Sylvia Guendelman
“The Health Consequences of Maquiladora Work: Female Workers on the U.S.–Mexico Border”

November 10, 2003

Professor 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.

Women in Motion: Labor Dynamics and Health Consequences for Mexico’s Maquiladora Workers
Marlene Clarke, School of Public Health

The 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.

Women 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.

Mexico’s first maquiladoras sprang up in 1966, partly as an effort to decrease migration through increased job opportunities. 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.

Women who have worked in maquiladoras often exhibit detrimental health effects. Among them are gastric disorders, menstrual and 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.

Although 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.

Sylvia 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.

Professor Guendelman, 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 employment.



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