Photo by Robert Burroughs
"The image of Mexicans still includes the siesta syndrome. But nothing could be further from the truth."
Let us begin by introducing you to Patrick Mulcahy, one of the many Americans who own factories in Tijuana, and by posing this question: Is Mulcahy a creative, international soul who’s fighting ignorance and poverty? Or is he a ruthless capitalist who’s robbing the United States of jobs and exploiting vulnerable Third World people?
The Tijuana branch of Electrol has grown to include almost 600 people — sixty-five to seventy percent of the total production force.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Mulcahy looks to be in his late forties; he has a tanned, old face, but wears a beard and longish golden brown hair, and he jogs a lot and lifts weights to keep his body strong and lean. This day he’s wearing a snappy O.P. sports shirt, light-colored slacks, and sunglasses. He has agreed to drive us down to his Mexican plant because he’s proud of it: it’s clear which side of the oppressor/benefactor fence he sees himself on. South of the border, he knows all the shortcuts to the La Mesa section on the far eastern side of Tijuana; turning north off Diaz Ordaz, he drives into Las Brisas Industrial Park, one of several private developments in this neighborhood.
The "clean room." Forty Mexican women dressed in white smocks, white caps, even white booties, toil in an all-white room behind a large picture window.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Three sand-colored buildings at the end of the street serve as the quarters for Electrol de Mexico, the company owned by Mulcahy and a partner, also an American.
In 1960 the two of them, both engineers, founded a firm to make electromechanical control devices and small electronic systems, and as the years went by they watched their firm, based north of Los Angeles in Saugus, grow to include some 350 employees. But by about 1973 they had begun to cast their eyes southward for two reasons, Mulcahy says.
Sewco makes clothing: Calvin Klein pants, shorts, skirts, and jumpers; about 20,000 swimsuits a week for Danskin.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
First, Electrol’s three or four major competitors by then had all set up manufacturing operations in other countries, and Electrol was beginning to feel the price competition. Secondly, the company had had an increasingly hard time attracting factory workers. “It’s just difficult to keep a gringo female doing that,” Mulcahv asserts. “It’s like stoop labor.”
So Mulcahy and his partner expanded to the Tijuana plant in 1977. at first hiring fewer than two dozen Mexican employees, including a Mexican manager. (Mulcahy acquired a condo at Coronado Shores and used it as a virtually full-time base, at first.) He says today the Tijuana branch has grown to include almost 600 people who compose sixty-five to seventy percent of his total production force; the 300 or so Americans remaining up in Los Angeles County are highly skilled and versatile assembly workers as well as support staff for the Mexican operation.
Sewco's Jerry Robbins says the fifty- to seventy-five-cent savings is “the best you can do. Most of the time it works out to be much less than that.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Whereas the average wage for Mulcahy’s American factory workers is now about $4.50 an hour (not including fringe benefits), the direct hourly wage at Electrol de Mexico is little more than thirty pesos, or about $1.25 an hour.
And Mulcahy is right; it is numbingly boring work, even — or perhaps especially — in the futuristic “clean room” located off the front office. Here forty Mexican women dressed in white smocks, white caps, even white booties, toil in an all-white room behind a large picture window. They're each taking tiny metal paddles as thin as straight pins and encasing them in narrow glass tubes, then, mechanically evacuating the air from the tubes and sealing the ends.
Workers at IMEC. “They get bored. They think the work’s too easy. Some of them leave and then come back later.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Each woman makes about 1300 such “reed switches” per day, and she works six eight-hour days a week. “Last month we made a million switches in here,” Mulcahy says with a ring of personal accomplishment.
Other sections of the 30,000-square-foot plant (for which Mulcahy pays his landlord just fourteen cents a square foot) are less antiseptic. In one large building, dozens upon dozens of the dark-haired young women sit at long tables soldering, sorting, coiling, taping the company’s small metal components.
