Textile plants called maquilas are considered to be one of the main driving forces of Guatemala’s economy. But behind the factory doors lies a world of overworked and underpaid workers, with no job security and virtually no rights. A “maquiladora” gave us her account.
Guatemala exports more than $1.5 billion (1.08 billion euros) worth of garments every year, mostly to the United States and Europe. There are currently 156 listed maquilas in the country, most of which are Korean-owned. According to the Guatemalan texile and clothes industry commission (VESTEX), over 56,000 people are employed directly by maquilas.
However, despite a "code of conduct" elaborated by Vestex in 1996 to ensure fair working conditions for all maquiladoras (textile workers) and signed by over 120 maquilas, a study carried out by French NGO “Medecins du Monde” (MDM) in 2010 showed that many employers do not comply with the code’s required standards, which are voluntary, and not mandatory. Most maquiladoras work 11 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week, for less than the legal Guatemalan minimum wage. What’s more, MDM estimates that 90% of "maquiladoras" have been subjected to verbal or physical violence in their workplace at least once.
"If we speak up, we are fired and blacklisted"
I worked in a maquila run by Koreans which produced mainly cotton T-shirts and shorts. Conditions were very hard both physically and psychologically. Physically, there was always the risk of being injured by the machinery, which was often old and not very safe. Cuts and needle stabs and the occasional electric shock were part of our daily routine. My job involved sitting at a sewing machine, but the so-called ‘manual’ workers, those who carry the material and work the heavy machinery, stand all day and are not allowed to sit.Maquiladoras often suffer from wrist or finger injuries as well as chronic joint pain or inflamations. They have no health insurance and little or no access to healthcare.
All photos by Lam Duc Hien, courtesy of Médecins du Monde Guatemala.
Post written with France 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.