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Knowing the Body
2004 Second Web Report
On Serendip

Maquiladoras and the Exploitation of Women's Bodies

Sierra Jorgensen

In a changing economic and political climate gender stereotypes in Juárez, Mexico refuse to change. With an increasing number of women forced into the workplace in maquiladoras(1), men's position and women's assumed position in society is being challenged. This changing economic environment in an unchanging cultural environment is part of the reason that young women are disappearing being raped and mutilated before ultimately being killed and "abandoned like meat by-products in the desert" (Pérez, March 2004). These women's bodies are entering unknowingly and unwilling into a war about cultural norms and a changing economic atmosphere.

The exploitation of and war on women's bodies in Juárez was set in motion long before they began being murdered in large numbers; it was instigated in the maquiladoras were they were working. Juárez is a popular site for US Fortune500 companies to place factories that have very law cost and optional taxes. The more than 500 maquiladoras operating in Juárez have drawn an influx of Mexicans who hope to get rich quickly. While the workers in maquiladoras are better of financially than they would be anywhere else, the maquiladora environment and cities are far from ideal. Maquiladoras employ mostly young women.(2)

In a machismo culture women are preferred to men as workers in the maquiladoras because they can be paid substantially lower wages, while they also have better manual dexterity. Years of sexist attitudes have created an environment where this pay gap not only possible but entirely acceptable. The average wage is from four to seven dollars for a nine-hour work day and there are no benefits offered to workers. Not only do these US run factories play into the Mexican stereotype of women's inferiority, they also use stereotypes about women's abilities and characteristics. Women are believed to have greater manual dexterity than men and they are therefore preferred by companies who want to maximize their production. Women who are hired for their supposed superiority to men when it comes to manual dexterity, a trade essential to a maquiladora worker, are ironically paid much less despite their valued trait. It is clear that the degree to which the women are devalued is far greater than the degree to which their ability and production is valued. Women's bodies are being exploited in factories where they are being paid ridiculously low wages based on a cultural belief that men superior to women, that women belong in the household and that men belong in the workplace. They are then paid significantly less partly to reinforce this ideal—to keep men as the leaders of the household--and partly in order to reinforce the stereotypes about the submissive and inferior nature of women.

Women, particularly mestizas(3) , are also favored because of "cultural upbringing that encourages total serviceability" (Castillo, 2004). Women in Mexico are raised to believe in compliancy and submissiveness. Women of mixed blood have a double pressure to be submissive because they generally inhabit the lower classes, where the upper classes are generally comprised of fairer skinned Mexicans of European decent. These women not only have to submit to the authority of men, but the upper classes as well. By hiring submissive women maquiladoras are more easily able to exploit the women—who are to them simply bodies filling their factories. They are not only able to pay lower wages, but they are able to offer little or no benefits. Even companies who claim to offer benefits often don't follow through with it. Women are also made to and accept working in dire conditions with often no breaks and very short lunch periods. When the women do try to improve their working conditions they are immediately dismissed. For example, in one factory a few women tried to have a cafeteria set up in the maquiladora and they were immediately fired.

Maquiladoras are able to fire their workers so easily because they consider the women simply bodies in the factories. The women workers are not valued individually for their work for many reasons. One of the reasons is the vast number of women in the area that are able and willing to work. When the factories in Juárez began opening there was a huge migration from all over Mexico and the migration continues in a smaller degree still today. There are many more women available where all of the women in the factories came from and many of them even come to the factories in hope of work everyday. Also, because the labor in factories is unskilled and easy to learn any pair of hands, eyes, or essentially any body is sufficient to do the work. The person is not important as long as the work is done and the product created. This displays the perceived interchangeability of women and their bodies. All women are the same and valued only—and very little at that—for the product that they produce. Therefore women are dismissed or sent home at whim for reasons—real or unreal—such as inadequate performance, tardiness, or delinquency.

Once women are employed by a factory that factory does very little to protect that woman's body, in fact they often put a lot of strain on it and cause harm to it. Women are put under terrible conditions in the factories in which they work. They have to do "relentless, concentrated work" that is very "hard on the eye" which may cause their eyesight to become bad and unacceptable for the job (Vulliamy, 2003). This in turn could cause their body to be no longer usable by the factory. At which point that woman's body will be replaced by another woman's body. Not only do the working conditions wear down women's bodies, but in many cases women bodies are violated by others; they are often raped and beaten while at work. This is perfectly acceptable and rarely prosecuted because it is frequently considered the woman's fault that she was subjected to these actions. In fact, her mere presence in the factory violates cultural beliefs about a woman's place. The men who rape and beat these women may believe that they have a right, even a duty to exert their force on these women to put them back in their places.

The conditions in which women are traveling to and from work also put their bodies in danger. Companies do not provide transportation to and from the maquiladoras. Women frequently walk alone to and from busses and even to and from work. It is usually in this transit that women disappear. Employers also have a practice of sending home women for being the slightest bit late. Claudia Gonzalez was sent home for being only three minutes late for work and she attempted to walk home. She went missing and her body was found a month later. Factories also make shift changes that take women off of shifts with friends and family members and place them on shifts that require them to travel alone. Women are also motivated to take later shifts because they pay a few cents more but the difference is significant enough. These women with late shifts leave after dark with no security present making them susceptible to kidnapping, even making abduction easy. Factories, though, are not motivated to take action and feel no responsibility to provide security for their workers because the murders do not occur on factory property. In fact the "North America Free Trade Agreement exempts the sweatshops from any laws requiring them to provide better security—because such laws might interfere with 'the ability to make profit,'" which is more important to these companies than the women they employ (Dellit, 2003).

The bodies of the women of Juárez are first exploited and injured in the factories. And, there mere existence in the factories goes against societal norms that require them to be at home. This violation of the cultural norm may be part of the reason why their bodies are later abducted, raped, mutilated and later left in the desert. This phenomenon of murder is a clear message to the women of Juárez that they are overstepping their bounds and that the murders will continue—either until views change or the women step back into their prescribed roles.

1. Spanish word for factory. Used to refer to the factories in Mexico run by American companies where many of the women of Juárez work.

2. Although most of these factories have an official policy of hiring only women aged sixteen or older, many workers can forge documents and be hired as young as twelve possibly younger.

3. Mestiza means mixed in Spanish. Mestiza was originally used to refer to someone with mixed native and European blood.

WWW Sources

1)A Woman's Place is in the Struggle: Death in Juarez,

2)Murder in Mexico,

3)Ciudad Juárez, The Silence of Death,

3)To Work and Die in Juarez,

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