At the Human Rights Film Festival, Mexico’s objects of labour. By HELEN SIMS.

Maquilapolis refers to the huge industrial district in Tijuana, just past the border between Mexico and the USA. The factories of large, mostly US, corporations dominate the landscape. They attract internal migrants from all over Mexico seeing work. They function on the basis of mass production by cheap labour and substantial tax breaks granted by the government. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) raw products come into Mexico, are turned into items like televisions and pantyhose and then the finished items are sent back for distribution in the US. Although this system results in jobs for Mexicans, the “maquiladoras” who work in these factories, they see more detriment than benefit to themselves as a result of the workings of free trade.

The film predominantly follows two women, Carmen and Lourdes. They are often behind the camera narrating what they see. The film is focused on capturing the details of their lives, in their own words. Interspersed with that footage are shots of the factories and the surrounding environment, accompanied by a voice over providing factual details of the history of NAFTA, the growth of the Maquilapolis, the environmental degradation and local community action to try and restore a balance of fairness in the face of corporate greed.
Carmen is a divorced, single mother of three children. She was a migrant from rural Mexico, attracted to Tijuana at a young age with the promise of work. She worked in a Sony factory until it closed to move its production to (even cheaper) Indonesia. Despite labour laws in force, she was not paid any severance pay. Her struggle with a group of others to get compensation is documented. Lourdes has lived in a neighbourhood over-shadowed by the factories all her life. She also has young children, and her story documents the destruction of the environment she has witnessed during her lifetime and her concerns for the health of local children, some of whom are born with birth defects as a result of the toxic waste released into the water stream. Her major battle is to try and ensure that the massive amount of lead pollution left behind by a closed factory is cleaned up. Both women have suffered substantial detriment to their health as a result of being exposed to chemicals.

Both Carmen and Lourdes are “promotoras” – a group of women who have worked or still work in the factories who have organised themselves to learn about their rights and teach others. Women make up 80% of the maquiladoras workforce – because they are seen as “cheap and docile”. They describe themselves as “objects of labour” in a world where the colour of the smock you wear determines your rank. Despite many obstacles against them, including the risk of being fired from the jobs they need to feed their children, the promotoras are achieving success in terms of educating people and filing labour claims and environmental claims against the corporations. Their struggle is one of David and Goliath proportions – on one side the promotoras, environmental groups and a few community lawyers; on the other side the IMF, World Bank, huge multi-national corporations and the governments of Mexico and the USA.

What is intriguing about the documentary is the attitude of the women – they are not against the factories per se, just the poor working conditions and pollution created by them. They all admit that being unemployed is far worse, and the economic crisis in 2001 resulted in job losses that crippled the community. They are not ashamed of the work they do – they just fervently believe that their jobs should be making their lives better rather than worse.

Filmmakers Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre set out to make a documentary that was an indictment of free trade agreements and a means to educate consumer choices. Whilst this is an indirect point, it sits ambivalently with the sentiments of the maquiladoras. They are grateful for the employment that free trade has created, but also resentful of its impacts on their health and the environment. Either way, this film is intriguing viewing for those that have wondered why there are campaigns against free trade. It is a glimpse into the local impacts of free trade agreements and community mobilisation, told in an intimate and humanitarian way.