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“Never Think You’re Worth Less Than the Boss”: How a Mexican Seamstress Learned to Speak Up for Justice

Ana Juárez started her first job at the age of fifteen, as a sewing operator’s assistant in Mexico. She was working at a local contracting company of global brands like Levi Strauss & Co. when senior workers began to organize.
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This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.

Sewing photo from Shutterstock

Photo from Shutterstock.

Name: Ana Juárez
Age: 31

Occupation: Garment worker

Birthplace: Ecatepec, Mexico
Interviewed in: Mexico City, Mexico

Tehuacán, Mexico, was one of the main garment manufacturing hubs for brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters, Express, Gap, Levi Strauss & Co., and Calvin Klein for nearly a decade after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. Then, in the 2000s, transnational clothing manufacturers began sourcing their goods in countries where labor was even cheaper, including Honduras, Guatemala, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. The rapid arrival and departure of garment work in Tehuacán brought thousands to the region during the nineties and left thousands underemployed after the boom ended in the 2000s.

Garments
Explainer: Garment Manufacturing
and Human Rights

We first talk to Ana Juárez in early 2011 while she is living in Mexico City and looking for work. At the time, Ana has worked almost half her life in the clothing industry in Tehuacán: she started her first job at the age of fifteen, as a sewing operator’s assistant. In the years of garment work that followed, Ana experienced harassment, insults, mistreatment, poverty wages, unjustified layoffs, and poor work conditions.

In 2006, Ana was working at Vaqueros Navarra, a local contracting company of global brands like Levi Strauss & Co. That year, senior workers began to organize informally to demand across-the-board raises after two years without any increase in worker pay. Though they were able to win a 7 percent raise for all workers, the factory’s management responded to the action with a chain of layoffs and counteractions and ultimately closed the factory the following year. Because Ana emerged as a leader of the workers’ attempts to formally unionize, she found herself on a blacklist that kept her out of garment work in the region.


HOW CAN I NOT GO TO SCHOOL?

I’m originally from Ecatepec, near Mexico City. There are twelve kids in our family. Antonio is the oldest, and there are two boys and ten girls. I’m one of the youngest. I have a twin sister named Maria, and there’s only one younger sibling, our sister Lucero.

The story of my family is like that of many others who ended up in Tehuacán—my father struggled a lot before we went there. My dad was a mechanic in Mexico City. He worked at Ruta 100 for fifteen years.

Tehuacán is a city of over 250,000 inhabitants in the state of Puebla, 160 miles southeast of Mexico City. Ruta 100 was a federally operated bus transit line that ran throughout Mexico City and surrounding states. The route opened in 1981 and shut down in 1995, when it was replaced by private bus lines.

The friends he had at Ruta 100 were like family. We would go out to dinners or parties with other workers’ families, and my parents would be like, “This is your uncle,” although they’d just be talking about some guy who worked with my dad. My dad’s co-workers came to my house many times to drop him off after work, and my mom would ask them, “Have you eaten? No? Come in and have an egg at least, or beans, or tortillas with salsa.” Childhood with my parents was very good until Ruta 100 shut down. Our lives quickly changed after that.

In early 1995, we heard that Ruta 100 was bankrupt and would close. The Thursday before Holy Week, a bunch of my dad’s friends came over as usual for a few drinks at our house. My mom started talking with one of them, and he told her that it was important for them to have fun—be with friends, have parties, because things were so stressful. My mom told them, no, what they really needed was to find new work, since they’d all be out of jobs soon. That weekend, maybe around two in the morning on Saturday, twelve of my dad’s friends came looking for him. They came practically in their underwear and pajamas, and they told my dad, “The control center has just been taken. Get your coat, let’s go!”

When my dad and his co-workers got to the control center, the police had occupied the building. They were officially shutting down Ruta 100 for good. Many of the workers couldn’t even get their clothes that were inside. They left with what they had in their hands. I remember that my dad said he left with only a piece of cheese he’d had in his locker.

After that, my dad couldn’t find work, and unfortunately he fell into alcoholism. And soon my parents didn’t have the money to send us to school. For me, it was very traumatic. Before the layoffs, money was tight, and sometimes we had to go without new shoes or clothes. But now that my dad was without work, we couldn’t afford even to go to school. My parents needed us to help support the family. I was only twelve, and I had it stuck in my mind that I would go back to school soon, after my dad got a new job and things returned to normal. I would think, How can I not go school? I want to study.

