Bordering on Exploitation

A couple hours from Phoenix, tens of thousands of Mexicans work on maquiladora assembly lines for $1 an hour, making the toys and tools of American convenience. Critics say the maquila system lets U.S. corporations maximize profits on the backs of Third W

Nogales, Sonora
Virginia's a bad girl, and she's good at it. Eighteen years old, with a nightclub walk that purrs. Long, auburn hair. Tall and sleek, with cinnamon-sprinkled skin.

She could be a model if she weren't a factory worker.
It's Friday night. Party time. Virginia clocked out two hours ago, cashed her 450 peso ($53) weekly paycheck, and went straight to Coco Loco (Crazy Coconut).

A downtown discotheque two blocks from the border, Coco Loco is the club of choice for hundreds of young Nogales plant workers with a taste for sex, cocaine and bass-heavy Miami techno music.

The sun's still up, but Virginia's dressed for midnight--tight, black designer jeans and a black lace bra under a creamy, sheer silk blouse. She sips her beer and writhes to the music.

Swirling in the strobe lights, dancers grind and grope beneath Canadian, Mexican and American flags, tacked together at the corners.

Every week, Virginia comes here for the payday blowout. Factory workers get into Coco Loco free on Fridays, and there's a frenzy on the sidewalk outside, where security guards in black fatigues check employee IDs and frisk for weapons.

Inside, the anxious throng ascends a narrow staircase, leaving another 48-hour week on the assembly line behind. Lubricating the steamy melange are drinks with names such as Slippery Nipple, Sex Drive and Flaming Doctor Pepper for 15 pesos ($1.75) a pop. Beer is 40 pesos ($4.70) for an iced bucket of seven, 10-ounce Tecate bottles.

Behind the men's-room door, a cluster of vatos dressed for a hip-hop video--baggy jeans, shades, Tommy Hilfiger pullovers--snort cocaine by the sink. The floor is littered with used coke bindles.

Most Coco Loco patrons work in American-owned factories called maquiladoras. They earn about $1 an hour for mind-numbing labor.

Tonight, they're wearing expensive urban costumery and doing expensive things. Tomorrow they'll wake up in cramped apartments or squatter shacks, a day or two's wages gone.

Virginia moved to Nogales in March 1997 from Sinaloa, 700 kilometers to the south. There was nothing to do there, she complains. No jobs. No fun. The word in Sinaloa was, Nogales had both. The word was right.

Two days after she got off the bus, Virginia was hired by Milotec, a maquiladora owned by Tucson-based Atronix Inc. For eight months, she assembled computer cables, earning 315 pesos ($37) a week. Now, she works in quality control, and makes 450 weekly.

What does she spend her money on?
Virginia purses her lips, thinking. Well, first there's rent, 600 pesos ($71) a month for a one-bedroom apartment, split four ways with three other girls from Milotec.

Also, she sends money home to her mother and spends a lot on makeup and clothes.

And where does any left over go?
Virginia stretches her arms up, Egyptian style. "ACoco Loco!"

You needn't cross an ocean to find a Nike-style cheap-labor factory--there are 97 of them in Nogales, Sonora, just a fast, two-hour drive from downtown Phoenix.

The 3,115-kilometer line that divides the United States and Mexico is the only contiguous border on Earth separating a First World nation and a developing one.

Multinational corporations from Asia, Europe and North America are taking advantage of that proximity.

Fueled by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the crash of Mexico's currency, the maquiladora business is flourishing. One million Mexicans work in the foreign-owned, export-manufacturing plants, up from 600,000 in 1994.

Mexico's government--eager to retrofit the nation's economy into the bustling global marketplace--opens the door for maquilas with friendly legislation and lax enforcement of environmental and labor regulations.

There are roughly 3,000 maquiladoras spread throughout Mexico, mostly in border towns, churning out everything from fly swatters to cell phones, artificial-heart valves to jet-engine parts.

Ninety-eight percent of the televisions purchased in the United States last year were made in maquiladoras (the name comes from the portion of grain, or "maquila," Mexican millers keep as a processing fee).

The factories and the slums they spawn are an easy target for critics of the system. Most of the naysayers are American.

Environmentalists accuse the maquiladoras of turning the border into a toxic cesspool that has severe health consequences for people on both sides of the line. (See accompanying story on page 34.)

Organized labor leaders claim the maquilas are driving down wages for American factory workers, shifting jobs to Mexico, and weakening unions. (See accompanying story on page 26.)

Social activists accuse U.S. industrialists and Mexican politicians of virtually enslaving a vast class of poor, desperate Mexicans who toil for a pittance, making the tools and toys of the modern world--products few of them can afford that will be sold in places they can't go.

"It's bordering on criminal, and certainly it's morally abhorrent," says Larry Weiss, a board member of the San Diego-based Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.

In Nogales, 32,000 workers put in long hours at multimillion-dollar, high-tech factories, yet most of them live crammed into shanties made of materials scavenged from maquila shipping yards. Many have no access to safe drinking water. Raw sewage trickles past their front doors.

Mexico's border economy is tethered to the U.S. The prices maquila workers pay for rent, food, fuel, clothes and other necessities are nearly as high across the border in Arizona.

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