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"NAFTA's Impact on El Paso's Garment Workers,"

by Cindy Arnold January/February 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

La Mujer Obrera is a workers' center dedicated to struggling for the rights of low-income Mexican immigrant women workers and their families in El Paso. With implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), efforts to protect women workers' rights and quality of life must be redoubled. The US-Mexico border expects to undergo extensive economic, social and political changes as a result of NAFTA. Already in the treaty's first year we have seen 11 garment factories close in El Paso, with the loss of over 500 jobs. Nearly half were closed owing workers wages, and the total wages owed is nearly $100,000.

Yet community officials and leaders have developed no plans to ensure that the rights of these women are respected, and that, with the economic restructuring engendered by NAFTA, the women will have a future. The goal of this research was to document the conditions and quality of Mexican immigrant women garment workers' lives in El Paso, and then to use this information in community education and organizing efforts to secure women workers' rights in the new NAFTA era.


The survey was ajoint effort between La Mujer Obrera and the Sociology Department of the University of Texas at El Paso. A Spanish and English questionnaire was constructed to evaluate garment workers' conditions and quality of life in El Paso. The survey was conducted through 25-minute interviews during the women's lunch break. Respondents were given a free lunch. The questionnaire consisted of 75 open-ended and close-ended questions on the women's personal background, employment, health, nutrition and housing. One hundred women were randomly selected each from one large (>800 workers), medium-sized (200-800 workers) and small (<200 workers) factory, for a total of 300 people. Surveyors included researcher Juanita Fernandez, a sociology graduate student at UT-El Paso, and a team of 13 women from La Mujer Obrera. To gain access to the women, formal requests were sent to factory owners, and then follow-up visits were made. Many employers were unwilling to allow the survey to be conducted among their employees. Employers who cooperated with the survey did so only after significant negotiating with the university researchers. The researchers appealed to the employers by indicating that the survey was developed and supervised by researchers affiliated with UT-El Paso and that it would lead to increased understanding of the potential effects of NAFTA. Some employers cooperated on the basis of this understanding; many, however, did not. Participants were randomly selected from employee lists provided by the employers. An English and Spanish language pamphlet explaining the study was prepared and given to the selected workers prior to the interviews.


The survey produced a wealth of valuable information documenting the living and working conditions of the community. Some of the key findings include:
The average age of the workers is 40 years. The work force in the medium-sized factories was significantly younger than that in the large and small factories.
The average length of employment in the industry is 15 years.
64% of the workers in the small and medium-sized factories are legal permanent residents, while 62% of the workers in the large factories are US citizens.
79% of the women interviewed were born in Mexico.
In the small and medium-sized factories the majority of women did not speak English, while the opposite was true in the large factories.
50% of the women have 6 years or less of education, and only 11% have a high school education or its equivalent. Most of these high-school educated women are in the large factories.
The unemployment rate in the small factories was twice that in the large and medium-sized factories.
50% of the households have an income of $250/week or less, 30% have an income of $150 or less. Yet only 20% receive economic assistance from the government.
36% of women go to Ciudad Juarer in Mexico for their health care, although 77% live in El Paso.

Use in Advocacy

With these results, La Mujer Obrera has been advocating at the local, state and national levels for the need to protect immigrant women workers' rights in light of NAFTA's impact on the local garment industry and the overall economy. To date, our efforts include testifying before two state legislative bodies on the impact of NAFTA in El Paso, meeting with various national officials in the Department of Labor, including the heads of the Wage and Hour Division and the Women's Bureau, and developing and distributing a series of flyers and newsletters locally and nationally. In the future, we will be using the findings to document the need for private and public funds to be invested in enforcement of existing labor laws and the development of retraining programs and assistance for women who have given their lives to the garment industry.

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