I remember times that we just didn’t have anything to eat. So I had to go and collect leftover food from other families. It was my sister Azucena, who was two years older, me, my twin sister Maria, and Lucero, though Lucero was too embarrassed to go out collecting leftovers. My mom would start crying because she didn’t have money to feed us, and she’d go to the neighbors’ to wash their clothes or to do whatever work she could find. I started thinking, I don’t want to just wait around for someone to give me food. And so my sisters and I started to look for any kind of work. While my mom washed clothes, we would go to the market to see what we could do. We might ask to help the man selling tortillas, for instance, and he’d give us tortillas as payment. I’d babysit neighbors’ children, I’d wash clothes for people. It was all about looking around, getting ahead.

"YOUR MOM LEFT"

A telesecundaria is a school with classes broadcast through a public-access television channel.

Since we couldn’t afford to buy supplies for school, I started studying in a telesecundaria when I was around fourteen, in 1997. I dreamed of being in a normal school, but I actually had a very good experience in the telesecundaria. My older brother Gerardo was in his twenties and was good at math, and he would help me out a lot. He’d say, “Maybe Dad doesn’t scold you but I will. You have to show me your tests, show me your homework.” And he was the one who watched over me very carefully.

Unfortunately, the following year, in 1998, my mom decided to leave the house. She couldn’t put up with my dad anymore. She didn’t tell me she was leaving. She just left one day when all of us kids were at school. And when I got home that night, my dad said, “Sit down, I need to talk to you. Your mom left.” I asked him where, and he said, “She went to Tehuacán, she’s living with your grandfather, and she won’t come back. You can go live with her or you can stay here.” My sisters Maria and Azucena left to go live with her, but I stayed at first, because I wanted to continue studying and be around my older brother. I also went to work part-time in a clothing store. But then my dad became very violent with us kids. And then, a month after my mom left, her dad passed away. So I went to Tehuacán for my grandfather’s funeral. I said to my mother then, “I want to be with you, not with Dad anymore.” And so I went to live in Tehuacán.

“DO WHAT YOU’RE TOLD, AND DON’T TALK BACK TO YOUR BOSS”

I was fifteen when I moved into my grandfather’s old house in Tehuacán at the end of 1998. I lived with my mother, my two aunts Juana and Rafaela, who were twenty-six and twenty-seven, and my sisters Maria and Azucena.

My aunts worked as sewing-machine operators in a jeans factory. My mother had always done things like wash clothes, iron, but she was older and did more work around the house—she didn’t bring in much income.

 

When I got to Tehuacán, it was clear that I needed to work to help support the household. I told one of my aunts, “I don’t want to work in a factory; I know how to do other things, like sales.” But my aunts convinced me, and they got me and my two sisters in to work at Vaqueros Navarra when it was called Calle Isabel la Católica.

Vaqueros Navarra was a maquila—a factory set up in a free-trade zone immune from import and export taxes. Isabel la Católica is the street where the maquila was located.

The factory was growing fast at the time and they needed new workers to keep up with orders from companies like Abercrombie, Lee, and other big brands. This was in December of 1998, and I was fifteen, almost sixteen at the time.

I started working as a manual, or manual laborer, who helped the sewing-machine operators. Most days we’d get to work at eight a.m. and start assisting the sewing-machine operators right away. Where I first worked, they were sewing back pockets of jeans, and then it would be my job to gather up the pockets into bundles of fifty, tie them up, and send them off down the line where they’d be sewn onto the jeans.

I’d be helping two machine operators at the same time, and they had quotas. When they finished their work for the day, they could leave. For example, they might each have to sew fifteen hundred pockets that day, which meant that I had to make sure that the three thousand pockets they made between them got bundled. If there was a mistake with how they were made, I’d have to send them back or find another operator who could fix them before I was done.

I remember one of my first days there, one of the operators I was working with, called Blondie, said, “If you hurry up, we can leave early.” But Blondie and the other operator were too fast for me at first. The pockets would pile up on me and then a supervisor would come by and yell at me, cursing at me and insulting me. I started crying in front of everyone, and then I went to the bathroom and cried there. Then I came back from the bathroom and tried to act as if nothing had happened, and Blondie whispered to me, “We’re going to help you with the work, but don’t tell the boss.” I was naive when I started at the clothing factory, and I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. I’d think, I just have to put up with what the bosses say.