IMEC transistors. By 1964 IMEC decided to open a plant in Tijuana to produce a power transistor too bulky to ship back and forth across the Pacific.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“You see, it isn’t any dirt-floor donkey shed,” Mulcahy says. It isn't luxurious — the floor is concrete, the walls dingy white, the work tables scarred. But the clean, well-organized room is filled with light. And Mulcahy claims his employees have repaid him with loyaltv; whereas turnover in Saugus was once 200 percent a year, in Tijuana it’s only about two percent.
Howard Boysen: "It used to be that the difference between the cost of doing business in Mexico versus Korea or Taiwan was so great that most of the electronics firms put up with the Orient.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“I can’t think of anything that would have been a better move for our company than to come here,” Mulcahy says staunchly. “What would the options have been? Our growth was dependent on finding either higher labor efficiencies or lower costs.” He says mechanization would cost a fortune and probably wouldn’t give him the flexibility that human workers do. Remaining within the U.S. without some mechanization “ would have resulted in less jobs in America anyway, because our business would have declined.”
SDSU's Norris Clement: “If it gets an uppity union in Pennsylvania, Zenith can just close up and move to Mexico."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Say what you will about the motives of companies like Electrol,(and yes. we do have people waiting in the wings who say nasty things), what no one disputes is the magnitude of their numbers. By one recent estimate some 600 foreign companies employing 140,000 Mexicans currently own or control plants located mostly in Mexico’s border cities like Tijuana, but also, with increasing frequency, in the interior. Their move to Mexico is part of the larger stampede of companies from the United States and other industrialized nations to the Third World repositories of cheap, unskilled labor.
The development of such “offshore” industry, as it’s called, really began with scattered entrepreneurs; one Tijuana resident recalls that that city’s first maquiladora (as the foreign plants are called) was a vacuum tube company which settled in about 1955. But by 1966 the Mexican government decided to help promote the idea by launching an official “border industrialization program.” The idea was to lure foreigners who would help combat the severe unemployment along the border in those days just after the doors clanked shut on the bracero program. The pitch was that labor-intensive foreign companies could import materials — duty-free — into Mexico, use Mexican workers to assemble those materials, then ship the goods home again, a pitch particularly sweet to American ears since American tariff regulations say that duty is only owed on the value added to such homecoming goods — i.e., on the foreign labor alone.
Today Homero Reyes guesses that Tijuana probably is home to at least 120 such foreign-controlled plants employing maybe 12,000 people. “Tourism is still first here, but manufacturing is second,” Reyes says. He is a Mexican who works in Tijuana for the Consejo Estatal de Desarrollo, an organization funded with Mexican government money whose task it is to entice gringos to invest in Baja commerce. He says of the 120 or so plants in Tijuana, thirty-two are owned by San Diego businesses and most of the rest by companies from the American Midwest and Northeast. However, eight Japanese firms are represented, including Matsushita (which has a 600-person plant producing television sets and components in the City of Tijuana’s industrial center in Otay Mesa) and Sony, which has a large plant located east of La Mesa off the new road to Tecate. Two German operations (one manufacturing gyroscopes and the other making optical equipment) also have settled in Tijuana, and Reyes says his agency currently is wooing interested investors in Belgium, Austria, England, Spain, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
The goods produced by those companies which have already moved to Tijuana are varied enough to stock a department store. By far the most numerous are the electronic components manufacturers, who include such firms as Hughes Aircraft and a division of RCA. Until recently, clothing manufacturers clearly occupied second place, but this summer bureaucratic difficulties forced many of the smaller ones to close. After the garment shops come a potpourri of other businesses. Toymakers include Mattel, which has a medium-sized plant making toys and video games in the eastern part of Tijuana; Tester, Inc., whose 150 or so employees chum out plastic parts for model assembly kits; and Fischer-Price, which produces parts for children’s games. Parker Seal, the “O”-ring manufacturer, has a plant, and Gould, Inc., makes batteries. Reyes points out that Tijuana’s maquiladoras range in size from 1000 employees down to ten, and the smaller ones tend to be even more varied, including everything from a picture-frame maker to a shop for hand-painting Italian tiles.
