Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean

LABOUR-MEXICO: “They First Asked if I Was Pregnant”

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Mar 5 2009 (IPS) - When Paulina was interviewed for a job at a local Wal-Mart in the Mexican capital, the first thing she was asked was whether she was pregnant – a question she did not know at the time was illegal.

“I had to present a certificate of my state of health to get the job,” Paulina tells IPS in the parking lot of one of the U.S. retail giant’s stores in Mexico City.

For fear of reprisals, the only way the 31-year-old cashier would agree to talk to a reporter about her experience with her employer was by using a false name and meeting in the parking lot.

Paulina’s case is an illustration of the persistence of discriminatory practices that violate the labour rights of women in Mexico, even though they represent 42 percent of the workforce in Latin America’s second-biggest economy.

Valeria Scorza, director of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project (PRODESC), pointed out to IPS that domestic workers, maquila (export assembly factory) workers, miners and rural labourers face the worst labour rights abuses, to which women are especially vulnerable.

“In those jobs, there are risks to health and exposure to toxic substances, and no access to social security coverage,” said Scorza, whose organisation emerged in 2005 to fight for respect for economic, social and cultural rights.

According to official statistics, 14 million women work in wage-earning jobs in Mexico (a figure that does not take into account those who are active in the informal sector of the economy).

The National Women’s Institute (INMUJERES) says 94 percent of those who work in agriculture and 33 percent of those who work in the construction industry have no health insurance.

And if women holding steady wage-earning jobs have little to no protection or benefits, those working in informal sector activities have none at all, although there are no reliable or precise statistics on the proportion of women in the informal economy, said Scorza.

“In agricultural work and the maquilas, major brands wash their hands of social responsibility along the entire labour chain,” Emilienne De León, executive director of Semillas, a non-governmental group that advocates gender rights in Mexico, told IPS.

Employers act with impunity, said the experts, because they know the Secretariat of Labour has only 200 inspectors to monitor compliance with labour rights in a country of 105 million people and a territory of nearly two million square kilometres.

According to Inmujeres, only 43 percent of working women in Mexico enjoy any kind of labour protection, and just 35 percent have access to health care and other benefits.

The sector where the largest proportion of women have access to the rights to which they are entitled – 28 percent – is services.

In the maquilas, especially the plants that operate in northern Mexico along the U.S. border, the situation is disturbing, Beatriz Luján, a leader of the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo, a labour union federation that represents 35,000 members, told IPS.

“In the maquilas there is no labour mobility. In some plants, the high-level posts are off-limits to women. In addition, sexual harassment is widespread, and most of the time it is not reported,” she said.

In Mexico’s northern states, more than 500,000 women work in textile factories and plants that assemble products for the auto industry, like seats and rugs.

The word “maquila” was taken from a medieval Spanish term referring to the practice of millers being paid for their services by local farmers with a portion of the flour. In time, the term came to refer to the processing of products on behalf of others.

Today, maquilas in Mexico and Central America are factories that import materials or parts to make goods for re-export, enjoying major tax exemptions.

Since they emerged in the 1960s, maquilas have drawn fierce criticism from local and international human rights groups and trade unions because of the often exploitative work conditions, which are facilitated by the legal limbo in which such plants operate.

The Mexican constitution and federal labour laws prohibit labour discrimination on grounds of age, gender, pregnancy, religion, race, skin colour or other conditions. It is also illegal in Mexico to fire pregnant women.

Wal-Mart – a case in point

To illustrate the failure to respect the labour rights of women and minors, PRODESC carried out an investigation into conditions at Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and the biggest private sector employer in Mexico.

The report, “Lo barato sale caro: violaciones a los derechos humanos laborales en Wal-Mart México” (roughly, “cheap is costly: violations of labour and human rights in Wal-Mart Mexico”), concluded that the corporation violates rights in terms of wages, health, security, hours, overtime pay and labour benefits. It also blocks the creation of trade unions under the argument that its employees are considered “associates.”

The title of the report refers to the corporation’s slogan, Always Low Prices.

De León stressed that in a heavily concentrated market like Mexico’s, Wal-Mart’s behaviour was especially damaging because other companies, to compete with the retail giant, imitate its negative practices and lower their labour standards and conditions.

One of the authors of the report, PRODESC researcher Shaila Toledo, pointed out that women workers suffer discrimination and exploitation, such as being required to take a pregnancy test before they are hired, and being bypassed for promotion.

The report describes the conditions in which around 130,000 employees work in Wal-Mart, which first arrived on the scene in Mexico in 1991 and now operates 895 stores in 141 cities around the country.

The study, carried out in June and July 2007 among 247 female employees in eight of Mexico’s 32 states, found that 52 percent of those surveyed said their wages, which range between 200 and 350 dollars a month, were too low to cover their basic needs.

Wal-Mart pays its “associates” with a bank card that employees can only use to withdraw their salaries at the store’s ATM machines, and with an electronic card usable only for purchasing products at Wal-Mart.

In September 2008, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the electronic cards usable only in Wal-Mart stores were unconstitutional and reminiscent of exploitative 19th century wage schemes in which rural workers were only allowed to shop at the “company store,” at outrageously high prices, a practice that kept them in a state of debt bondage.

However, the ruling only applied to the worker who brought the lawsuit.

“I don’t know whether the Supreme Court decision will influence the way Wal-Mart does things,” said Toledo.

When the PRODESC report was presented, the company dismissed it as biased and inaccurate, while arguing that its “associates” earned higher wages with better benefits than those prescribed by Mexican law.

In response to the report’s survey results, in which women said they suffered discrimination when it came to promotions, and were paid less than men for the same jobs, the company stated that more than 11,600 female workers were promoted in 2008.

The head of Semillas pointed out that many transnational corporations, especially in the textile industry, have cut off deliveries of parts and components to firms that violate labour rights. “The same kind of measure could be taken in the case of Wal-Mart,” said De León.

In the United States, where Wal-Mart has some 3,400 stores and 1.6 million employees, it is facing a class action lawsuit for gender discrimination, the largest private civil rights case in U.S. history.

Although when she applied for a job at Wal-Mart, Paulina did not know it was illegal to ask her whether she was pregnant, she felt humiliated by this and other personal questions that she was required to answer, like at least half of the female workers interviewed by PRODESC.

She has also heard of women who were fired, allegedly for “security problems,” when their bosses found out they were pregnant, as occurred in two percent of the cases studied by the report.

Paulina said she herself has been bypassed for promotion: “I have a perfect record, but four months ago they chose a male co-worker, who already earned more than me as a cashier, for the post of supervisor.”

“Women make up a majority of the employees, but men are the privileged ones,” she complained.

Organisations like PRODESC and Semillas have launched awareness-raising campaigns and programmes in maquilas and mining companies, to help female workers learn about their rights.

The report on Wal-Mart also found violations of the rights of 75,000 underage employees who work as bag boys or baggers.

The baggers, known as “cerillos” in Mexico, do not earn wages, and work for tips. Nevertheless, the company requires them to do things like collect the shopping carts and stock the shelves. They also work much longer days than the six hours that minors can legally work

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