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The Maquiladora Industry Environment, Labor and Health by Stephanie Ruddy San Francisco State University Spring 2003 Urban Studies 515 Final Project Race, Poverty and the Environment Professor Raquel Rivera Pinderhughes

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the maquiladora industry

The Maquiladora Industry

Environment, Labor and Health


Stephanie Ruddy

San Francisco State University

Spring 2003

Urban Studies 515 Final Project

Race, Poverty and the Environment

Professor Raquel Rivera Pinderhughes

Public has permission to use the material herein, but only if author(s), course, university and professor are credited.

  • This presentation focuses on the Maquiladora Industry along the Mexico Border states. It is designed to educate people about the environmental degradation and labor abuses that are viewed as a necessary component for immediate profit by the foreign owned assembly plants through the creation of NAFTA in 1994. It analyzes and describes the Maquiladora Industry, paying particular attention to the social, environmental and public health impacts of the processes associated with the maquilas.

Maquiladora workers taking a stretch in a factory in Tijuana, Mexico.

“Democracy and violence can ill go together. Evolution of democracy is not possible if we are not prepared to hear the other side.”
  • “It may be long before the law of love will be recognized in international affairs. The machinery’s of government stand between and hide the hearts of one people from those of another.”
  • Quotes from Mohandas K. Gandhi

project content
Project Content:
  • We start by analyzing the historical content that made Mexico particularly appealing to foreign investors through the creation of NAFTA by requiring Mexico to allow free entry and exit of investment in all sectors and by lifting trade barriers, therefore, making production in Mexico for export to the U.S. more profitable. We then focus on such environmental impacts of the maquildora industries. This is then followed by various isolated examples of how the maquiladora sector of Mexico’s economy is changing the social, environmental, political dynamics of the Mexican people.
what is a maquiladora
What is a Maquiladora?
  • Maquiladoras originated as part of the Mexican government’s 1965 Border Industrialization Program.
  • Most maquiladoras are foreign-owned, controlled or subcontracted manufacturing plants that process or assemble imported components for export.
  • Maquiladora inputs are generally imported duty-free, and countries, like the U.S. only tax the value-added portion of mapuiladora exports.
  • Maquiladoras account for 49% of Mexico’s exports
  • Source

Maquiladora that employs mostly women for its labor force. The conditions under which they work are very depressing.

The typical maquiladora worker is a woman between the age of 18 and 25 and is usually employed in heavy maquiladora centers in the border states of Mexico and the United States.
  • The low cost of labor is what fuels the heavy investment of U.S. based factories into Mexico. For example the full cost per hour per employee is approximately US $1.64.
  • The area of Tijuana, Mexico employs roughly 120,000 workers with over 3,000 maquiladoras. Approximately 58% of the jobs in Tijuana are from the maquiladora industry.
  • Tijuana is also geographically desirable to foreign investors as it is conveniently located directly on the U.S. Mexico Border allowing for cheap shipment of assembled products directly into the U.S. (twin plants.)
  • For many years Mexico has been in slow progress at democratizing its country. Although, there exist many facets that contribute to its failing democracy such as the weakness of Mexico as a state and the instability of Mexico’s economic growth that has been extremely maldistributed. Mexico has depended upon international investors as a main source for its economic development. Mexico, through its development, has had an increasing interdependence that has brought the risk of “greater vulnerability to international trends and decions.” (Lipset 559)

  • Pemex: a state within a state

Originally Pemex had been viewed as a way to “foment the country’s

industrialization by producing oil and gas for national consumption.”

(Simon 158)

  • 1972 Mexico discovers a massive oil deposit in Tabasco
  • mid-1970’s Mexico begins to exploit the oil by exporting to the world
  • Bankers eagerly begin to loan money to Mexico
  • Mexico initiates massive infrastructure investment (Simon 158)

effects of pemex
Effects of Pemex
  • Mexico became increasingly dependent upon oil exports and the existence of Pemex for its growing economy. Pemex began to exploit the oil workers by operating with a limited amount of legal restraints. There was not effort to control the cost of production, limit waste, or invest in “industrial safe or environmental controls.” The environmental damage began to build up as Pemex continued to exist.
the most common types of petroleum industry damage in tabasco are
The most common types of petroleum industry damage in Tabasco are:

Stark contrast of Pemex oil refinery within the realm of natural wildlife.