Reves insists, almost to the point of being touchy about the point, that the foreigners receive no special favors from the government, other than exemption from the federal six-percent value-added tax. He says the development agency does help some of the maquiladoras make the move to Baja, while others manage to do so on their own. Many of the latter are the smaller firms whose owners may not even be aware of the development agency's existence, and for them, the move to Mexico can turn out to be a mixed blessing.
Joe Laurino runs one such smaller maquiladora. Laurino isn't his real name but we’ll call him that because he doesn't like publicity, either for himself or his business, which is the assembly of Tiffany-style lampshades that retail for eighty to a hundred dollars apiece. Laurino buys the glass for his product from Belgium, from Oklahoma, some from Mexico, then transports it to his plant in the city-owned industrial park in the Mexican section of Otay Mesa, where he employs between fifty and seventy Mexicans. They in turn cut the glass, fit it into the metal frameworks, and solder the whole assemblage. The lamps then return to the brand-new quarters in Chula Vista’s Otay Mesa. There Laurino employs just ten to fifteen people, some of whom pack and ship the lamps (as many as 5000 a month) to customers across the country.
It all seems efficient and prosperous to the eye of a visitor today. But Laurino, a chain-smoking, harassed-looking former New Yorker, says that’s come only after eleven years of uphill struggle, coupled with surprises at every turn, surprises which he admits were due to his ignorance of Mexican bureaucracy.
“I’m not NCR or some large Japanese concern,” he says. In fact, his first month in business here he made and sold only eighty lamps. So he figured he would begin by using Mexican craftsmen working in their homes, rather than by establishing his own factory. However, he quickly learned that the mom-and-pop operations strive so assiduously to be inconspicuous (to avoid paying taxes and otherwise dealing with the government) that “it’s very hard to find these people. Finally, someone told us that if you want to know what's going on down there, you talk to the garbage collector. He sees the leather or the metal or whatever in the trash, and he knows who’s doing what.”
Laurino talked to enough garbage collectors eventually to develop a network of such independent operators with whom he worked for several years before running into another major roadblock. “The mom-and-pop operators refused to grow to meet our demand. They knew that if they got too big, the government would come in and tax ’em so much that it’s just not worth it.” He says he was thus driven by desperation to open his own shop (fronted by a Mexican citizen) in a two-story building located in a residential neighborhood in the Tijuana hills. Since he had learned by then not to ask questions of the Tijuana bureaucrats lest the questions lead to delays or demands for mordida, Laurino never knew if the plant's operation was legal or not. There were other things he knew weren’t legal but reluctantly learned to tolerate: using politically well-connected building contractors and giving them “short-cut” money to avoid months-long delays; paying twelve dollars a month to the residential garbage collectors to get them to collect his factory’s trash (since the city’s sole industrial trash collector — politically well connected — never deigned to do so).
Laurino thinks those days of skirting the edge of the law may now be behind him. His company’s growth not only has enabled him to move into the Mexican industrial park, but also finally to hire a well-placed Mexican lawyer and accountant whose good connections helped him to deal with the bureaucracy in a more elegant fashion. “Now I can afford respectability,’* he says ironically. “They don’t make it easy for you, at least not if you’re a little guy.”
And sometimes they make it very difficult even for bigger guys, as Jerry Robbins learned this summer. Robbins’s company, Sewco, makes clothing; Calvin Klein pants, shorts, skirts, and jumpers; about 20,000 swimsuits a week for Danskin; and a variety of other garments. Robbins started almost eight years ago with just fifteen sewing machines in San Ysidro, and now he’s got 400 to 500 employees working in one Chula Vista and two National City factories. Those American workers produce some of those garments in their entirety, but up until this summer Robbins also relied heavily on five Tijuana subcontractors; the Americans would cut the cloth, ship it down to Tijuana, where most of the sewing would be done, then the clothes would be returned to this side of the border for finishing, pressing, and shipping. Robbins estimates he probably was thus “employing” (through the subcontractors, one of the many configurations of the basic maquiladora concept) another 400 to 500 Mexicans.