After a couple of weeks, I caught up with the pace and could go faster. Since my supervisor saw that I hurried, he’d say, “Go to the machine over there because a girl has fallen behind.” So I would go help the other girl, but when I turned around my work had already piled up on me, and my supervisor would complain.

Even when I finished all of my work early and was supposed to go home, the line boss might tell me, “No, no, you can’t leave, go over there to lift those bags.” Basically they wanted me to work overtime when it was time for me to leave. Usually I was supposed to leave when I was done with my bundles, but many times I’d have to stay until seven thirty or even much later to finish, and I wasn’t paid overtime.

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At Navarra, my two sisters were working on line 6, and I was on line 7. At the time, I believe, there were thirteen assembly lines all together in three factory buildings at Navarra, with about 260 sewing-machine operators and bundlers in each line. The work there was really boring, especially because there were a lot of bundles to lift. I often had to stay very late. Sometimes I’d see that my older sister Azucena would leave earlier than me. “How is it that you leave early and I can’t?” I asked her. And she said, “Well, I fight back with the supervisor.” But I was afraid that I would get fired if I fought back. I’d complain to my aunts, “They always make me do more than I’m supposed to.” And they’d say, “Well too bad, that’s work. Just stay and do what you’re told, and don’t talk back to your boss.”

My aunts were very nosy. We didn’t have privacy in the house we shared. My aunts would come into the room where my mom and sisters and I were staying whenever they pleased. They’d even sleep there with us sometimes. My sisters and I would hesitate to talk about work in front of them. Even though they were the ones who had helped us get in the company, they were also always telling us what to do and what not to do, how to behave. My aunts had the mentality that if a boss tells them to work longer hours than they’re supposed to, then they work for him for free. But I understand how they could get that way. At first when I started working at the factory, I was grateful to have a job at all. I got to the point of thinking that the boss was very good, that it was only because he employed me that I could eat.

The work wasn’t just boring, it was dangerous. One Friday about a month or so after we started working, my sister Maria came home with her waist hurting a lot. She’d been given a bundle of about a hundred finished jeans to carry—it was bigger than it was supposed to be—and she’d strained her back. By Sunday morning, she couldn’t get out of bed, and she screamed because she couldn’t feel her legs. At the time we didn’t know if she was paralyzed. We took her to the regional hospital, where they told us we should apply for workers’ compensation. But my sister was too young to work legally and she wasn’t qualified for social security benefits, so we just had to wait out her injury until she could work again.

It took two months for my sister to walk again. We lost my sister’s income, so during that time, my mom would take food to work for me, my aunts, and Azucena to save money on expenses. Maria would stay at home alone. We were still at our grandfather’s home at that time, and Maria told us that she heard his ghost walking around sometimes. One day after a couple of months, my mom came home after bringing us food at the factory, and to her surprise, she found my sister standing. My sister said, “All my pain is gone.” Later, Maria told me, “I heard Grandpa walk up to the door and say, ‘Stand up, you lazy girl. Your mom needs you to help her. Your mom doesn’t want to see you at home. Stand up.’” And three days later Maria went back to work.

WE JUST HAD OUR CLOTHES AND THAT WAS IT

So, by the time I was sixteen, I was living the life of an adult and going to the factory every day. But after we were working at Navarra for a few months, my aunts began to argue a lot with my mom. They wanted my grandfather’s house to themselves. Finally, in the spring of ’99, they just kicked us out of the house. We didn’t have any furniture. We didn’t have much of anything. We just had our clothes and that was it.

We rented an apartment near the factory. At first, we had to sleep on cardboard because we didn’t have a mattress. The good thing was that it was warm during the summer, and during the fall each of us had a sweater, and we’d cover ourselves with our sweaters at night. We sat on empty vegetable boxes and we cooked with a portable stove and a pan. My sisters and I took care of the expenses of the house, even though my salary was not much, just 261 pesos a week.

At the time, 261 pesos = approximately US$26.