  • Hydrocarbon spillage (oil and oil by-products)
  • Degradation of croplands due to hydrocarbon buildup
  • Spillage of salts and chemical wastes
  • Progressive salination of croplands
  • High levels of dissolved hydrocarbons in coastal waters
  • High levels of toxicity in plants eaten by humans and wild animals
  • Ongoing oil exploration work that includes fissures and explosions that damage buildings and homes
  • Acid rain crop damage resulting from emissions of sulfuric acid from petrochemical plants
  • Over 200 deaths and cripplings from catastrophic explosions. (

The health impact of Pemex has caused many to awake with excessive coughing and vomiting. The drinking water has been so contaminated that one must remove a thick foam in order to actually drink the water. eductn.jpg

Latin girl showing emotion of poverty, illness and despair within her community.


  • NAFTA was created in 1994 as a legal agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada
  • It was intended to allow powerful multinational corporations to control the political, economic, and social elements of a foreign society.
  • It eliminates tariffs on goods that cross the three border countries

Photo of Mexican worker being observed by American by-standers. Typical interaction between those who have money and power and those who don't. Notice there is no sign of verbal dialogue. He is observed as non-human.

nafta has encouraged debt burden
NAFTA Has Encouraged Debt Burden
  • Mexico’s debt burden has increased significantly (nearly $20 billion greater in 1998 than in the first year of NAFTA. The Mexican has paid between $24 and $44 billion annually since 1993.
  • This money could have been used on social programs and poverty prevention programs.
  • The enormous amount of debt pressures Mexico to attract foreign Invenstment



The maquiladoras are divided into various sections of manufacturing. This table gives a current understanding of the percentage of Mexico’s labor force by branch of industry.

examples of maquiladoras in mexico
Examples of Maquiladoras in Mexico
  • 20th Century Plastics
  • Acer Peripherals
  • Bali Company, Inc.
  • Bayer Corp./Medsep
  • BMW
  • Canon Business Machines
  • Casio Manufacturing
  • Chrysler
  • Daewoo
  • Eastman Kodak/Verbatim
  • Eberhard-Faber
  • Eli Lilly Corporation
  • Ericsson


NAFTA has lead to:
  • Increase in poverty

1. The average maquila worker earns $3-$5 per day

  • Wage drop

1. Wages continue to drop as the demand of workers to unionize increase

  • Industry-Related pollution

1. Environmental inspections of maquilas has dropped since NAFTA

2. Hazardous wasted stored of arsenic, slag and sludge on grounds

  • Natural resource destruction

1. Mexico repealed Article 27, which gave rights to communal land ownership (ejidos)

2. The Maquilas have destroyed the land of indigenous people for resource exploitation

  • Increase in health problems associated with the Maquiladora industry

1. Maquiladoras are burdening environment and public’s health with industrial pollutants

2. Increase in hazardous waste sites while heavy metals, acids, solvents, and other industrial pollutants pour out of industry pipes. Source:

This is an example of a United States owned abandoned battery recycling plant. The factory has been abandoned since the Mexican government shut it down for violating environmental guidelines. The owner refuses to clean up the toxic waste that has contaminated the water, air and health of a community of 1,000 people in Colonia Chilpancingo. Children had frequently played in this area because it had not been gated until recently. I have personally visited this site with global exchange.

The amount of toxins used in the maquilas are enormous. The majority of workers are not provided with the necessary education or protection concerning the chemicals they are exposed to on a daily basis.
solvents of concern used in maquiladoras
Solvents of Concern Used in Maquiladoras
  • Chemical

1. 1,1,1-Trichloroethane

Affects central nervous system,liver, and heart; is an irritant and probable human carcinogen.

Environmental Effects: Bioconcentrates in aquatic organisms

2. Acetone

Acutely toxic; flammable

Environmental Effects: Forms ground-level ozone

3. Dichloromethane

Affects the central nervous system; acutely toxic; may cause spontaneous abortions; probable carcinogen

Environmental Effects: Toxic air contaminant

4. Xylene

Affects the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys; impairs muscle coordination; is an irritant

Environmental Effects: Forms ground-level ozone, pollutes water, persists in soil and can leach into groundwater

exposure to hazards as reported by tijuana maquiladora workers
Exposure to Hazards as Reported by Tijuana Maquiladora Workers

Source: Establishing Priorities for Occupational Health Research Among Women Working the Maquiladora Industry. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health vol. 3, no. 3, July-September

children of toxic communities
Children of Toxic Communities

This particularly effects children in the community as children are:

  • In rapid development of nervous and immune systems
  • Undergoing Behavioral patterns of maturation that is effected by environment
  • More susceptible to play in areas that are heavily contaminated by pollutants
  • More susceptible to lead. Children whose diets are low in nutrients or suffering from malnutrition absorb a larger dose of lead than adults

Image of boy among heap of trash. Very typical scene of children living in communities without proper health education. Typical way children catch deathly diseases and also bring back harmful elements to the household.

