What should working women do when their health may be at risk on the job?

Juanita has been sewing trouser hems for over 18 years at the maquila in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, in the north of Mexico. Because her work is repetitive and must be done without changing positions, after a few years, she began to notice a very constant pain in her wrists and forearms.  

After visiting the doctor several times, she found that what she had was carpal tunnel syndrome, which is characterized by constant pressure on the median nerve, a motor nerve that enables the hands and fingers to function. “I have to be very precise in my work, and there is a lot of speed involved. Sometimes I have to do over 5,000 pairs of trousers a day to earn less than 200 pesos, because from the amount we earn we have to deduct FONACOT, the canteen, transportation, and whatever is offered,” she explained. 

Concerned about her health, Juanita visited a specialist from the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS), and eventually they recommended having surgery to try to alleviate the wear. That was when she realized the company evaluated workers based on the salary they earn. After the surgery, however, she got a big surprise: “The company was not reporting the actual salary I was being paid. But I’m not the only one affected; the same thing happens everywhere,” she said.  

Guadalupe, from Ciudad Acuña, hasn’t had health problems personally, but her sister has: after working at an automobile assembly plant, she noticed that the tin dust was starting to cause allergic reactions. “Not only did her eyes water, but they were very swollen and painful. It got to the point where she couldn’t stand the burning anymore and she started to earn less because she always had to go to the doctor. In the end, she had to quit,” she recalls.  

Workers are often unaware that the companies are required to cover medical expenses in the event of any work-related health problem. We provide them guidance, we offer advice, but we also take them to a law office in Piedras Negras that can help them

- Julia Quiñonez, Coordinator Border Committee of Workers 

 

Each of them came to the Border Committee of Workers (CFO) in a different way, but with very similar objectives: advice on how to receive some type of compensation from the companies. “Workers are often unaware that the companies are required to cover medical expenses in the event of any work-related health problem. We provide them guidance, we offer advice, but we also take them to a law office in Piedras Negras that can help them,” explained Julia Quiñonez, CFO coordinator. 

While Guadalupe’s sister was able to find another job, Juanita decided to follow the legal advice to receive fair compensation and continue with her activities in the workplace. With the help of the CFO, she found that she has the experience and skill to become a coordinator at her maquila, although she has not yet made a decision on that matter.  

She also knows that she is very close to retirement and could be eligible for a pension. To do that, she will have to fight to ensure that in her final years of work her salary is reported correctly, so that she can dedicate time to her family and enjoy life. “I’m still not well, but I like my job. My concern now is to continue working in something that I am still able to do in order to retire later,” she added. 

Thanks to the CFO, maquila workers with health problems are gradually learning that they can fight to have their rights recognized. Through the C&A Foundation, which supports the committee through Fondo Semillas, they have more and better opportunities to care for their health and discover their potential as agents for change.


Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico