The city of Juarez, on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border, provides a telling example of how "free trade" agreements affect the lives of ordinary people.
Juarez is in Mexico's "free trade zone", a commercial zone along the northern border where foreign companies (mostly US-owned) import parts duty-free and export finished products at favourable tax and labour rates.
The emergence of these factories, called maquiladora, which is partly a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which allows foreign-owned companies to avoid paying tariffs on the goods they produce. Three hundred maquiladoras operate in Juarez, approximately half-owned by US-based companies, including 3M, DuPont, Honeywell and Amway.
Defenders of free trade agreements like NAFTA hold up Juarez as an example of poverty alleviation through free trade. More than 250,000 jobs have been created in the city during the last decade. While these jobs pay only $4 a day, defenders of NAFTA argue that for the workers who bus into the maquiladoras every day, they are better than no jobs at all.
However, at least 238 maquiladora workers aren't catching those buses any more. That is the official number of female workers raped and killed in Juarez since the trade zone was established. Unofficial estimates range as high as 500.
Their bodies have been found in the desert outside the city — raped and strangled. Many bodies were mutilated — there were knife or teeth marks on their breasts. Between 1995 and 1997, 104 bodies were found.
One of the victims was 13-year-old Irma Angelica Rosales, a maquiladora worker who obtained a fake birth certificate stating her age as 16. Underage workers are common in these factories.
Despite all this, only one murder has been successfully prosecuted.
Arturo Gonzalez Rascon, the attorney-general of the state of Chihuahua (in which Juarez is situated), argues that part of the blame for the murders belongs to the women themselves, as if wearing miniskirts and going to bars was an invitation to be raped and murdered.
In contrast, Esther Chavez, who runs the only rape crisis centre in Juarez, the Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis, argues that the murders go on because of the political influence of the foreign companies that own the maquiladoras (and the local politicians). If the maquiladoras had adequate security, the murders might be prevented.
After Rosales' death, the vice-president of the company she worked for, International Wire Group Inc (US), came under fire for employing underage workers in his factories. Bernard Boone, the vice-president, replied "It is something we try to keep the record clean on".
International Wire has done no audits on employees' ages since buying the factory from General Electric in 1995.
It is hard to make a case that the women working in Juarez are better off under "free trade". The whole purpose of the "free trade zone" is to protect the rights of US companies to exploit poor, Mexican workers. Given that they fail to support the rights of workers to a decent wage, it is not surprising that they also fail to protect their workers' lives.
Juarez is not an exception. Foreign companies exporting to Australia and New Zealand dominate Fiji's garment industry. In a documentary about prostitution in Fiji made several years ago, a sex worker was asked why she did not get a job at one of these garment factories instead. She replied that sexual harassment and sexual assault was so common in these factories that there was little difference between the two jobs.
Free trade is not about alleviating poverty; it is about exploiting people on the margins of global society as a way of cutting labour costs and maximising shareholder value. And a majority of these workers are women from Third World countries.
For the First World-based companies which employ them these women are disposable labour, to be worked as hard as possible and thrown away when they are no longer useful.
A system under which women are forced to accept inhumane conditions in order to survive — whether that be a female maquiladora worker in Juarez, working for $4 a day and risking death, or a garment factory worker in Fiji, or a sweatshop worker in Australia — is clearly inhumane to the core.
Far from alleviating poverty, "free trade" institutionalises it. And that's why we all need to be involved in the anti-corporate movement, with a clear feminist and internationalist perspective.
BY MELODY COUTMAN
[The author is a member of the socialist youth organisation, Resistance.]