Striding through his main National City plant, Robbins passes bin after bin full of slacks, shorts, stylish denim skirts. He claims (hat, at best, the most he ever saved by using the Mexican labor was ten to fifteen percent of his total fabrication costs, even though the American wages are twice as high. He gives an example; “Say I’m making a woman’s blouse in Mexico. So it costs me a dollar for the labor, $1.25 for overhead, and say the profit is fifty cents. That’s $2.75 that I’m paying to my subcontractor. Now my duty on that is about a dollar, plus transportation and importing and exporting adds another quarter. That brings it up to four dollars.” To make the same blouse in the United States, Robbins figures he’d spend two dollars to $2.25 on labor, two dollars on overhead, and, again, need a fifty-cent profit. That means the American blouse costs $4.50 to $4.75. Robbins says the fifty- to seventy-five-cent savings is “the best you can do. Most of the time it works out to be much less than that.” And he says that slim advantage all but closed completely this summer.
Up to that point the Mexicans had always thrown up their hands at the task of ensuring that Mexico did not exceed its quota for exporting textiles to the United States (a quota set by the U.S. government). American officials took responsibility for monitoring the Mexican textile imports. But then this past July 1, the Mexican government instead announced it would begin enforcing the quota by telling each individual Mexican clothing manufacturer exactly how much he could export to the Americans of each individual type of clothing.
Robbins says the immediate result of the change was chaos. Dozens of U.S. clothing companies like Sewco found themselves unable to ship home hundreds of thousands of garments their Mexican shops had completed for them but fo which those shops couldn't get the necessary permits. Finally, after Mexican newspaper headlines screamed about the situation for several days, the Mexican government found “emergency” permits to free those particular clothes, he says.
But that was only a short-term solution. Robbins says most of his Mexican subcontractors faced the realization that it would take up to a year to get the necessary permits to export any given type of clothes — and yet, as Robbins points out, fabrics change, styles change. “You might make men’s shirts one season and women’s shirts the next and the seasons come every three months.” The result: most of Tijuana’s (indeed the whole border area’s) clothing manufacturers have either shut down or drastically curtailed their activity in the last six weeks. “Currently, I’m only working with one contractor. ... To tell you the truth I don’t know of more than two others that are doing U.S. products.”
Robbins says he'll continue working with that contractor as long as the contractor can get the necessary permits. But he says the experience has shaken him and other garment-industry firms located in L.A. “From what I’m hearing they’re all retrenching. . . . They feel they can’t afford to take the risk [of continuing to depend on the Mexicans]. ” Instead, Robbins figures he’ll just shrink the volume of his business and have his American workers produce those items of apparel that Robbins can still sell competitively. He won’t try to produce other items for which the cheaper Mexican labor made the crucial difference. He says he’ll probably end up having to lay off twenty or thirty Americans as a result of the decrease in volume.
“I just had to turn down a major nine-month contract for swim trunks. I simply couldn’t do it; if we made them in the United States, we couldn’t meet the price. Now it [the contract] will probably go to some Oriental manufacturer.”
Robbins’s experience is precisely the kind of scenario that maquiladora defenders conjure up whenever someone accuses them of stealing jobs from Americans. They claim that if American firms which currently have “offshore” plants were forced to close them down, the firms simply couldn’t return and re-establish comparable plants at home using American workers. They argue that the higher American labor costs would prohibit the firms from making their products at a price competitive on world markets; thus the firms would simply have to cease making those products. In contrast, the defenders say, the existence of overseas plants can generate at least some jobs at home: administrative jobs, shipping jobs, and so forth.
But perhaps not surprisingly, that argument hasn’t persuaded organized U.S. labor to join the likes of Homero Reyes in promoting the Mexican plants. The AFL-CIO, which denounces the maquiladoras and their counterparts elsewhere around the globe as “runaway shops,” every year lobbies against the offshore industries. If only a small portion of the jobs lost to other countries could be retained here by higher tariff walls — well, that’s more than nothing, the AFL-CIO states. And then there are those in labor who simply refuse to believe that the runaways couldn’t come home and produce, albeit perhaps at a lower profit to their owners. “It’s just greed,” seethed one leader of the local Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, who suggests that if Robbins at Sewco had accepted that swim trunk contract and lost money on it, at least “he [Robbins] would be making a contribution to the United States [through the American jobs he would thus be creating].”
