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Women and Children -- Labor Base of Mexican, North American Economy

by Dan La BotzMexican Labor News and Analysis
March 2nd, 1999


The murder of 13-year-old Irma Angelica Rosales should lead to a time of reflection about the nature of the north American economy. To a degree we seldom stop to consider, women and children increasingly provide the labor base of the North American economy, including what supposedly represents its most "advanced" sectors. While governments and the corporations have emphasized the technological modernization of industry, the benefits of rapidly growing foreign trade, and the stupendous rise in the stock market, the human cost is all too often forgotten.

In Maquiladoras

Mexico's modernization process has meant turning the country into a manufacturing export platform producing goods for export. But by far the strongest and fastest growing part of Mexico's manufacture for export sector has been the maquiladora sector representing 44 percent of manufacturing exports. Today Mexico has 4,119 maquiladoras employing 1,063,490 workers, a majority of whom are young women legally hired at 16 years of age, though many use false documents to go to work at a younger age. So it is these young women who form the basis of Mexico' manufacture for export success--but with wages of $4.00 per day, they do not share the benefits.

Throughout Industry

Women make up 37 percent of Mexico's labor force. Mexico's total workforce or in the government language "economically active population" (PEA) numbers about 40 million, of whom 12 million are women workers. But of those 12 million women workers, only about six million are covered by the Mexican health systems (IMSS, ISSSTE or some other health institution), according to Maria Sauri Riancho, the general coordinator of the Mexican government's National Women's Program (Programa Nacional de la Mujer). She also notes that women receive between 10 and 30 percent less in wages than men, though they have the same educational level and are doing comparable work.

Because while doing the same work they are paid lower wages, Mexican women represent a super-exploited section of the Mexican working class. Their labor therefore represents a particular benefit to Mexican capitalists and to foreign industrialists, since businesses that employ women and paying lower wages therefore accumulate capital at a more rapid rate. This also gives employers an even greater motivation to prevent unionization among women than among men, since their labor is more profitable. Employers prefer to have women either not unionized or organized by the worthless state controlled unions of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).

Without real labor unions, women receive fewer benefits. A recent study by the sub-secretary of Labor and Social Welfare of the Mexico City government reported that only 32 percent of working women receive such benefits as vacations or the legally required Christmas bonus (aguinaldo).

Child Labor

If women's labor forms a particularly profitable labor pool, so does child labor. Like women, children can be paid lower wages, while often doing comparable work. The Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL) estimates that 20 percent of Mexico's 23 million school age children work, or more than four million child laborers. The head of the Mexico City government's Commission for the Protection of Employment and Social Welfare, Vicente Cuellar Suaste puts the figure some what higher, claiming that there are five million child laborers in Mexico, of whom 1.5 million work in Mexico City. To take just one example, between 25,000 and 30,000 children work as grocery baggers in Mexican supermarkets and grocery stores, receiving NO wages, just tips.

Child labor provides an important component of the Mexican agriculture industry. The National Program of Agricultural Day Laborers (El Programa Nacional con Jornaleros Agricolas) estimates that Mexico has l.2 million child field workers. Of those only 45,000 receive attention from the Secretary of Public Education (SEP). Many of these children begin work as early as six years of age, working with older brothers and sisters and parents. Field workers often live in poor conditions without clean driking water, without toilets and sewers, and working amidst pesticides and herbicides.

Prostitution and Child Prostitution

The most degrading and often dangerous work of women and children can be found in prostitution. Tens of thousands of Mexican women and girls (as well as men and boys) work as prostitutes in all of the major cities of the country. A recent study by the Mexico City government Youth Commission headed by Angeles Correa found that Mexico City had 50,000 prostitutes of whom 2,500 were minors. Elena Azaola of the Center of Higher Research and Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) found that there were 5,000 child prostitutes in all of Mexico (90 percent female). But Rosa Marta Cortina de Brown of the Female Association of Tourist Enterprise Executive estimates that 250,000 children between 10 and 16 have been the victims of "sexual tourism" in cities like Guadalajara, Cancun, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Tijuana. Recently there have also been reports on child prostitution in Veracruz, Queretaro, and Ciudad Juarez. Girls in prostitution face constant problems of possible pregnancy, immature childbirth, violence, alcohol and drug addiction, sexual transmitted diseases including HIV-AIDS.

The death of Irma Angelica Rosales seen in this broader context of the exploitation of women and children appears not as an aberration, but as an expression of the Mexican and the North American labor system. Her death should lead to action not only on behalf of the girls and young women working in the maquiladoras, but on behalf of all the children and women who form the super-exploited and super-repressed labor base of the Mexican economy, and therefore of the North American economy. The corporations of Canada and the United States also benefit from the exploitation of these children and women. But their lower wages not only directly benefit corporations, but they also help to keep Mexico a poor and weak country which can be dominated by its wealthier and more powerful neighbor governments. Consequently governments cannot be counted on to protect women and children, and labor unions and working class political parties must take up their cause.