I am spellbound by the woman in the photo sent by friends in Chiapas. She is a Mayan, a Tzotzil Indian in her 20s with long black braided hair and a turquoise sweater over a colorful blue-and-red blouse. This indigenous woman, whose name is Maria, is working at a modern industrial loom amid a long line of similar women. She is making sweaters at a new maquiladora named Trans Textil Internacional in the old colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas. The sweaters Maria knits are entirely for North American consumers, there being no local market. In fact, all the materials such as cotton come from the United States and Europe; the role of Maria and the other workers in the factory is simply to knit, cut, stitch and assemble. Companies like Liz Claiborne, the Limited, Guess and Victoria’s Secret will buy Maria’s sweaters for between $8.50 and $12 apiece and sell them at $80-$100.
Maria makes 6 pesos, or less than 60 US cents, for each of the six sweaters she can finish in a day. She receives no benefits. She has two children back home in her village and used to commute every day, but the transportation cost most of her pay, so she now lives with two other workers in a cuartito, or small room, near the factory and goes home to her children only on Sunday, her day off. According to Trans Textil’s manager, all the workers are young women because the older ones, those over 35, “don’t produce as much as younger workers.”
This is Ground Zero of globalization. The maquiladoras–the assembly plants that first emerged on the US-Mexican border in the 1960s, in which cheap labor is used to turn raw materials and parts from countries like the United States into finished products, which are then exported back to those countries–are now “marching south,” in the phrase of Mexican President Vicente Fox, to the regions of direst poverty like Chiapas. The new strategy, known as the Plan Puebla de Panama, must be seen in several contexts: the long conflict over the rights of indigenous people, who are the majority in the path of el Plan; the hyperexpansion of NAFTA; the militarizing of Mexico’s southern border against immigrants; and the low-intensity war against the Zapatistas.
The PPP is an attempt to revive the failed jobs promise of NAFTA. Sounding a bit like Ross Perot, the New York Times acknowledged last year that NAFTA had failed to close the divide “between the privileged few and the poor, and left the middle class worse off than before.” Few would argue, the Los Angeles Times said, “that NAFTA has been anything but devastating for Mexican farm families, which account for 23 % of Mexico’s 100 million people.” Relocating the crisis-ridden maquiladora industry to southern Mexico, where wages are half those at the Mexican maquilas on the US border, is a desperate effort to prevent the hemorrhage of jobs to China, where “nimble Chinese hands,” in the words of the Los Angeles Times, sew and stitch for 40 cents an hour, only one-sixth of the Mexican wage.
The Trans Textil plant where Maria works is Mexico’s answer to the Chinese challenge, part of the global “race to the bottom,” as poor countries compete for foreign investments. Another few dozen maquilas are soon to be opened in Chiapas as part of a vast export-oriented industrial zone in the heart of Maya country. The declining wages of Mexicans have not lessened the Bush Administration’s zeal to expand NAFTA through the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). In this scenario the PPP is to be the pilot project in an expanding, investor-friendly economic bloc dominated by Washington. Those who extol globalization like to describe sweatshop labor as “the first step on life’s escalator,” as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof so blithely put it, ignoring evidence that a revolving cycle of poverty and cultural chaos is being produced instead.