or 3 in the morning. It was very difficult. Imagine. We would work almost without rest. We worked when sleepy, we were hungry too, we couldn't eat well at those hours, because at that time of the night there is no place to eat. It would be 2 am and there is no where to buy anything.

MP: And what happened to those companions that were going to see about the union?

FM: They would leave at the normal time [5 pm] and then they were fired from the plant, they disobeyed by leaving at the normal time, the [manager] saw that they weren't obeying and staying overtime, and wouldn't fill the quota, and so she fired them, that's why she said that she wanted people who obeyed, and would stay the overtime needed to fill the quota.

MP: You said you were going back...

FM: They told me I could go back as an inspector, but filling quotas. They asked me how much I earned previously and I told then a thousand or so, and they said they would pay me 900 pesos every two weeks, but filling quotas, and if we had to stay late they would give me overtime or incentives. With my husband we decided not to, because it would be like before.

MP: In your present job [cleaning in a private home] are you better off?

FM: Yes, it's better, because I can work the hours we've agreed to, I get out early, and I don't get gastritis. In the plant I had gastritis, cause I was hungry. Sometimes there was no time to have breakfast, since we live outside, in a small town, we'd have to leave the house early to arrive at the plant by 7:30, we had to get up early, sometimes we wouldn't even drink some coffee, nothing, and we'd be there 'til 12 or 12:30 when it was lunchtime.

MP: And then sometimes you'd have to stay late at night...

FM: Yes, I'd get hungry and that made me ill. Then I got pregnant. I'd get a pain here in my breast, in my heart, it was too much, my stomach would bloat. The doctor gave me some melox and some pills for the headaches.

MP: Did that help?

FM: No, well, before, I dieted quite a bit, they gave me a diet so I would get better, with the medicine. But I would get such strong headaches when I was working, I felt so sick, and even worse when I couldn't go to the bathroom, they were quite dirty and sometimes without water, ohh, such a headache and vomiting that's what would happen, I couldn't be at ease. No, because I was hungry, I was there with gastritis, and headache, and then I would get hungry, I wouldn't have eaten for quite a few hours, and I got even more screwed. That's why I quit, because I didn't feel well.

MP: Did you get pregnant before leaving?

FM: Yes, before quitting.

MP: Did they say anything to you when you got pregnant?

FM: They only said I should have breakfast, that I should eat at my normal hour, but sometimes I didn't have enough time, because we left so early.

MP: But you baby was born okay?

FM: Well, when I went to the clinic, well, when I left...they were going to give me time off, had I continued working, I left two months before, I had my baby at the clinic, well, and they told me everything was okay, the following day, everything was fine. But then after two or three days, more or less, he would urinate very, very yellow, just a little bit, I thought this also happened at the clinic, and I just didn't realize it, he would stain the diaper, but I thought it was a medicine they had given him, that's why he stained so much, but that wasn't the reason. And then, nine days on, he got sicker, he got really, really skinny, and then we took him to the hospital, with a doctor we know, and she sent us to the Regional Hospital, where they told me he had problems with his kidneys. That was the reason he urinated like that. He had water in his lungs, they told me. Because when he was there [at home] two days later he wouldn't breastfeed, I would try to give him breast milk, and every now and then he would feed, and we thought it was a cough, and we would cure him of his cough, and we would give him things for fever, but not even that, until we brought him to the hospital, he was there for four days, and then they told us he was bleeding in the head, blood was leaving his veins, that he had an illness, I forget what they told me it was, that he had it throughout his veins, until my baby died.

MP: He died?

FM: He died 14 days old. Well, the doctor, the last one to tell me something, told me he was bleeding and losing a lot of blood, they asked for donated blood, they looked into it...but it was useless. They said he was bleeding from the mouth, or rather from his lungs, and from his veins, or rather the doctor told me that every time he breathed his veins would inflate. Who knows what illness it was? They said his veins inflated and he couldn't stand it anymore. And when he was about to die, the doctor told me, he wouldn't give me permission...they wouldn't tell me clearly, I asked the doctor to tell me the truth, if it's true he's very sick, and he told me he was bleeding in the head and that he had, oh, so many things, two tubes in his nose where he was bleeding from, and so on until he died. Well, who knows, either it was the diet I was on, or the medicine I was taking, when I was pregnant.

MP: What medicine did they give you?

FM: Well, they gave me some medicine for headaches, melox for gastritis, and my stomach would bloat, sometimes I would take pills to see if it would go down, it would bloat so much, sometimes I had no desire to eat. I felt sick, I wanted to vomit, I don't know. If that's what made him sick, who knows?

MP: Are you better now?

FM: Yes, now I am, they give me food here.

MP: Is the pay better here?

FM: Well, no, less than what I was earning there [at the maquiladora], but I leave earlier, I can come later, they feed me. It comes out the same. And also I'm in a bit better health here, I don't get sick any more. Not like there, I got sick with gastritis, there were many people who had gastritis. There were a lot. For the same reason, they didn't eat.

MP: What other illnesses did the workers have?

FM: I really don't know.

MP: Coughs, respiratory problems? Because what you did generated a lot of lint, didn't it?

FM: Yes, but they gave us masks.

MP: Didn't the people get sick because of the lint?

FM: I really don't think so.

MP: What would you have liked to see different there, some change to better your situation, to make it less difficult?

FM: It would be nice if someone could help us, right?, to do something, to help us. That's what we wanted before.

MP: A union?

FM: Well, yes, or someone to help, to speak with the engineers, or the manager, to let us work what is [the legal working day], but we didn't find anyone, and even so, we didn't even have time, since at times we even worked on Sunday.

MP: Did they pay more on Sundays?

FM: The same as on Saturdays.

MP: Do you think you could have formed a union?

FM: I really don't know, it's very difficult, I don't think they would allow someone to enter, from, say, an organization, to help us.

MP: I'm very grateful for your time.

(Translated by Miguel Pickard for CIEPAC, A.C.)

Miguel Pickard