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Maquila workers tolerate abuse
María Lourdes Arce
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Young female workers keep their mouths shut when subjected to physical and verbal abuse on the job.

Rampant poverty and unemployment in Central America leave some women with no other choice but to take low-paying jobs in factories under harsh conditions that often defy their human rights.

Foreign companies in this region operate maquilas, clothing and electronics assembly plants that generate roughly 330,000 jobs in Central America every year, the majority of which are held by women. There are close to 264 of these factories in El Salvador, 413 in Guatemala, 198 in Honduras and 35 in Nicaragua. These factories manufacture goods for China, Korea, Taiwan and the United States.

The maquilas’ largely female workforce is young, usually between the ages of 18 and 32. Many workers have a low education level and are their families’ sole source of income, giving them little choice but to tolerate poor work conditions.


"The workers are broken up into categories A, B, C and D, depending on their productivity level. Those in categories C and D are let go first," says Gustavo Pineda, of the Independent Monitoring Group in El Salvador, known by the Spanish acronym GMIES. The GMIES was founded in El Salvador in March 1996 as a civil society initiative for the contribution to the nation’s economic and social development through the promotion of social responsibility by business owners as well as the preservation of production jobs with fair working conditions.

But watchdog groups throughout the region agree that extended hours are a common condition to which workers are often subjected.

José Mancía of the Honduran group Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team, or ERIC, which has studied problems in the maquilas for four years, notes that employees are often forced to work four extra hours beyond the set eight-hour workday, and they are threatened with being fired if they do not comply.

The maquilas "are not helping to improve the [workers’] families’ economic conditions, but instead, generating social decomposition because the schedules are so extensive," Mancía says.

Rosa Marina Escobar, director of Women and Solidarity of Guatemala, says that "the violence that is most frequently reported in the maquilas is economic violence."

"Physical violence, while it does occur, is rarely denounced, nor is sexual violence," Escobar added. "There have been some cases, but unfortunately, because of the legal and cultural situation, the women don’t report it."

Labor laws in Guatemala do not apply to maquilas, and, also, these laws do not specify female workers’ issues.

In a 2004 study by the Network of Central American Women in Solidarity with Women Maquila Workers that surveyed 1,000 women in each of the following countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, respondents said that they had been subjected to various forms of gender violence.

In Guatemala, 65.6 percent of those surveyed said that pressure from draining work conditions was their greatest worry and 46 percent said that they were mistreated by their bosses.

These two forms of violence are experienced by 23.9 percent and 23.7 percent of Salvadorian respondents, respectively.

For Ledy Cruz of the Salvadoran Women for Peace Organization, the reasons for pressure at work are the factories’ high demand levels, but "obviously, that doesn’t justify that [workers] are mistreated."

Tolerating this treatment "has become a custom" because of the desperate economic situation many of these women face, says Cruz.

"They treat one female worker badly, the staff sees it, observes it, but they come [to work] and bear it in the name of need," she added.

Even though mistreatment is carried out in plain sight of other employees, they refuse to be witnesses for fear that they will be dismissed.


But violence against female employees also manifests itself on a physical level. Some of these exploited workers are subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

Cruz cites a common scenario in which a factory boss, abusing his authority, seduced a worker, got her pregnant, and then did not want to have anything to do with her, and fired her.

"We followed up on the case so he would take a paternity test because he claimed that he was not the father," recalls Cruz. "This generated a loss of reputation for both of them in the workplace, because both [parties] already have children; she had her husband who had left for the United States and abandoned her. The paternity test proved that he was the father and everything, but, in the end, the woman is the discredited one in the company, in the community, and was let go."

But the only country in Central America with labor laws that mention physical and sexual violence is Nicaragua, though Salvadoran and Honduran law consider sexual violence a criminal offence. But in Guatemala, on the other hand, sexual violence is not a felony, greatly limiting prosecutions in these cases.

"The maquilas are a palliative in terms of the economic crisis and poverty in which our country lives, because they don’t put an end to poverty, but rather, allow it to survive," says Escobar. "They are a source of employment that as Guatemalan women we want to keep, but in dignified conditions for women."

In the Network of Central American Women study, 5.4 percent of female Guatemalan maquila workers said that they have been sexually harassed by a male co-worker and 5.1 percent say they have by their boss. In Honduras, the percentages were 3.6 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively. Many Salvadoran and Nicaraguan women who were surveyed said the had not expecienced this type of abuse.

"Violence, above all sexual harassment, becomes natural," says Karla Molina of the Salvadoran Women’s Association for Dignity and Life, known as Las Dignas.

One begins to think "that it’s normal for the boss to act that way," Molina added. "Many times the woman is blamed for what is happening and so women tend to keep their mouths shut in these situations and don’t report them."

"In addition, they feel alone, because even the other women blame them for what is happening," Molina says.

Gender violence is not denounced and a large part of women suffer it in silence, in solitude, adhering to the myth that these problems need to be resolved in private.


Gender-based violence

Worker exploitation


Maquila workers bear abuse to
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