The slaves who make our T-shirts

 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.



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"

Maya (not her real name), 31, worked in a maquila near Guatemala city for 12 years before being fired in 2009. Although she now works in a clothes shop, she preferred not to give her name and photo for fear of being “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.


“We were expected to produce between 1,500 to 2,000 garments each per day”


Psychologically, the work pace was exhausting. We worked from 10 to 16 hours a day [the legal work day in Guatemala is 8 hours, but there is no limit to the overtime a worker can provide] at a frenzied pace, and weren’t allowed to take breaks except for a very quick lunch. Our managers expected us to produce between 1,500 and 2,000 finished garments each per day! They kept yelling at us to go faster, threatening and eventually firing whoever wasn’t deemed fast enough. We could be fired from one minute to the next, with no notice. There were also cases of physical abuse: I personally witnessed a worker who got into an argument with a manager being severely beaten, and there were regular stories of sexual harassment.


“Our pay was not enough to live by”


Our pay wasn’t regular – basically, we were paid according to the number of overtime hours we did. Even if we worked 3, 4 extra hours, the pay we received, on average 750 quetzales [66.75 euros] per month was barely enough to live by.


We were aware that our rights weren’t respected, of course, but we knew that if we spoke up, we would be fired and then blacklisted in every maquila around the country. So for a long time no-one dared complain or take action. In that sense, “Medecins du Monde” helped us a lot because their free medical centre became a place where we could share some of our problems. They saw that many of us were psychologically very low, and publicly demanded better work conditions for us.


Maquila workers queue up in front of MDMs free medical centre in Guatemala city.


“People like us get very little attention – let alone help, from the government”


In recent years, however, there have been more and more voices speaking out to denounce abuses in maquilas, but so far they have failed to change anything. Last year, a union tried to organise a strike in a maquila, but the management responded by firing all syndicated workers. People like us get very little attention, let alone help, from the government – probably because maquila owners pay off officials and politicians for them to turn a blind eye on abuses.


I can’t wish for the end of maquilas, because although the work is hard, they bring jobs to thousands of people and development to my country. But I hope that in the future, growing public awareness will lead to concrete action to make sure that the rights of the women and men who keep these factories going are no longer violated every single day.

All photos by Lam Duc Hien, courtesy of Médecins du Monde Guatemala.


Post written with France 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.