It was hard. I would say, “In our house with Dad, we didn’t live like this. I had a bed, I had a TV to watch, I had a radio to listen to.” I remember that I sometimes dreamed of returning to live near Mexico City with my dad. I used to think, I hope my dad calls today to say, “Come home.” It was the hope that my dad might repent and that we’d return to school, that I could finally have real opportunities in life.

Sometimes my sisters and I would talk about the things we were missing. “Well, we can’t do all of that with what we earn,” we would tell each other. Because we had to pay for food and rent and utilities and we had to somehow help my mom, because she was fifty-two years old at that point, and she was not well. She had breathing problems. In Tehuacán, there was a lot of smoke from wood fires used for cooking as well as smoke from the factories, and after we moved out from my grandfather’s house, my mom got pneumonia. She was really ill, and there were nights that I was scared that she’d die and leave us there in Tehuacán, without anything, without stability.

I admit, I was angry with my life. I’d think, Why did I have to go through this? I could have had a normal life. As much as I wanted things to be the way they were before my dad lost his job, I started to realize that wouldn’t ever happen. I’d think, The problem is, Dad didn’t step up to the plate. And then with time, I began thinking that we were in Tehuacán for a reason. To realize that not all things come easy—you have to keep going and learn to overcome all the bad things that happen to you.

THE NEW SUPERVISORS FORCED ME TO STAND UP FOR MYSELF

I decided to leave Vaqueros Navarra in the fall of 1999. I hadn’t even been there for a full year, but I didn’t like the way I was treated, or the way that my sister was treated. I told my mom, “I don’t want this anymore. I can’t stand it. I’m going to look for another job.” My sister Maria left too, but Azucena stayed at Navarra—she was old enough to be employed there legally, and she was treated a little better.

I found a job at a small jeans maquila in town called Choco. When I started, the supervisor asked me, “What can you do?” I told him, “Well, I’m manual labor.” Luckily, the supervisor wasn’t a creep, and he told me, “I’m going to teach you to sew. Sit down, you’re going to learn. Do you know what a bobbin is?” I said I had more or less of an idea because we had a machine at my grandpa’s house, but I didn’t know how to sew on it. He told me, “Well, I’m going to teach you. Step on the sewing-machine pedal just a little, otherwise you’ll get your fingers caught by the needle. It can move fast.” Choco was a very small shop, but I got paid a little better, around 380 pesos a week since I was doing needlework. I worked there for a couple of months, but it was hard: it was far from where we were living, and the hours were long.

At the time, 380 pesos = approximately US$28.50.

Then one of our neighbors told us about openings at a bigger maquila called Industrias Georgia that did jeans for brands like Polo. The factory was only three blocks from our apartment, so I decided to apply. The supervisor who interviewed me asked what I could do, and I said that I could sew pockets—the fastest, easiest part of the jeans to sew. They tried me out and saw that I knew a little, but not a lot. Still, they took a chance on me and taught me how to sew more, as well as assemble parts into a finished pair of jeans, how to fold and pack the jeans—basically all the jobs that go into garment production.

At the time, 450 pesos = approximately US$33.50.

At Industrias Georgia, they paid me a little more, maybe 450 pesos a week before overtime pay. But they also treated me with respect, and that was more important to me. They didn’t insult me or my family, I didn’t have to stay late if I didn’t want to, and if I did stay late, they would pay me overtime.

In my first year at Industrias Georgia, I became very skilled as a needleworker. After a year or so, my sisters joined me there as well, and we were all important employees. Every once in a while, a representative from a brand like Polo would come and request that we produce samples for new jeans they wanted to manufacture, and my sisters and I were usually chosen to help produce the samples. The representative would watch us work on the samples, and the size of the order they placed would depend on how fast and how well we could produce the jeans. When the brand representative came, he was very good toward me and my sisters. He’d say, “You’re very good at sewing, you don’t leave behind anything that needs corrections or any extra mending, you’re fast.” I came to like sewing jeans.It was something I was good at.

But after the first year at Industrias Georgia, things began to change. I think it all happened after Vicente Fox was elected in 2000. Not long after he came into office he signed the Puebla-Panama Plan. It was like a trade agreement, and the idea was to make it easier to do business with countries south of Mexico like Panama.

