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Mexico Industrial Boom Ushers In Era of Change Along U.S. Border

February 15, 1986|PATRICK MCDONNELL | Times Staff Writer

But despite the prospects for expansion, the maquiladora industry remains a controversial one.

In the United States, labor leaders deplore the maquiladoras as "runaway" shops that pursue cheap labor by shamelessly abandoning the U.S. communities where they have been based for years. Union leaders have persistently lobbied--with no success--for legislation that would remove the special tariff provisions that allow the companies to flourish.

"It's an attempt to use low wages of another country to take jobs away from Americans," is how Arthur Gundersheim, assistant to the president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in New York, characterized the maquiladora program.

Final Assembly in U.S.

Industry representatives assert that the U.S. labor movement has failed to recognize the changing world marketplace. Maquiladoras have actually saved jobs in the United States, according to industry officials. They point out that computer parts and other components assembled in Mexico typically originated in the United States and the parts are generally returned to U.S. facilities for final construction.

"We keep people employed in the United States," said Harry L. Veroba, president of Vertek International Inc., which assists U.S. firms seeking to relocate to Tijuana. "We have to think on a worldwide basis now, and we have to stay competitive."

Meanwhile, in Mexico, while the maquiladoras have created many jobs, the assembly plants have done little to alleviate the pressing problem of unemployment among male heads of families. A great majority of the maquiladora workers hired are women--a fact industry executives attribute to females' supposedly superior manual dexterity. But others see the hiring imbalance as a deliberate policy of an industry seeking to employ a docile population that is unlikely to agitate for change.

"Women are less likely to organize; they allow more control than men," noted Bustamante, a supporter of the maquiladora program. "The maquiladoras are here to stay. And if we want to do anything about male unemployment, we shouldn't expect anything from the maquiladoras. . . . That's a fact of life."

Socially, the massive entry of young women into the work force in Mexican border cities has had profound but, social scientists say, still little-understood implications in a traditional male-oriented society where machismo still flourishes. Some have said the movement has contributed to the breakup of the family along the border and a rise in cholismo, or juvenile delinquency. Others say that is nonsense.

"That's a reversal of roles, and socially that created some problems," said Joseph Grunwald, president of the Institute of the Americas, a San Diego academy that studies Latin America. "Men began to depend on them (women). Women became independent."

Less Inviting Incentives

Because the maquiladoras are largely foreign-owned, there is also considerable concern in Mexico that little technology is being transferred and few Mexican managers have opportunities to advance. Such shortcomings, Grunwald noted, heighten the image of the maquiladoras as a foreign enclave in Mexico--something apart from the ideal situation of an independent, indigenous industrial structure.

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