How Working-Class Women Of Color Take The Brunt Of NAFTA Deals

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Last week, the Trump administration missed its deadline to submit a new NAFTA, or the North American Free Trade Agreement, deal with Mexico and Canada for Congress’s approval — and it’s got everyone in a stir. As politicians and big businesses argue over social media, there’s one impacted community that’s not receiving as much attention: working-class women who have long taken the brunt of NAFTA deals.

NAFTA started in 1994 with the aim to increase trade between the three countries, promising to make each of them wealthier in the long run. While that might be true for the 1 percent, it’s been catastrophic for those at the bottom of the economic, gender and racial totem poles. By pitting workers in all three countries against each other, NAFTA meant a race to the bottom for working-class people. Multinational corporations outsourced jobs to cheaper labor markets, which sent wages plunging everywhere. After all, said the multinationals, why pay U.S. auto workers $34 per hour when you could pay a fraction of that just past the border? That they did, moving factories to Mexico, where, as the Chicago Tribune points out, “$2 per hour workers make $40,000 SUVs.”  Meanwhile, the loss of U.S. and Canadian manufacturing jobs drove salaries down there, too, as unemployment rose.

Though NAFTA was sold to the people as a tool to reduce inequality, it only fanned the flames. And if Trump manages to push through a revised deal, it could stand to make things much, much worse.

Women in particular faced the worst impacts of NAFTA, and this was especially true for low-income Mexican women. In a sense, this could have been seen from a mile away by anyone who cared to look: women in agriculture have historically been over-represented in low level, informal and seasonal work and are consistently underpaid compared to their male counterparts. So it’s unsurprising that any policy that destabilizes the agricultural industry will have the gravest effects on women and the people who depend on them.

NAFTA has forced small-scale farmers with rudimentary tools and equipment to compete with wealthy and established agribusiness corporations. Farmers were pushed off the land in droves, unable to compete with these larger scale operations. No longer able to live off the land, they had little choice but to desert their homes in search of work.

Those lucky enough to find employment learned quickly that one miserable job replaced the other. Take for instance maquiladoras, manufacturing plants concentrated along the border of Northern Mexico. They exploded onto the scene after NAFTA was implemented, as thousands of laid off migrants traveled to border towns in search of work. The maquila industry is disproportionately made up of women, who work long and physically demanding hours assembling laptops and other electronics. Maquiladoras are notorious for workplace abuses, low pay and violence. But women who report instances of sexual harassment see their hours cut with no explanation or recourse. The bosses know they have nowhere else to go since, in the aftermath of NAFTA, jobs are hard to come by.

So how could a policy that promised to enrich everyone turn out so disastrously? Well, NAFTA did generate wealth — if you were already rich.

NAFTA let corporations slash wages, knowing that workers had no bargaining power. If they complained, the company could simply move its operations across the border. This threat was also used to prevent workers from unionizing or demanding basic worker protections. Inequality soared. In fact, more than 20 years after the policy’s implementation, the richest 10 percent in the U.S. own half of the country’s wealth. In Mexico, the impact is similar. Instead of raising the standard of living, wages have plummeted and the percentage of Mexicans living in poverty has risen.  

Faced with this landscape, many women find no choice but to migrate to the U.S. in search of work. The journey is not an easy one. Hundreds of migrants die each year in transit, facing gangs, traffickers and harsh weather conditions. U.S. Border Patrol agents often cause even more harm, pushing migrants deeper into the unforgiving desert and even destroying water bottles distributed by humanitarian aid groups — condemning many to a slow and painful death.

Migrant women face specifically gendered violence, too. As many as 80 percent of women and girls crossing Mexico to the U.S. are raped along the way. Those “lucky” enough to make it find back-breaking, low paid work in the service and agricultural sectors. There, bosses cultivate a climate of fear, knowing undocumented immigrants are hesitant to attract unwanted attention by reporting workplace abuses. Wage theft is also common. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that “women said their pay stubs routinely show far fewer hours than they actually worked.” Those who demand what they are due are readily replaced, or threatened with calls to immigration authorities. And here, too, sexual violence is a constant. Workers are routinely harassed, and often forced to sleep with their supervisors. These crimes, however, largely go unreported.

NAFTA has been an unmitigated disaster for the poor on both sides of the border. Wages have plummeted, poverty is widespread and workplace harassment is ubiquitous. But the Trump administration’s approach won’t fix it. In focusing on U.S. job losses, Trump plays into the xenophobic narrative that Mexico benefitted at the expense of U.S. workers. But immigrants didn’t take our jobs; greedy corporations did. And by pitting workers against each other, we are all losing.

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