Op-Ed: Maquiladora Factory Hands Pay the Price for America’s Lifestyle

Workers a few miles south of the U.S. border are a world away from fair labor protections, while filling our homes with cheap electronic luxuries.

Maquiladora workers meet with the Comite de Apoyo (Committee of Support), a nonprofit that educates women, the primary workforce of the maquiladoras, on their rights under Mexican law. (Photo: Courtesy Alan Pogue/Texas Center for Documentary Photography)

Oct 31, 2012

We are all Rosa.

Linger over her picture below—the one in which she embraces her two youngest. She is the mother of eight kids. She is a maquiladora Madonna.

Please don’t turn away when you see...her...hands.

Rosa Moreno lost her hands while pursuing the dream of American manufacturers to exploit foreign labor in the production of cheap consumer goods. (Photo: Courtesy Alan Pogue/Texas Center for Documentary Photography)

Instead, stop and count your blessings as an American and consider what this story is trying to tell you.

It is the same when we look at flat-screen TVs and other consumer electronics in the stores.

Rosa was a maquiladora worker making flat-screen TVs in Reynosa, just across the U.S. border from McAllen, Texas.

MORE: Farmers Suffer Shocking Rates of Amputation From Workplace Injuries

A machine that stamps a flat piece of steel into a part needs tons of force: 200 tons. 1,000 tons. 2,000 tons. 

An operator activates the stamper slamming down, after positioning the work under it and standing back. A switch requiring both hands—well back—stamps the metal into a piece for assembly. BAM remove, position BAM....

Workers are required to stamp out as many pieces per minute as possible.  They don’t undergo training or certification. They step up when told to—or they get fired.  

Rosa had eight kids and a husband—also a maquiladora worker—who had been disabled after working with toxic chemicals.

At two in the morning in February 2011 the accident happened...

She had to stand there...

For ten minutes, and stay collected while several coworkers figured out how to get the stamping press up—off of her hands. It had malfunctioned and suddenly activated without the on buttons being pushed, while Rosa was positioning the piece of steel.

She had to be clear headed. She had to win an argument about which hospital to be taken to.

The companies discourage workers hurt in accidents from going to the Mexican government-funded Social Security hospitals—because




To induce Rosa NOT to go to the hospital she wanted to go to, management refused to call an ambulance.

She had to be determined enough to walk out to a coworker’s car with hands crushed into the mesh of the flat screen TV.  Flat. As. Tortillas.

She knew an injury like this was possible. Everyone knows.  Another coworker had his head and shoulders under the press when it suddenly slammed down.

More than 1 million people now work in maquiladoras within a quick truck trip of U.S. retailers—and just outside U.S. jurisdiction, where laws protect workers.

That many people working as fast as they can—lest they be replaced—working 8- to 10-hour days, plus overtime, which they might not get paid for, can produce a lot of stuff.

Rosa’s hands are what saving on labor costs means. This is what it looks like. This is offshoring. Americans have fought for two centuries for the laws that protect workers. Before then, people like Rosa might die in the streets of the U.S., starving beggars.

Rosa was a go-to hard worker. She was earning $1.75 an hour.

In the U.S., a union machinist beginning as Class 4, makes $15 an hour starting. After six years, they make 34 bucks an hour—and they could do better. An American union machinist—with more training—can move up to class 5,6,7 on up to class 11.

In the U.S., workers don’t even touch a machine like the one that mangled Rosa without training and certification first.

In the U.S., if a production line had machines with safety devices removed or disabled because they slowed things down, there would be investigations and probably very—steep—fines.

There would be proper maintenance. Workers like Rosa would be covered under workman’s comp, and she would have other insurance.

Rosa would already have medical treatment, prosthetic hands and rehabilitation. It would be possible for her to work again. She is only 39.

Rosa’s hands are what saving on labor costs means. This is what it looks like. This is offshoring.

Americans have fought for two centuries for the laws that protect workers. Before then, people like Rosa would die in the streets of the U.S., starving beggars.

When you buy a TV, your money could support fair wages for the work that went into it. Instead, it enriches those who put these plants outside U.S. law and where they are hidden from view.

Ironically, these workers who make communications miracles often can’t afford telephones.

And these people don’t have computers.

But we do.

We can help someone brave enough to allow her story to be told, by simply spreading it to others.

We could even chip in to defray the cost of maybe getting Rosa prosthetic hands.

Imagine working hard for 14 dollars a day and then add that much to Rosa’s PayPal panel. (Click here, and scroll down.)

But an even bigger contribution would be this:

Next time there is a discussion about offshoring American manufacturing or international trade agreements, think of Rosa and pass her story along again.

She worked for Zenith, which was bought several years ago by the Korean corporation LG. Rosa’s hands are a story of globalization and the new world order. Legal responsibility is a big game of Keep Away. We The People must become more aware.

Take a moment to think of any foreign workers who assembled your electronic products. Do you have something to say to them? Share it in COMMENTS.

Alan Pogue is a photographer based in Austin, Texas. After a tour of duty as a battlefield medic in Vietnam, Alan began using photography to “look into society’s wounds for the possibility of cultural healing.” He has sought that healing among Afghan refugees in Pakistan, migrant workers along the US/Mexico border, in Iraq under the Western embargo, and on Texas’s Death Row. His immediate goal is to raise money for prosthetics for Rosa Moreno, while heightening an awareness of our common humanity. Email Alan

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