Exposure to these chemical and biological contaminants can result in development of childhood diseases and illnesses.
  • Asthma
  • Birth Defects
  • Diarrhea
  • Gastrointestinal Disorders
  • Childhood Cancer
  • Learning Disorders

Picture of mexican boy, Luis Eduardo Leyva, with eosinophilic gastroenteritis from mexican border. The disease has severely stunted his growth.

“Children may develop a number of health problems if they are exposed to contaminated water, including infectious intestinal diseases. Nitrates in drinking water may cause acute toxicity in bottle-fed infants, causing methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome), and studies link arsenic in drinking water to miscarriages. Inorganic mercury compounds in drinking water, after long-term exposure at levels above the maximum contaminant level, can cause kidney damage.” -Commission for Environmental Cooperation, “Making the Environment Healthier for Our Kids,” April 2002
Some colonias that do not have access to municipal water supplies must rely on water trucks to deliver drinking and bathing water. Lack of education concerning such matters leads to:
  • Water being stored in containers that once held toxic substances
  • Children becoming infected by carrying the water to their homes

Source: Seventh Report of the Good Neighbor Environmental Board

a call for change
A Call For Change

It is a fact:

We must take the necessary steps in helping to improve the life of others by changing the way we live and think.

Picture of latin village girls. Their faces reveal the life and hope of every child living in poverty.

recommendations for improving health
Recommendations For Improving Health
  • Institutionalize environmental health issues within school curriculum
  • Support extracurricular environmental education programs within border-region school systems
  • Provide support within school setting that enables school children to carry environmental education and environmental health messages home to families
  • Develop and distribute more environmental health education materials that have an appealing design and are clearly written in both English and Spanish
  • Research: Collaborate across border-region academic institutions, health organizations, and environmental agencies. Produce more research, data gathering and data analysis of border-region children’s environmental health issues as the foundation for informed strategic actions.

Source: Seventh Report of the Good Neighbor Environmental Board

I encourage anyone who has viewed this presentation will be able to understand the basics of the U.S. relationship with Mexico. I also hope that the plight of the Mexican people has made at least one more person aware of the dangers a woman, child and man face every day in their homeland. But most of all, I hope that you would have been encouraged not to take clean water, labor laws, clean food, and environmental laws for granted. It is truly a luxury to live as Americans do.

Mexican boys day after border rebellion. Example of makeshift shelters in the background. Typical living conditions of maquiladora worker.

references suggested reading
References & Suggested Reading
  • Diamons, Larry, Jonathan Hartlyn, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset. Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999.
  • Simon, Joel. Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge. San Francisco: Sieera Club Books, 1997.
  • Suchlicki, Jaime. Mexico: From Montezume To NAFTA, Chiapas, and Beyond. Washington - London: Brassey’s, Inc., 1996.
  • Ruiz, Ramon Eduardo. On The Rim of Mexico: Encounters of the Rich and Poor. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998.
  • Rios, Joe Marie and Avelardo Valdez, PhD. “La Relacion Entre Infraestructura, Servicios y la Incidencia de Enfermedades en las Colonias Fronterizas.” Revista de Fronteriza. Vol. 2, 2000. Pgs. 31-41
  • Quintana, Penelope J.E., Ann de Peyster, Raymon K. Hucke, Fernando M. Sanudo. “Carga Materno-Fetal de Plorno, Condiciones Fetales y Riesgos Asocidos a Plorno Informados: Investigacion en el Hospital General de Tijuana.” Revista de Fronteriza. Vol 2. 2000 pg. 15-22
  • Environmental Health Coalition: Border Toxics Fact Sheet.
  • Williams, Edward J. Ph.D. The Maquiladora Industry and Environmental Degradation In The United States-Mexican Borderlands.