Over a million Mexicans, most of them women, work in maquila factories along the US border. Many work long hours, in poor conditions, with minimal job security and are subject to threats and violence if they protest. Semillas supports women’s organisations who work to defend women’s labour rights.
The vast majority of workers employed in maquila factories in Mexico are women, reflecting the subordination of women in society and the sexual division of labour. Other occupational groups at the bottom of the value chains or in the margins of the economy, such as paid domestic workers, are also comprised mostly of women. Informal labour conditions create an environment in which women suffer from constant violation of their labour rights, yet they usually have no other choice but to participate in the economy under such conditions.
In the maquila industry in Mexico, women continue to face constant factory shutdowns, layoffs, sexual harassment and even death threats. Increased competition for fewer jobs makes women reluctant to complain about these rights violations. Obliged to remain silent, women workers are denied access to social, maternity and health benefits. Moreover, government labour and economic policies consistently ignore the effects on the lives of women of entry to the workforce under such conditions: their family relationships and ties to the community are affected and they experience significant deterioration in their quality of life.
Labour justice for women is not part of the policy agenda of any political party, legislator or state authority in Mexico. For this reason, the battle fought by women’s labour rights organisations is so important. However, they confront increasingly difficult conditions, not only because of their lack of resources and job insecurity, but also because of the violence directed towards them. A recent report by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders reveals that, in Mexico, labour rights defenders submitted the largest number of complaints of attacks against their physical integrity from non-State agents.
For over 20 years, Semillas, Mexico’s only women’s fund, has worked with organised groups of women to promote social change from a human rights and feminist perspective. For the past five years, the Semillas women’s labour rights programme has supported women’s organisations through grants, resource mobilisation, capacity building, leadership training and exchange meetings with women’s organisations from Central America. The aim is to strengthen and protect women who organise to defend their labour rights.
By empowering women who can provide local solutions and connecting them with resources and opportunities, Semillas is helping to build a movement for social change. Many of those who receive grants are women leaders who have struggled all of their lives. At home, they had to negotiate a fair share of household responsibilities to be able to go out into the world and continue the fight to transform the role of women in society.
One such leader is Julia Quiñonez, a former maquila worker from Piedras Negras, Coahuila, who began her career as a human rights activist 30 years ago. She started work in a maquila when she was fifteen years old. Years later, she was approached by a labour rights organisation and for the first time learned about her rights as a worker. She became so involved in promoting labour rights with her peers that in 1986 she founded the Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO-Border Committee of Workers) , a grassroots organisation that supports union democracy and workers rights in six cities along the Mexico-US border. CFO has helped improve the working conditions of thousands of women in the maquiladoras by negotiating with employers for longer rest breaks and the elimination of pregnancy tests; it has supported the creation of labour unions, and encourages women to support fellow workers who are mistreated by supervisors and managers.
Supported by Semillas’ labour rights programme, Julia’s organisation recently created a maquiladora called Dignity and Justice, owned and administered by the women workers who promote their rights and negotiate directly with the clients. When asked about the impact of this project, Julia says: “I think that there are no limits to what we can achieve as organised women. It is our ambition to keep on fighting for a better world.”
However, Julia’s story, like that of most women who receive grants from Semillas is about great struggle, dedication and commitment in spite of all the obstacles they face when they decide to speak out and stand up for their rights. All of her life, Julia has given up her free time and resources and placed herself at great personal risk so that other women can enjoy time off and access to the resources they deserve.
Women labour rights defenders face constant burnout as a result of their exhausting grassroots work. For this reason, most of the organisations focus their work at a local level, responding to emergency situations and defending individual cases, with little or no time to form regional networks or expand their work to other areas. Semillas’ programme therefore focuses on providing a space for creating networks among the various organisations in receipt of its grants. As a result grantees have created strong links with other counterparts. For example, Rosas y Espinas (‘Roses and Thorns’), another organisation from Coahuila working for women’s labour rights, was a newly established organisation when the programme began. After meetings and workshops with Semillas, Rosas y Espinas has benefited from mutual collaboration with Julia’s organisation, receiving guidance and accompaniment.
At a recent workshop organized by Semillas to strengthen skills to develop indicators for their projects, participant organisations identified many examples of how their work has contributed to empowering female workers. One important indicator of change in women is when they begin losing fear and speaking out. As Julia’s story demonstrates, these women, with the knowledge gained during the workshops, start to negotiate better working conditions.
The training of women labour rights promoters helps both to empower the participants and strengthen networks that defend female workers. The need to disseminate knowledge about women’s rights should not be undervalued nor taken as evidence of slow progress in advancing gender equality. It is an essential stepping stone in the struggle for women to achieve better working conditions.
For more details about Semillas, watch their institutional video with English subtitles:
 Maquila factories or maquiladoras are assembly plants that manufacture goods for export and are usually exempt from import duties on raw materials and components. They were originally set up along Mexico’s border with the United States offering cheap labour and lower costs for products re-exported to the United States. Today at least 3,000 maquilas employ about 1.3 million Mexicans, most of them women.
 Report for the 16th Session of the Human Rights Council, December 20th, 2010. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/16session/A-HRC-16-44.pdf