The Puebla-Panama Plan was an economic development plan signed into law by President Vicente Fox in 2001. Its purpose was to enhance economic and industrial links between southern Mexican states and all of Central America and Columbia. Other than eliminating tariffs and other trade barriers, the agreement also funded industrial infrastructure such as roads and telecommunications integration.

For Tehuacán, this meant that brands that made pants in town started looking toward Central America, because labor was cheaper there. In fact, some factory owners here would take a few Tehuacán workers with them to places like Panama to teach new workers how to sew.

Suddenly, there was more pressure to hold on to clients at places like Industrias Georgia. After 2001, a lot of new supervisors were hired who were very rude. They wouldn’t say please, they would say, “I don’t give a damn, you do it, and do it faster!”

If you don’t treat me with respect, then I’ll treat you the same way. The new supervisors forced me to stand up for myself. It was there that I became very vulgar.

IF I DIED, HOW WOULD THEY PAY FOR THE BURIAL?

My sisters and I worked very hard back then. Sometimes I’d work for fourteen hours straight, but I’d tell myself, I can handle it, I can handle it. But when we finished working it was midnight, and we were very tired. Our backs ached. It was nasty. Unbearably painful.

Then around the spring of 2002, I got sick. We had a lot of orders to fill, and I was working quite a few extra late shifts, working a lot of overtime. I’d think, I can do it, I can do it. I didn’t have the luxury of going home to rest, because I knew that there were expenses coming. I had to pay the rent, pay the electricity, pay for food. I started on Monday, and all night into Tuesday morning I had a fever. I slept a little and then Tuesday morning I went to work with the fever lingering.

By Wednesday, I was getting worse and having stomach problems. And I worked like that until four in the morning on Thursday. I slept a little again and went in Thursday morning, but I wasn’t feeling well enough to work. I told my supervisor, “Give me a pass so I can go to the doctor. I’m very sick and I’ve had a fever for over three days, and it’s not going away.” He told me, “If you sacrifice a little and work tonight, I’ll give you the pass tomorrow.” That’s when I woke up. I said, “I’ve already sacrificed for you, and now being sick is what I get for trying to help you meet these orders. Go to hell.”

When I got home, I was at the point of severe dehydration. I remember I was crying, and I told my sister Maria, “Take me to the hospital, because I can’t make it.”

When we got to the hospital, the doctor who saw me told Maria, “If you hadn’t brought her right this minute, your sister might have died from her fever.” I got scared then because I thought, If I died, how would they pay for the burial?

I remember that we got there at nine, ten at night and they let me go at four in the morning. We got home walking because we didn’t have money for a taxi. I woke up the next day around eight and I still had a fever. But I told my mom, “I’m going to work.” And I was walking toward the door when I passed out. After taking some antibiotics for a few days, I started to feel better, so I went back to work. I couldn’t really afford to take much time off.

October 2 commemorates the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968, in which dozens of students and activists were killed by the Mexican army during a protest.

Then, six months after I got sick, the company shut down. It happened on October 2, 2002. It was very ironic. I remember that day well. We were all keeping up to date with the marches and protests that occur on that day. Then our supervisors told us there was no longer any work and that the severance papers were being filed. As they say, “Never forget the second of October.” I definitely won’t.

I began to cry, because that’s when I understood my dad’s experience when Ruta 100 fired him. I thought, Where am I going to work if I don’t know how to do other kinds of work? I was already used to it there; it was my job for almost three years and I was established there.

There was another problem: the owners claimed they had no money to pay us the back pay they owed us. I had weeks’ worth of overtime and unused vacation time, thousands of pesos’ worth, and we were told by our bosses that we might not get it. We were also told we might not get any severance pay, that we hadn’t worked there long enough yet. At home, our mom heard me and my sisters talking about our predicament, and she encouraged us to talk to a lawyer whom one of our cousins knew. She told us to make sure never to just give our work away. So we ended up suing for back pay and severance.

At the time, 8,000 pesos = US$600.

The company lawyer tried to negotiate with us when we met. He told me that only I would be able to get my money, but neither Maria nor Azucena would get anything, because they had been there less than a year. It was going to be given to me because of the amount of time I’d put in. In the end I was able to get 8,000 pesos by negotiating with the company lawyers.

