Health Consequences of Maquiladora
Work: Female Workers on the U.S.–Mexico
Sylvia Guendelman outlines
the methods she used and the findings that resulted
in studying the effects of maquiladora employment
on the health of women workers.
in Motion: Labor Dynamics and Health Consequences for Mexico’s
Clarke, School of Public Health
ill health effects of working in Mexico’s
maquiladora assembly plants may be more complicated and take
longer to manifest
themselves than labor rights activists have long suspected. When
examining issues of health among border workers, Sylvia Guendelman,
Professor of Maternal and Child Health at the UC Berkeley, discovered
that many long-held notions about the negative health consequences
of working in maquiladoras may be inaccurate.
currently make up the overwhelming majority of workers in the
maquiladoras that line the U.S.–Mexico border. Inputs
from large companies abroad, mainly the U.S., are imported and
assembled into finished consumer goods. These products, which
include electronics, medical equipment, cars and garments, account
for approximately fifty percent of Mexico’s exports. According
to Guendelman, women are preferred as workers over men due to
the perception that they have greater manual dexterity or more “nimble
fingers.” Women are also seen to be less likely to participate
in labor unrest and more tolerant of monotonous or routine tasks.
Young women in particular are workers of choice because of their
good health, eyesight and physical reflexes.
first maquiladoras sprang up in 1966, partly as an effort to
decrease migration through increased
During the 1980s and 1990s, there were rapid surges in the number
of maquiladoras. However, since 2001, the trend has reversed.
The reasons for this downturn are multiple. They include economic
depression, the relocation of plants to China due to lower labor
costs and the lost tax advantages of maquiladoras.
Maquiladoras have traditionally been criticized as offering
low paying jobs and a stressful work environment. Specifically,
maquiladoras require employees to endure long work hours with
few rest periods, to perform repetitive tasks at an extremely
fast pace, to withstand severe pressure to satisfy production
quotas and performance standards and, perhaps most stressfully,
to cope with the low level of autonomy and control to make decisions
regarding their work. The effects of the physical environment
on these workers has also been an area of concern, namely, exposure
to toxic chemicals, poor ventilation and lighting, excessive
noise and heat, vibrations and unsafe machinery.
who have worked in maquiladoras often exhibit detrimental health
effects. Among them are gastric disorders,
muscular-skeletal problems and low birth weight pregnancies.
Health symptoms that are more particular to garment factory workers
include pulmonary and eye problems, dermatitis and hand injuries.
Workers in the electronic factories often experience eye irritation,
visual acuity problems and allergies. Despite the importance
of these effects as a public health issue, however, there have
been few epidemiologic studies done on the health consequences
of working in maquiladoras. Rather, the studies that have been
done are more ethnographic in nature. And, according to Guendelman,
trying to do an epidemiologic study on these young working women
is difficult and costly. The majority of the women are healthy
while they are working in the factories because they are young,
but many occupational problems take years to manifest in an individual.
Add to this the high turnover rate — 85 to 100 percent
a year — and the fact that it is very difficult to gain
access to the inside of the factories in order to conduct studies,
and it becomes clear how difficult it is to track the long-term
health of these women.
Guendelman and her colleagues conducted a community-based study
in Tijuana in order to examine the self-perceived health effects
of the maquiladora environment on employees. They compared the
health conditions of female workers in four distinct groups:
electronics maquiladora workers, garment maquiladora workers,
service workers and non-wage earners. The women were between
16 and 28 years of age and were interviewed at home by local
community health promoters who lived in the same shantytowns.
This format allowed for more flexibility than previous studies.
The health promoters found that when compared with service workers,
maquiladora workers were on average less educated, made less
money, worked longer hours and had less autonomy on the job.
From a health standpoint, however, maquiladora workers had fewer
functional impairments, less nervousness and tension and similar
levels of depression and sense of control over their lives. These
effects persisted even after controlling for various factors
such as work characteristics, lifestyles and family traits. In
addition, maquila women had significantly better benefits, such
as more access to health insurance and profit-sharing plans.
Health outcomes were found to be similar between maquiladora
workers and non-wage earners. The researchers concluded that
the adverse effects of maquiladora work may be weaker than customarily
assumed, or that the effects may not readily be discernable.
Overall, not having enough money to make ends meet was a better
predictor of health outcomes than occupation per se.
A second study done by Guendelman and colleagues investigated
the health effects of women who quit electronic maquiladora work.
They collected data from two different factories by reviewing
the medical and administrative records of 725 female workers
from date-of-hire up until the time the women left the factories.
They found that over half of the women quit within two years.
Factors that contributed to quitting included personal problems
such as chronic illness, caring for a sick relative and conflicts
between work and family. Thus, personal health and family problems
had the biggest impact on the women quitting and not actual working
conditions. In addition, women who could negotiate their work
hours and took time off had improved health effects. These findings
show that work often poses a conflict for women who hold many
other roles in their lives.
one of Mexico’s goals is to improve the competitiveness
of its economy through advanced technology, another estimable
goal is to promote the health and occupational safety for its
workers. According to Guendelman, the factors involved in making
this goal a reality are guaranteeing a living wage, providing
basic services to shantytowns and improving reproductive health
services. This can be achieved through community partnerships
and various other collaborations. Thus, creating incentives for
working women by improving their quality of life will aid Mexico’s
economy as well.
Guendelman is Professor of Maternal and Child Health at the
University of California, Berkeley. She
gave a talk titled “The
Health Consequences of Maquiladora Work: Female Workers on the
U.S.–Mexico Border” at CLAS on November 10, 2003.
pictured answering questions at the end of her presentation,
argued that her findings support a nuanced view of
the health effects on women workers of maquiladora