Julia worked in the maquilas from the age of 15 to pay for her studies. That is why she decided to dedicate her career to fighting for workers’ rights. Today, she is the Coordinator of the Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO-Border Committee of Workers), an association focused on improving working and living conditions of maquila workers in the maquila zone in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, adjacent to the US border. This is her story.
I began working at the maquila (a large production facility), at the age of 15 to pay for my studies, as my family did not have the financial means to help me, and I was determined to keep studying. My parents and my sisters also worked at the maquila, so it was an obvious choice. My family and I had emigrated to Piedras Negras when I was just six years old, from a small town in Durango, Ignacio Allende, where I was born.
My first job was at a surgical gas company for hospitals, and at that time it paid a little more than the others. For five years, I got up at 6:00am to go to work and then to school, and that’s how I was able to continue studying. My entire world was working and studying, because I was determined to leave my job at the maquila.
I didn’t actually want to study Social Work; I wanted to be an attorney. But when I finished secondary and preparatory school, a Law degree wasn’t an option in my city. So, I decided to study a degree that would enable me to help others, and the closest thing was Social Work.
I was introduced to the Border Committee of Workers in 1987, when I worked at the maquila. Established in 1979, the organization is a pioneer in labor rights. The promoters from the state of Tamaulipas, where the committee was established, went to Piedras Negras and visited my home to teach my parents about their rights. Although my parents were not very interested, when I started working, I became concerned with the unfair situation.
Despite being very young, I attended the meetings, and at the age of 17 I was elected to the board of the trade union. At the factory, they started saying that I was elected because I was studying, but what I knew about my rights didn’t come from school, but from the meetings held by the Border Committee of Workers (CFO). At the small meetings in homes, workers felt confident in speaking about our problems on the job.
After the maquila, I spent eight years in Social Work positions. During that time, I was on the board of the CFO. When I became the Coordinator, we looked for allies, and one of them was Fondo Semillas: a fund of women investing in women. The support given by Fondo Semillas is a great opportunity for grassroots organizations just starting up to find success, as they support organizations that are not yet registered. The CFO is a large organization. We were already registered, and we have had other sources of funding. But the support of Fondo Semillas was very important.
We had a lot of garment companies on the border, and when the Free Trade Agreement was signed, many started moving to the center and south of Mexico, leaving many women who were excellent laborers, with a great deal of experience, unemployed. It was hard for them to find work due to their age, discrimination, or for standing up for their rights. Dignidad y Justicia (Dignity and Justice) was established in 2004, promoted by the Border Committee of Workers, as a garment workshop made up of seven women, experts in garment making, who had been left without a job. It is registered as a maquila in order to receive the importing and exporting benefits of traditional companies.
Knowledge is power, and when workers know their rights and how to demand them, it leads to significant changes in their lives. For example, they avoid unjustified punishment, they are paid overtime, women can look abusive managers or supervisors in the eye; only then can they avoid sexual or verbal abuse. In one company, we have documented over 50 changes that have been fought for. The workers have become organized to demand their rights.
Although we have made clear advances, there is still a lot to do. And one of the biggest challenges is undoubtedly the existence of “sindicatos blancos” (fake trade unions), which are the majority in Mexico. They play a subordination role in the company. They sign protection contracts so that the companies are safe, avoiding attempts at organization or workers who demand their rights. That is why one of the objectives of the CFO has been to exercise the rights of the workers, to help them organize collectively. The role of the trade unions leaves much to be desired. They favor temporary contracts, and they practically wish that all violations were legal. Labor reform is needed urgently, to protect the well-being of workers, eliminating that position of subordination and corruption in the existing trade unions. It has been my privilege to help, to be a part of this organization, and to work at both the ground level and higher up. I believe my experience has been a tool for us, just like representing working Mexican women, because I have been one of them. Enabling a working woman to demand her rights, improve her working conditions, send her children to school, and to be empowered is priceless.
There is still a need for more women to continue developing, there are new challenges, and we need to continue to ask ourselves how we can negotiate them. We also have the TLCAN reform and labor reform in the works. The work is necessary, but it is not done alone. We need allies, and the support of Fondo Semillas, the C&A Foundation and other civil organizations that will continue to be essential.