I think the other workers resented me, though—they’d say, “Why are you suing the boss? He’s a nice guy.” Nice or not, the bosses will always win. We’ll never win, unless we demand what we’re owed.

WORKING IN A FACTORY, EVERYTHING SLIPS AWAY FROM YOU

After I was laid off from Industrias Georgia, I moved to Mexico City to look for work. I had heard rumors of blacklists for workers who sued, and I didn’t want any more conflict. Actually, the boss liked me enough that he offered to set me up at a maquila in a neighboring town even though I had sued him! It didn’t seem like an appealing place to work though, so I tried Mexico City. There I stayed with my dad in Ecatepec and made shopping bags at a small shop in La Merced, but I actually missed the work I had been doing.

La Merced is a neighborhood of Mexico City with a large open-air market.

When I first started working in a factory as a teenager, I’d think, I don’t want to end up like my aunts, chained to sewing work, dealing with the insults. Because yes, life slips away. Working in a factory, everything slips away from you. Your lungs wear out, your life runs out.

But then I thought, No, working is a way to move beyond the problems you have. The clothing factory becomes your home. For me it was about learning to be responsible and to have ambitions. That’s how I came to see the clothing factory. I also wanted to continue studying, I wanted to study medicine, and to do that I needed to work to save money.

So in May 2003, when I was twenty, I went back to Tehuacán and began working again at Vaqueros Navarra, the first company I’d worked for. My older sister Azucena was already back at Navarra, ever since Industrias Georgia closed. Maria worked elsewhere in town, but she’d eventually join us as well.

So for years I worked with Vaqueros Navarra as a needleworker, assembling completed pants. For me, there was beauty there at work. I began to enjoy myself in the clothing factory. There in the factory you get to know people. You get to know their lives, how they started out. And you begin to talk. You become part of the family. More than anything, I enjoyed making samples, models for pants. Because it made me proud to say, “I made that pair of pants.” The pants are not only a piece of clothing and nothing more. There are the workers’ experiences and life that they give each day to the clothes they sew. Tears go into it. Laughter goes into it. Dreams go into it. Many memories go into it.

WE WANTED TO KEEP OUR JOBS

I worked at Navarra again for years with everything normal. My pay was about the same as at Industrias Georgia, but at Navarra our contracts also included profit sharing, so we would usually see another 2,000 pesos once a year in May.

At the time, 2,000 pesos = approximately US$150.

Navarra was able to survive where other maquilas failed around that time because they were big. They formed an association with some other maquilas called the Navarro Group, and because of scale they could afford to offer better prices to companies like Levi’s and Gap. But they also got contracts because Navarra workers did good work, and the representatives and auditors from big brands who would come and see us work appreciated our care and speed.

The only thing I didn’t like about Navarra during the first years of my return was that I was asked to work as a comodín, or “wildcard” employee, who covered a lot of different assignments instead of just working at one sewing station. I’d make samples, make pieces like pockets or zippers, whatever was needed at the time. I made more money that way, but the hours were longer than if I had a set quota like I would have as a sewing-machine operator. But this way I also got to meet a lot of other workers, see what was going on around the factory.

In early 2006, maybe January, I first started hearing about workers organizing. We hadn’t been given a raise in two years, and some of the senior employees formed an informal commission and proposed a 20 percent raise to the bosses. I think the senior organizers never expected to win that much, but it was a place to start—maybe we’d end up with 10 percent. The workers agreed to strike, thousands of us, without any formal support from outside unions. Then one day in January four men showed up and met with company owners, and then called all the workers together during break time. They said they were representatives from CROC, and that they’d negotiated a 3 percent raise for all of us.

CROC is the Confederación Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos, or Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Farmers, a national coalition of unions in Mexico.

But none of us in the factory knew who CROC was, and none of us had signed any contract with them. We were like, “Who are these guys?” We didn’t accept the deal and carried out a work slowdown. We were making thousands fewer pieces a day than normal, and the company was losing money. Finally, after a few days, we got a 7 percent raise. We figured that was the best we could do.

As a wildcard employee, I knew the factory pretty well. Soon after our raise, I began to notice that certain people I was used to seeing weren’t around anymore. When I asked about them, I was told by supervisors that they’d been given new positions. Meanwhile, the bosses kept setting our daily quotas higher and higher, asking for faster work. Then I remember one day in April when a supervisor asked me to cover for a girl who didn’t show up that day. I was confused, since I remembered seeing her that morning. I ran into her later outside the factory, and she told me she’d been laid off that day. I started to worry.

