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Maquilatitlán: City of Indians becomes Jean Capital of Mexico

March 1, 2004

Martín Amaru Barrios Hernández
Maquila Network Update, March 2004

In this article, Martín Barrios of the Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacán Valley describes the enormous changes the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has made in the lives of indigenous people in his region.

In the past decade under NAFTA, hundreds of Nahuas and Mazatecos from Sierra Negra, Sierra Mazateca and Sierra Zongolica have migrated to Tehuacán looking for work in the maquilas. They have been joined by Mixtecos and Popolocas, as well as migrants from Veracruz, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Some were seeking temporary employment until something better came along; others were escaping the conflicts and natural and economic disasters of Central America; still others were biding their time before migrating further north in search of the "American Dream."

Day after day on the ejidos and in the towns of the Tehuacán Valley, new human settlements were sprouting up, most without water, sewage systems or other municipal services. These migrants live in houses made of cardboard, sticks or sheet metal.

In many of these new colonias, residents used their traditional forms of organization to gain tenancy rights for the land where their houses now sit, and to win basic services. As a result, more indigenous people now live in Tehuacán, officially named the City of Indians, than in all other municipalities of the Valley or Sierra Negra.

As young people moved to the city, the social fabric of rural indigenous communities was ripped apart. The towns of the Sierra were left without the new blood needed for agricultural labour, but also for the perpetuation of their own identity and culture. Many no longer wanted to follow their parents' way of life: planting, tilling, watering and harvesting the maize field.

Young women were drawn to the maquilas by the promise of independence from the traditional patriarchal culture, but they soon learned that the power structure in these factories is not only machista - as demonstrated by incidents of sexual harassment - but also a new form of exploitative slavery: "No Future," as some 70s punk bands once sang.

For workers employed in the maquilas, conditions are oppressive and their basic human and labour rights are systematically violated. Verbal abuse, humiliation, mistreatment and sexual harassment are daily occurrences.

In the larger enterprises, the situation has been a little better since workers have had social security, not because company executives are committed to respecting Federal Labour Law, but because the famous US blue jean companies worry about their brand reputations. Years ago, they were branded as sweatshop companies, making millions off the sweat of their workers, including children under the age of 11.

Child labour continues in the Tehuacan region. Around 5,000 children work in medium- and small-sized factories, hidden from sight, some with falsified birth certificates. Others work with their families in their homes removing thread from jeans. In recent years, a Nahua or Mazateco who worked up to 12 hours a day in a factory in Tehuacán or Ajalpan and contributed to the production of some 5,000 pairs of jeans a week for Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger or Wrangler could make as much as 700 pesos a week. He or she was willing to work for that low wage because in the Sierra Negra, wages are only 300 pesos.

The majority of workers didn't know that in San Francisco or Los Angeles a pair of these same jeans could cost 1,000 pesos at the Gap or Wal-Mart.

Now with the slowdown in the US economy and the flight of investment to other regions and countries with even cheaper labour, hundreds of factories have been shut down and thousands of workers have been laid off. With a surplus of labour, employers are lowering already inadequate wages and cutting back on benefits.

One of the worst impacts of the maquilas has been the exploitation of Tehuacan's principal natural resource - water.

The maquilas use enormous quantities of water for the "laundry" processes used to treat jeans. Stone washing gives jeans that used, faded and 80s heavy metal look. Stone bleaching eliminates the blue dye from jeans by using a large quantity of chlorine bleach or the enzyme laccase that makes pants white. Using enzymes, the "soft wash" leaves the garment its original colour and gives it a soft texture. Sandblasting assaults the jeans with silica crystals to give them a well-worn look.

The wastewater released from the laundries contains jean fibre, chemicals, silica crystals and pumice stone residues.

Recent studies uncovered the presence of highly toxic and polluting heavy metals in the effluent - zinc, lead, copper, nickel, selenium, cadmium, chromium and mercury - that is released in the Valsequillo Canal and then used to irrigate corn and vegetable crops in the fields of San Diego Chalma, Tepetzingo, Miahuatlán and Ajalpan.

This contaminated runoff makes the maize fields gleam a metallic blue. Exposed to the sun, the soil and the adjoining rivers become iridescent from their chemical overdose.

Some farmers and workers from the laundry facility in Chalma claim that their soil is becoming rock hard. In a few more years, the destructive effect of the heavy metals will turn the ejidos into a wasteland. As a reward to the maquila owners, those "generous job creators," the Federal Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa) has certified all the maquiladora factories and laundries as "clean companies."

The maquilas are allowed to use all of the water that they need; meanwhile, ejidos and water societies in indigenous communities are denied permits to operate new wells and filtration plants. Maquila owners also secretly steal water from clandestine wells.

In the Tehuacán region, the Plan Puebla-Panama isn't a proposal for the future; it's already a reality. The impacts of NAFTA will be even more accentuated with the arrival of the FTAA. The virus has already spread to Oaxaca, Campeche, Guerrero, Yucatán and Chiapas.

New issues will emerge for indigenous communities that will require new proposals and new forms of struggle and resistance.

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