News and events

Women workers in export processing zones during Covid: the case of Electrolux in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Edme Dominguez

In April 2020, a spontaneous uprising of more than 100 workers from the Electrolux factory in Ciudad Juarez led to their dismissal, to their ‘voluntary resignation’. The spontaneous protest was a reaction to the lack of protection measures against Covid that had already started to spread among the workers and had caused at least one death. Their demands went from the closing of the factories, as several other maquilas in the city had already done, to the distribution of basic protective equipment. The response from the management was first to promise to resolve the demands and then to fire 100 workers.

In this paper, we present the testimonies of some of the women workers who were fired in April 2020. They were interviewed in late May and the beginning of June 2021.  The reason for choosing only women workers to interview was because of the context in which Electrolux plants operate, Ciudad Juarez, with its never-ending spiral of violence and femicides.

Ciudad Juarez, violence and women workers

Ciudad Juarez, in the state of Chihuahua, on the US-Mexico border, is an industrial centre with 330 maquilas (assembly factories) owned by American or European enterprises, and they employ about 300 000 people (Infobae, 2020). Most of the employees recruited by these factories come from the southern states of Mexico where opportunities of employment are quite low and where criminal violence has increased enormously in the last 2 decades. The reasons for the flourishing of these industries in this border area is the low salaries[1], the closeness to the US and the NAFTA, the USMCA treaty between the US, Mexico and Canada and the lack of trade unions.

Ciudad Juarez is well known not only in Mexico but even worldwide for an enormous number of feminicides – several hundred women since the mid-1980s – that started to be reported in the 1990s. During the period 2015 to 2020 we can see an increase, from 43 in 2015 to 205 in 2020 (Ellas tienen nombre, 2020). This increase was particularly strong during the pandemic period, 2020 to 2021.

Women, a majority of the workers in the 1980s, remain in the lowest categories in production, but they are also extremely flexible and adapt to all kinds of tasks and skills as their high turnover in the industry demonstrates (Ramírez, 2020). The pandemic hit female labour particularly. Of every ten unemployed because of the pandemic, seven are women. Women represent 71% of those who have not recovered employment (Cullell, 2021). (Nationally, women’s participation in the labour market decreased from 45% of all women aged 15-60 in 2019 to 39% during 2020, which means a setback of about 15 years.)

Finally, Electrolux has about 5000 employees in its plants in Ciudad Juarez. The company has its own ‘codes of conduct’ and has also committed to global guidelines regarding workers’ rights.[2] Regarding this conflict, thanks to the involvement of a Swedish activist, several Swedish trade unions and a Swiss-based union alliance, IndustriALL Global Union, pressed Electrolux which, after 15 months, compensated seven of the 32 workers who had sued the company; none of them were women. The rest had not resisted, and signed agreements with less compensation.[3]

Working in Electrolux before the dismissal

We interviewed seven of the women fired by Electrolux in April 2020. They were 25 to 53 years old, coming mostly from the South but also from neighboring states to Chihuahua. Most of them have children, from small ones to adults. Some of their close family members were either dismissed or still working in Electrolux. These family bonds are important, as they influence the vulnerability of these women workers, especially in the case of single mothers. The experiences were mixed. These women had worked for one to seven years in Electrolux before being dismissed. Most had also worked in other maquilas for up to 20 years before coming to Electrolux. About half of the interviewees said they has liked working there, as the company offered good security and opportunities for promotion. The younger the women, the more positive to the working conditions they were. However, there were also negative experiences that point to heavy work, extremely low or high temperatures (depending on the season of the year), and even work accidents leading to permanent physical damage due to company negligence. As to the salaries, for some of them the salaries were at a good level, but others said they were lower than in other maquilas.

Regarding sexual harassment and discrimination, although these women did not experience it directly, older women workers felt discriminated against compared to young and ‘attractive ones’: the latter got better and easier jobs and quick promotions even if they didn’t have the required skill level. Moreover, young mothers experienced a lack of support regarding care of young children, and there were cases of pregnant women fired just because they asked for leave to address family problems. Many also complained about the lack of support from the company for the night shift regarding transport to their neighbourhoods, something especially serious given the climate of insecurity in Ciudad Juarez.  Trade unions and labour organising were considered a non-issue, as these workers considered that such organising was not permitted by the company, and no one dared to speak about it.

The experience of the dismissal

All of these women stated that they attended a meeting called by some workers to inform them of the situation because they were concerned by the lack of measures against Covid, although they were not really involved. They felt shocked when they returned to work after the weekend, only to be called in groups to be notified they had to sign a ‘voluntary resignation’. They had been promised that measures would be taken, and that they would resume their work. They felt trapped and with no alternative other than to sign and get very small compensation and some of their ‘savings’, and although some of them refused to sign, they were later forced to do so, as they needed the money. Afterwards, in December 2020, fewer than half of the interviewed women heard that Electrolux was giving more compensation, but it proved difficult to get because of deficient administration procedures of the company. They also expressed that they had enormous difficulties getting a new job during the pandemic.

This case illustrates the persistence of a problem most assembling industries on the Mexico-US border still confront: the lack of real and representative labour organising. Transnational industries, regardless of their national origin, together with local authorities, block any kind of organisation and cultivate the myth of the inherently corrupt nature of all trade unions so that workers become sceptical of any such organising efforts. Workers are then left to depend on the goodwill of the enterprise and their codes of conduct which, as we see, have no real value in daily realities. This is the case even with companies that have signed global framework agreements such as Electrolux. This agreement may promise to respect workers’ rights, but ‘respect’ obviously does not cover their right to have independent trade unions. Women workers are even more vulnerable to working environments which lack any respect for rules and rights, because of their family situations and the machismo culture among prevalent workers, supervisors and management. This becomes more visible during crisis such as the pandemic, whose consequences for women workers, as we have seen, were even worse than for men.

[1] The minimum salary was 181 Mexican pesos (US$9) in 2019 and 203 pesos (US$10) a day in January 2021, compared to US$7.25 an hour in Texas and US$13 in California (Pérez, 2021).

[2] Their code of conduct commits the company to adhere to the International Bill of Human Rights and International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Core Conventions, the UN Global Compact, and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

[3] Industriall is one of the global union federations, and has a global framework agreement with Electrolux. This global framework agreement signed by Electrolux covers workers’ rights all over the world. The pressure from the Swedish unions came through this agreement.

Edmé Domínguez R. is an associate professor (docent) in Peace and Development Studies. Since the 1990s she has been working on gender studies within International Relations, global political economy and democracy. Her area of study is Latin America, specifically Mexico, Central America and Bolivia. She is a founder and presently the president of Gender and Development in Practice, an association in Sweden.