Microphone photo by Alexis Fam
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My sisters and I did work on the side as party planners, fixing up birthday parties and videotaping them, things like that. Around that time we did a birthday party for the daughter of a man who worked in human resources at Navarra. At the party, he told us that Navarra was firing people who had been there only a few months, and also those who had been there many years. The company didn’t want to have to pay the pensions of older employees nearing retirement age, and the newer employees hadn’t been there long enough to be given a severance. He told us Maria would probably be fired, since she’d been at Navarra less than six months. And she was. Maria was laid off a few weeks later in May, along with twelve others the same day. Nobody knew what was coming next.

We were also accustomed to receiving profit share every year around May, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 pesos. That year we received virtually nothing. That month my envelope had only 125 pesos in profit sharing, when I was used to seeing thousands of pesos of profit share every year. The thing was, we were working more than ever. We didn’t believe we were getting less because of fewer orders. And we didn’t believe it was because of our 7 percent raises. What was happening was that the company was subcontracting some work to smaller maquilas in the area, small shops where brand auditors wouldn’t see what was happening and the company could make jeans without the same high standards we had in the main factory. We’d make samples and models in the main factory, but a lot of the manufacturing was shifting elsewhere.

One day in early summer of 2006, just a couple of weeks after my sister Maria had been fired, a labor rights organizer named Martín Barrios and a couple of his associates from the local Commission for Human and Labor Rights came by the factory to hand out flyers.

Martín Barrios is the director of the Commission for Human and Labor Rights, founded in Tehuacán in 1995.

The flyer invited workers to a meeting at the house of one of his associates who lived nearby. My sisters and I and some other workers began to attend meetings with Martín regularly. When we first started talking about organizing, we just wanted the layoffs to stop, and we wanted people who were laid off to get fair severance pay. Martín explained that under federal law, anyone terminated without cause was entitled to ninety days of severance, and twelve days of pay for every year served. This was important to learn about, but mostly, we wanted to keep our jobs.

We didn’t have a formal union that really represented us, but from Martín we got the idea that we could organize a collective bargaining agreement so that we could negotiate our contracts with the bosses.[24] We wanted to figure out how to negotiate contract terms directly with the bosses. There were hundreds of us participating in making a collective bargaining agreement, and we elected eleven leaders, a commission, at a meeting away from the factory. The next day, ten of those eleven workers were fired. Someone had told the boss. The factory manager distributed flyers to all us workers explaining that those who were fired were rotten apples and that the company wouldn’t employ people like that. I guess he only wanted apples that were ready to be eaten.

The next day we elected a second commission, eight workers including my older sister Azucena. They lasted only two or three days before they were fired—all but my sister. I’m not sure why she was spared; it might have been because she denied being part of the commission.

The layoffs stopped for a few weeks, but started up again. In August, Martín said to me, “There is going to be a meeting. Can you attend?” I told him, “I don’t want to lose my job right now because we’re not in the position to lose it.” Because of what I’d seen my dad go through, I said, “I’m not going to go to marches, I’m not going to go to meetings anymore. I’m not going to expose myself.” But the more I thought about what happened with my dad, the more I realized I needed to stand up for myself or I could lose everything. So I went to a meeting one Sunday and helped form a third commission. Azucena was in that one, too. We tried to be quiet about it, and our job was to report about what was going on in the factory. Martín’s group was in contact with transnational brands as well, and some of their representatives secretly interviewed us away from the factory to learn about what was going on. We told the brand reps that the bosses claimed that orders weren’t coming in and that’s why they had to lay off workers. But the reps showed us the contracts they had with Navarra—they had orders placed for years’ worth of production!