Of course, the maquiladoras' impact on American jobs is just one side of the equation. Some of the more outspoken critics of
the foreign plants object even more vociferously to the plants’ effect on the host countries like Mexico. First, say such critics, the multinational corporations like Electrol are getting workers to build their products by paying them next to nothing. They say the vast majority of the workers receive little training of any value in terms of advancement, and have virtually no job security. While Mexican law requires employers to give workers three months’ severance pay in the event of layoffs, the critics charge that maquiladoras have all too often found ways of dodging that requirement (by getting special government dispensations or by paying off government officials) when it suits them, such as during the recession of 1974 when dozens of maquiladoras all over Mexico curtailed their operations or closed up shop altogether. Labor-organizing activities have also prompted maquiladoras in some places to shut down operations, sometimes precipitously, and run to more hospitable labor climes.
Secondly, the more impassioned maquiladora critics fear the effect that the foreign companies can exert upon the host governments. The very ease with which the plants can pack up and move on may pressure governments like Mexico’s into keeping its minimum wage law lower than it would otherwise, or oppressing troublesome labor forces, or making other legal concessions that favor the foreigners, the critics say.
Norris Clement doesn’t go so far as to recommend flatly that the runaway shops be sentenced to death at the hand of the U.S. or the foreign governments. However, he does voice a whole litany of questions about the overall value of the maquiladoras. When he looks at the Mexican plants, he sees not just the American jobs lost to them but also the effect on the labor movement. “If it gets an uppity union in Pennsylvania, Zenith can just close up and move to Mexico. The question is, does that benefit the American worker?’’ He looks at the original goals for the border industrial program set by Mexican planners, and Clement says, “I think there have been very few benefits to Mexico.”
Clement is the coordinator for border programs at San Diego State’s Center for International Programs. He’s been working on border studies for five or six years, and as he sees it, the Mexicans established the maquiladora program because they wanted to reduce unemployment. However, although the maquiladoras have indisputably created large numbers of jobs, Clement points out that seventy to eighty percent of those jobs have gone to women, half of whom never worked before entering those industries. Thus, he suggests, the program hasn’t helped the people it was intended to help — unemployed workers.
Furthermore, other goals have met with even more mixed success. Despite the government’s hope that the maquiladoras would use increasing amounts of Mexican raw materials, that virtually hasn’t happened at all. The plants have improved Mexico’s balance of trade but the benefits have been subject to the economic fluctuations such as the 1974 maquiladora retrenchment. The value of training the maquiladora workers have received has been hard to assess, Clement contends, and there’s a similar dearth of hard evidence as to whether the plants' presence near the borders has increased Mexican immigration from the interior, something no one wanted, he says. Clement further asserts that against any benefits must be weighed not only national costs to Mexico, such as the extent to which it has allowed outsiders to dictate its policies, but also the human ones, such as those Patricia Fernandez Kelly has been studying.
Fernandez is a social anthropologist who’s now working at the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at UCSD, but whose past studies of maquiladoras led her to toil for two months in a garment shop in Ciudad Juarez. One of her primary interests has been the maquiladora workers’ health. And Fernandez says her extensive research revealed workers to suffer a host of work-related problems: deteriorated vision (due to the close work), anemia (caused by the lead fumes released in soldering), nervous disorders (springing from the pressure to fill high quotas), and stomach problems (traceable, Fernandez says, to workers skipping breakfast in order to make the early shifts).
She becomes angry when asked to compare conditions in the maquiladoras with those in similar Mexican plants. Health and safety conditions in the latter may indeed be worse, she concedes, but adds that she doesn’t think that’s a fair comparison. “These are international companies, and the standards for judging them should not come from vulnerable, weak national industries.” Instead Fernandez argues that the maquiladoras should follow the same standards required by their home countries. While Homero Reyes says he believes most of the Tijuana plants in fact are following American standards, Fernandez is incredulous. “My general impression is that the majority of the maquiladoras do not implement any kinds of protective policies for the workers, nor are the workers provided with information about the substances they are handling.”
