Between December 2017 and March 2018, I had the opportunity to work on some photo projects in Mexico. I present to you a series of three articles on my work about the sweatshops of the region of Tehuacán in the state of Puebla. I wrote a series of articles that is a small window of the underside of the garment industries in Mexico.
New forms of exploitation in garment shops in Tehuacán
Mexico does not escape the dynamics of neoliberalism. Profound changes are currently transforming the social relationships and structures that govern the work. The previous article addressed the general context in which the maquiladoras model evolves. My two stays in Tehuacán allowed me to observe the partial rupture of this model. As in the rich countries of the North, the modes of production are in full transformation. Computerization and the introduction of advanced management tools have led to the emergence of a decentralization of production. The emergence of subcontracting workshops has been growing steadily.
Many of the large local factories now use small artisanal workshops to provide elements of their productions or to handle the oversupply of orders.
In the last few years, a new phenomenon of outsourcing has emerged in the garment industry of Tehuacan. Hundreds of these makeshift workshops are found in homes, private courtyards, sometimes even in training gyms or in churches. Job offers line the streets and alleys of the city.
Around the city of Tehuacán, you can see posters in front of private houses. The House workshops are everywhere.
I was fortunate enough to be able to enter three of these workshops.
One thread at a time
Four women are at work in a thread cutting workshop, at their feet, two little girls who play and pass the time. The inner courtyard of their house is turned into a jeans storage. The roof is in tin, as for the house. The toys lay on the ground.
The job is to cut off the threads of jeans. All day, cut threads. Cut threads that go beyond seams made in another workshop. Another workshop above in the informal scale of the production line. A workshop with sewing machines. Here there is no equipment, there are no sewing machines. Here we are at the bottom of the chain and it shows. Here we are at the ground zero of the work in the garment industry in Mexico.
Yet the workers look happy. When asked, they say they prefer to work here as compared to the factory. They prefer their autonomy, being able to stay at home with the children. They worked previously in factories and they no longer supported the pressure for production. However, working at home means less pay and increased responsibilities in terms of health and safety at work. They are paid by the pieces, 0.80 pesos per jeans (5$ Canadian).
The workshop is intergenerational. It is in these kinds of workshops that there is the persistence of child labour. In this case, they serve as couriers between the workshops.
Through the piles of jeans, the conversation continues. Laughter, jokes, the atmosphere is relaxed. Despite the difficult working conditions created by this subcontracting, they seem visibly more happy than factory workers. A reflection begins to emerge about this breakdown of the division of labour. A reflection that will continue throughout the other workshop visited.
In the meantime, the eldest son arrives from school. He will wait patiently for the end of his mother’s day of work. For us it is the end of the visit.
“Taste the feeling” was the slogan of Coca-Cola in 2016. For our second workshop visit, we climbed a notch higher in the production line. Here we sew. At that time, they were mainly sewing uniforms for Coca-Cola staff. The workshop was dark. The low neon lighting was punctuated by the sun’s rays which filtered through curtains and lights from the sewing machines. Small sewing thread dust balls littered the floor. Electric wires hung everywhere.
A little girl came to visit her mother who was working. When the door opened, you could see the stark contrast between outside and inside. She wore a mask so not to be affected by dust. She came to say hello and left right away.
The stacks of Coca-Cola shirts were everywhere, on the tables, on the floor, in rooms reserved for storage and in the inner courtyard. The whole first floor was dedicated to garment making. A dozen people were part of the team. The owner of the house was also the owner of the small makeshift workshop. When we asked him what it would take to improve the current conditions of work, he answered the money. More money. Workers giggled and acquiesced. The atmosphere seemed as relaxed as in the previous workshop.
Comfortable down south
To complete our documentation of Tehuacan’s makeshift workshops, we were entitled to the ultimate in home made. A clean workshop with a little more light. However, as in the previous workshop, the electric wires hung from everywhere and littered the ground. The sewing machines were newer and there was much less dust. It was more pro, but it was still a first floor of a house.
It also appeared that the atmosphere was more serious. The work did not stop for us. Throughout our presence, workers continued to work. In this workshop, uniforms were also made for other employees. This time they were blue. No obvious brand at first glance. They also made coats for security guards. Demand must be strong in Mexico for security guard uniforms…
The blue of the jackets was striking and the polyester fabric reflected a light that bathed the studio of the Halo. The young woman at the entrance was reminiscent of Vermeer’s Lacemaker.
I was saying that at first glance, we didn’t notice any particular brand for the jackets. It was only on the way back, developing the photos, that I spotted the Gildan boxes that littered the floor.
For your memory, Gildanemployed nearly 10 000 people in Quebec not long ago. With the end of the tariff protections, they closed their factories and moved them to the more conducive places to maximizing profits.
On the website of Gildan, the company boasts to be an exemplary of corporate responsibility and to participate in the development of local communities. Their factories are supposed to be examples of modernity. Maybe… But one thing is certain, nowhere there is a mention of work in makeshift workshops.
After verification, the order came from a Montero plant in northern Mexico. No direct apparent link with Gildan (with the means I had to check). This is the new way of organizing the work. The large sub-contract to mid size entities, which subcontracted to the small ones. Very difficult to follow the thread (without making a bad pun).
While the average salary of a person working in the garment industry in Mexico being 200 pesos per day ($13 Canadian), Gildan’s net profits were 74.3 million in 2017.
The sequel to come
I am currently working on another article about Tehuacán’s garment factories.
The first was about the context and the third will be about the environmental impacts of the garment industries. You can see the article about the context here: Mexico ‘s sweatshops You can see the complete albums about the workshops and my other projects, Click here To see the thread cutting workshop, Click here To see the workshop of Coca-Cola shirts, Click here To see the workshop with the boxes from Gildan, Click here