WE WEREN’T ABLE TO KEEP THE FACTORY OPEN

In September 2006 we sought the support of formal union backing. There were big national unions like CROC, but many of us workers thought that they were too big and too friendly with ownership to really represent our interests. We didn’t think they’d push for enough. We learned of a smaller union called the 19th of September, and it was made up entirely of seamstresses like us—it was named in memory of the 1985 earthquake where hundreds of seamstresses died, and thousands were left without jobs. By this time there were less than five hundred workers left at the Navarra factory, where once there were thousands. We had a vote about which union should represent us as part of collective bargaining, the 19th of September, CROC, or one other national union, and 19th of September got the majority of votes.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to keep the factory open. In December, Navarra announced that there was no work at the moment and they sent us on early holiday vacation on December 8. When we returned on January 3, 2007, much of the machinery had been sold. By January 20, we were all laid off. The union stayed in negotiations with Navarra the whole time. It turned out the bosses would rather close the factory and push orders on to other maquilas than negotiate with unionized workers. Even though Navarra was at one point the biggest, best known maquila in town, the group that owned Navarra was just as happy to send work to other maquilas that they operated. The 260 of us who remained to the end were able to fight for our full severance, though. We got 90 percent of it in February, and then the remaining 10 percent was paid in old sewing machines after the factory was taken apart the next fall.

I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW WHAT A BLACKLIST WAS

After Navarra, I started working at another small maquila in town. The first day, it was noon and I was almost done with my work. The line boss came to me and said, “I need to talk to you.” I said, “Sure, what is it?” But I kept sewing. He said, “There’s no work for you because you’re from Vaqueros Navarra. You’re part of the 19th of September committee, so there’s no work for you. I don’t want to have any problems. I’ll pay your day. I’ll even pay you more.” He gave me 200 pesos, and then he said, “Leave your bundle, don’t finish it.” So I left, crying.

Then I was hired in a second shop, and I lasted for only half an hour. I had just started, and a supervisor came up to me and said, “You know what, honey? Give me the work back. I think you already know why. I recognize you. You were in the newspaper.”

When I first started organizing, I didn’t even know what a blacklist was. But now I realized how it worked. Every factory in town knew my story. Factory owners had been sharing names of individual workers affiliated with the 19th of September union—not only in clothing factories but in the shoe factories, department stores, agricultural suppliers, and in the pork business too. I thought, It can’t be. Even the little shops are kicking me out.

With no garment work, I dedicated myself fully to the struggle, and I had a little income through work with Martín’s organization. I’d visit workers and help organize meetings. I took charge of the attendance sheets. Martín became my friend—when he saw me, he’d ask me, “Have you eaten?”

In early 2008, when I still couldn’t find work, I came to Mexico City. I had a nephew there who had a small business. He told me he could give me work. But in the end I didn’t want to work for his business since he couldn’t offer health benefits. Large expenses were coming our way because my mom was having breathing problems again, getting sicker each day.

Pino Suárez is a neighborhood near the center of Mexico City.

Also, after working so long in Tehuacán, I started getting sick too. I was having breathing problems like my mother and I practically lost my sight in one eye. So to obtain the medical benefits, I went to Pino Suárez, where there are clothing factories that aren’t that big. But in every factory I went to, human resources would tell me that they knew about me already, that I was on a blacklist.

I think it’s not fair that one is denied work for fighting for one’s rights. If owners see it that way, I hope they never have the same needs as I do, and that they’re never in my shoes. But I haven’t lost hope of going back to work at a clothing factory. I want to continue working.

My sister Maria has said, “It was wrong of you to get involved because, as you see, they won’t give you work. What did you learn from all this? Did you learn anything good?” It was as if she were telling me, Did you learn to not get into trouble? And I told her, “I did learn something. I have rights, and it was my job, and I knew that the company should not act like this. I would do it again.” You can’t win if you’re afraid. To win you have to be brave, not remain ignorant. Everyone has dignity. That’s something that nobody will be able to change, and that’s what is most important: the dignity that one has as a person, as a worker.

My message for all the workers is to never think that you’re less than the boss. Just the opposite—you’re worth more than they are. Because thanks to your work and your efforts, they have their car, they can eat better than we can. The work we’re doing is very worthy. If one works in a factory, whether it’s making televisions or a pair of pants, whatever we’re making we feel proud of. Every time I see a pair of pants I say to myself, “How proud I am that I made those pants. It was my work. It was my effort. It was my night shifts when I didn’t sleep.” My youngest sister Lucero is a fashion designer now, and I tell her, “It’s worthy to design something, but it’s more worthy to sew it together.”

This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.

Click here to access free Voice of Witness educational curricula on this story.

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