Instead the anthropologist claims the companies tend to run through workers like so much Kleenex, hiring the fresh young Mexican girls with their uncannily accurate eyesight, then subtly encouraging them to quit (by shift and task changes) as their vision blurs, their productivity drops, and their political restiveness increases. Fernandez says that many of the women need no encouragement to quit working as they marry and begin to raise families, but she declares truculently, “I’ve found that the companies don’t want to maintain a long-standing work force.” She’d get an argument from Maria Francisca Garcia Ramirez.
Garcia is thirty-four years old and for the past eleven years she’s worked for the same maquiladora, a company called IMEC, which manufactures a broad variety of electronics components. She was born in a small town in Sinaloa to a family of nine children, and came with four friends to seek her fortune in the big city when she was about twenty. She says first she got a job working in a doctor’s office, but soon she heard about the maquiladoras. When she verified that indeed the salaries there were higher, she submitted to IMEC’s battery of mathematical and physiological tests. She passed them and for a while worked in a small IMEC plant, then she transferred to the main factory in downtown Tijuana. She’s been there ever since, and in that time she's come to her own conclusions about why so many workers leave after a few years.
“A lot of them aren’t responsible,” she says in Spanish. “They get bored. They think the work’s too easy. Some of them leave and then come back later.” She’s convinced that the company prefers for workers to stay on, if only because of the need for training and temporarily lower productivity which comes with each replacement worker. Seniority at IMEC is not rewarded monetarily, however. After all these years, Garcia is still making the minimum wage.
Garcia is single, so the demands of a husband and family never tempted her to quit, but she admits boredom is a constant enemy. She says sometimes the tedium rises up and strikes her almost physically. “Sometimes I think about leaving. But then I think I haven’t studied. Work is difficult to find. So I let it pass. And it passes.” She’d like to stick it out for four or five more years and then retire on the small savings she’s accumulated. With a flash of humor, she says she hopes she doesn’t get too fed up first.
Today Garcia is working in a room along with maybe twenty-five other women. She sits at a scuffed formica countertop in front of a box full of identical metal components. With a tweezers she plucks up other parts that look like tiny silver thimbles and places them one by one on the round gold heads of the boxed components. She also takes narrow strips of aluminum foil and wraps small pieces of it around the golden wires running out of the thimble-covered gold domes. That’s ail there is to this job, which Garcia says she’s been assigned to as a break from the more eye-straining microscopic work.
After all these years at such labor, however, Garcia’s mascara-accented eyes still require no glasses. She wears her hair in a short, stylish bob which emphasizes the roundness of her face. Under the royal-blue IMEC work jacket, she wears a pink cotton blouse which matches her darker, plum-colored slacks and fluorescent-plum nail polish. But she hasn’t spent all her weekly salary of $58.80 on personal adornment. In fact, with the wages she saved from IMEC she managed to send for all her family in Sinaloa and have them join her. Now she lives with her parents and a few siblings in one of the government-built apartments in the Lomas de Porvenir section near Tijuana’s beach area. From there it’s a forty-five-minute bus ride to the plant, but Garcia says there’s “buen servicio.”
So the life of a whole family of eleven people has been improved by one person’s working in a maquiladora. That’s the way Howard Boysen tends to see examples of employees like Garcia. Boysen is president of IMEC and, rather than appearing defensive about the maquiladora program, he’s almost aggressively proud of the effects of the foreign plants’ presence in Tijuana. “This [border industrial] program is helping to promote the emergence of a middle-class here. These people are becoming responsible citizens, wage earners, who have no intention of jumping the border. And where else in Mexico are they going to acquire these skills? We’ve seen guys go off to start their own companies. One is now the pizza king of Tijuana. Another guy who was an electronics engineer is now an aide to Governor Roberto de la Madrid; some folks say he may be governor one day.” With great delight Boysen tells how a spunky parking attendant whom an IMEC executive noted and hired seven or eight years ago has since risen through the company ranks and is now managing the Boulevard Salinas facility. “Without the program, the kid would probably still be parking cars,” Boysen says.
His tone isn’t patronizing. Boysen seems the true gentleman — polite and patient and gracious. Back in the early Sixties, he was an engineer working for Fairchild Semiconductor, one of the Big Daddies of the electronics industry. Fairchild had pioneered electronic assembly work in the Far East, but by 1964 it decided to open a plant in Tijuana to produce a power transistor too bulky to ship back and forth across the Pacific. Boysen supervised the plant opening, then returned to Fairchild’s headquarters in Mountain View. In a typical electronics industry slump, Fairchild later decided to close the plant, whereupon a group of employees formed IMEC and carried on independently for a while. Eventually, however, the Republic Corporation in Century City bought IMEC and hired Boysen away from Fairchild to help launch IMEC into the big-time semiconductor business.
Today the company’s headquarters are in a gleaming suburban commercial park near the Twenty-fourth Street trolley station in National City, but Boysen seems as much at home in his Mexican factories a dozen miles to the south. One is located in a converted discount supermarket just east of the El Rodeo restaurant on Boulevard Salinas. Today a company volleyball net fills the parking lot in front of the building, where about 200 employees work. The company’s oldest, largest factory, the one where Garcia works, is located in downtown Tijuana on Negrete, just a few blocks from the Jai Alai palace and right next door to the San Jose Turkish bathhouse. The only clue to the factory’s presence is a black glass door labeled “IMEC.” It’s almost impossible to believe that behind the glass door is a labyrinthine set of work rooms stretching all the way over to the next block, Madera, and inside those rooms are 600 employees working on what Boysen describes as “high-technology electronics, really state-of-the-art type stuff.”
The workers sit in room after room full of long tables, holding the shiny metallic matter that constitutes the brains of our modern machines. Hunched over microscopes, some of the women are inspecting integrated circuits, peering at the same magnified patterns over and over again. “In their minds they’re evaluating perhaps fifteen to twenty items,” Boysen explains. Other workers sit at ungainly “micromanipulator” machines which allow them to bond aluminum wire one-thousandth of an inch in diameter to precise points on integrated-circuit chips. Boysen says this is the most difficult job in electronics assembly. It takes the women six to eight weeks to leam how to do it, and requires an “almost artistic ability,” Boysen says.
As with most maquiladoras, the majority of these workers are women, something Boysen explains by citing a superior hand-eye coordination, which he says has been well documented in objective scientific testing. “It would drive a man nuts to do that type of work,” he adds. The average seniority of IMEC workers is three to four years, he claims. Furthermore, increasing numbers of the women are bucking the Mexican cultural pattern and continuing to work after they marry. “The inflation doesn't permit the man to support the family alone,” one male Mexican manager explains.
In addition to the two main plants, IMEC just converted a former Calimax (supermarket) warehouse into a third, and Boysen thinks his company will open yet a fourth plant later this fall. "I'm fairly bullish on Mexico,” he says, although it’s a tempered optimism. Boysen watched the Tijuana operation shrink from 1200 to 300 workers during the 1974 recession, and he says Mexican political and labor developments could drastically affect the maquiladoras' future. However, he also sees the potential for Mexico satisfying a growing American hunger for unskilled labor. “In 1940 some seventy to eighty percent of the U.S. work force had less than a high school education. In the last ten years, over ninety percent had high school or greater. So the unskilled labor pool has completely flip-flopped. It’s predicted that in the year 2000 the number of Americans with less than high school will go to zero. Where is the unskilled, trainable labor going to come from in the U.S.?”
To get such labor for electronics assembly in San Diego today costs six to seven dollars an hour in direct wages, he says, a figure which climbs to ten to twelve dollars an hour when all the fringes and manufacturing overhead are added in. In contrast, Boysen can charge his customers $4.50 an hour for the Mexican service (since the Mexican labor, including direct wages and fringes, costs him between $1.75 and $1.90 an hour). And he says the quality of work is superior.
“You know the image of Mexicans still includes the siesta syndrome. But nothing could be further from the truth. We’ve handled over a billion dollars worth of electronics over the years, and I can say that the productivity and quality of the Mexican workers equals or surpasses anything you’ll find in the Orient or in any other part of the world, given the proper training and tools. And both surpass the U.S. levels.” Boysen blames a loss of “some of our work ethic” for the inferior U.S. productivity. “And also the motives for working have to enter into it. A lot of these [Mexican) young women are the principal wage earners of their families. That’s different from the housewife in the U.S. who’s saving up for a new sofa or a new car.”
And yet despite that higher quality of Mexican labor, the wage rates have risen slower than the rest of the world, Boysen says. “The electronics industry has been chasing lower-cost labor all over the world. And it used to be that the difference between the cost of doing business in Mexico versus Korea or Taiwan was so great that most of the electronics firms put up with the Orient.” But he points out that the logistical problems of dealing with the Orient are much higher than those in Mexico. Today he says wage rates run between fifty cents and a dollar per hour in Asia, but “the problem is how long will it be that? It used to be nine cents an hour.” If the difference between the Asian and Mexican rates is slowly but surely narrowing, why not go to Mexico? Boysen asks.
So, are Boysen and Laurino and Robbins and Mulcahy benefactors or bad guys? Exploiters or angels? And is a young woman named Rosa Imelda Amezquita Perez a victim or a beneficiary?
Rosa is a friendly girl, just turned sixteen, but she would probably blink and fall silent were such a question put to her. She finished the sixth grade of school, but after that she sat at home, waiting to get old enough to take a job with which she could help out her family. When she heard about the IMEC opening from two family friends employed there, she applied eagerly and endured the hassle of getting special permission to work before her sixteenth birthday. She finally started four months ago.
She says her parents were delighted. The family moved to Tijuana twelve years ago from the city of Leon in the state of Guanajuato. There Rosa’s father had been a shoemaker, but work was limited. Now he spends most of his time laying tiles in Santa Ana (California), returning home to be with his family on weekends. He and his wife have seven children, including Rosa, and they all live in a pleasant, government-built duplex out near the University of Baja California in the Mexican section of Otay Mesa.
Rosa says it takes a half hour to an hour to make the bus trip from there to the downtown factory, so she must rise at 4:30 every morning and leave her house by five to insure reaching the plant by six. The doors close five to ten minutes after then, and late workers receive a form of “demerits.” However, the early start seems to bother her less than the work itself. Despite the excitement of finally being out of the house and earning money, Rosa’s own job has already settled into monotony. She sits at one of the omnipresent benches and uses a machine to wrap coppery wire around a tiny widget she says is a transformer. It’s work which requires concentration, yet which at the same time dopes the mind with boredom; Rosa looks forward to Saturdays when IMEC permits the workers to listen to music.
Her particular task is also rough on her fingers. Although she wears protective rubber finger guards, she peels them back to reveal callouses and cuts. She seems an unself-conscious girl. She wears blue jeans, a Madras plaid shirt piped with white trim, and no make-up. Her shoulder-length chestnut hair looks as though it could use a good brushing. She's been giving part of her sixty or so dollars a week take-home pay to her parents. But part of it she just began using for something that makes her eyes light up.
She’s just enrolled at the Academia, a business school located on Third Street, where she’s begun attending classes five days a week. She gets out of her factory at 2:30, and the classes run from four to eight at night, whereupon she catches the bus back to her home on the mesa.
It’s a long day, but Rosa says, “If 1 don’t study. I'll never leave here.” And of course she wants to leave. She doesn’t like the factory work; she says no one in the plant really does. It’s hot and sweaty and boring and at night her fingers ache with the effort. “I am going to leave,” she says with a note of resolve surprisingly strong in her teen-aged voice. But for the moment, it’s better than nothing. □