Welcome to the world of Maquilapolis, a border city where it takes an hour of drudgework inside a poisonous factory to earn enough to buy a jug of potable water. Where it takes about two hours to earn a gallon of milk. Where factory workers find bathroom breaks are few, toxins are many, and the pressure and intimidation are always on. It's a place where poverty is so deep that workers are expected to be grateful for the high-end $11 a day they might earn, to give up hope of ever earning more or of ever seeking better working conditions. This daily $11 does not buy them the protection and aid of their local and national governments. In Maquilapolis, undertaxed and under-regulated factories operated by multinational corporations usually through local middlemen pollute residential neighborhoods with seeming impunity.
Yet even $11 a day can prove too high a labor cost for today's international manufacturer. The searing new feature documentary Maquilapolis: City of Factories may take its name and stories from the maquiladoras, the multinational assembly plants that sprang up south of the U.S.-Mexican border in the mid-1960s and multiplied rapidly in the 1990s as a result of 1994's North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.) But the new global company town that Maquilapolis portrays is also movable. Less than 10 years after NAFTA, the maquiladoras of Mexico were already closing down as corporations began to depart for even cheaper labor in Asia, leaving behind decrepit factory sites, slag heaps of toxic material and endemic unemployment.
Maquilapolis is a powerful and unique film that brought American and Mexican-American filmmakers together with Tijuana factory workers and community organizers to tell the story of globalization through the eyes and voices of the workers themselves overwhelmingly women who have borne the costs but reaped few of the benefits. The workers did not just testify on camera, they became an integral part of creating their stories on film. Two women in particular, Carmen Durán and Lourdes Luján, armed with cameras for video diaries, chronicle their struggles. The result is not only an informative and disturbing film, but also an evocative and poetic one.
The very abutment of Tijuana's poor barrios against some of the world's wealthiest communities, and the array of low-cost consumer conveniences and devices televisions, cell phones, intravenous bags, pantyhose, batteries, electronic components for which the women have surrendered both health and freedom, make for an ironic, twisted poetry of contrasts. But for all the miserable working conditions, health problems, and broken promises, Carmen and Lourdes and others like them promotoras who fight for workers' rights against the new corporate order are not the pliant female employees anticipated by the companies or the Mexican government. In yet another twist, globalization has brought Carmen and Lourdes greater sophistication about politics and media than existed in earlier generations of the Mexican working class.
And they put that knowledge to good use. Carmen, an upbeat single mother of three, did not even earn the $11 a day touted by the maquiladora system's promoters; she earned just $6 a day working the graveyard shift in Tijuana's Sanyo factory. That wasn't enough to get her family out of a dirt-floor shack she built from discarded San Diego garage doors in a neighborhood where sewage and frayed electrical wires run down the middle of the street despite the Mexican government's promises to provide municipal services. Despite harsh conditions at the factory, Carmen stayed on for six years, partly out of loyalty to her co-workers. She suffers from kidney problems and anemia as a result of her years of factory work. When the company decided to move to Indonesia, Carmen felt angry like the rest of the workers. But when the company decides, as other multinationals have before them, to renege the severance pay required under Mexican law, Carmen becomes an activist and rallies her co-workers, in a David-and-Goliath struggle, to challenge Sanyo by filing a claim with the labor board.
Lourdes lives in a neighborhood in Tijuana that has not just ordinary sewage running down the middle of the street, but a toxic stew of chemicals and manufacturing agents from the factories on the mesa above their homes. In case there is any doubt about what is happening, the factory takes advantage of every rainfall, however slight, to send an extra torrent of chemical-laden waters down through the neighborhood. The results are predictable: an epidemic of health problems including persistent skin rashes, respiratory problems, allergies, and birth defects. Lourdes, as also documented by her video diary, can't just sit by. She helps organize a community group, the Chilpancingo Collective for Environmental Justice, to fight for an cleanup of a toxic waste dump left behind by a departing battery-recycling factory a seemingly impossible goal in a country whose environmental protection agencies cry helplessness at every turn.
Through Carmen and Lourdes we learn the stories and daily realities of other maquiladora workers. We also hear from company and government spokespeople, who point to the relative benefit of a low wage in a virtually no-wage country. But Maquilapolis promises no worker anywhere even that low wage, as the Mexican people have been among the first to learn.
Ultimately, Carmen and her co-workers win a relatively astounding victory: the labor board forces Sanyo to pay the workers severances as high as $2,500 (in Carmen's case), an amount far greater than most companies are used to paying. And Lourdes's group, simply a committee of neighborhood women working with cross-border activists from the U.S., succeeds in forcing both the U.S. and Mexican governments to recognize the need for environmental cleanup and to begin creating a fund for it.
There is also heartbreak in these victories. Carmen's severance allows her to put a floor under her children's feet, but she's left with little prospect of a new job. And Lourdes's group has won its point but whether the political will or, ultimately, the money to accomplish the full cleanup will materialize remains in doubt. While the poor people of Maquilapolis do the work that keeps the malls of the Western World humming, they end up earning no stake in that world. In Mexico, now that the initial wave of off-shore manufacturing has passed to other regions of the world, workers like Carmen and Lourdes face an unemployed future amid a devastated landscape.
"The factory workers who appear in Maquilapolis were involved in every stage of production," says director Vicky Funari. "We wanted to embrace subjectivity their subjectivity as a value, and to merge our filmmaking with their voices."
"We wanted to present not just the facts but the everyday reality," says De La Torre. "Can you imagine the feeling of being so completely at the mercy of a global economic system that has no interest in your welfare? What many middle-class North Americans experience as financial pressure, people quite close to them &151; their neighbors, in fact experience as life-and-death struggle."
Maquilapolis: City of Factories is a co-production of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and is a project of Creative Capital, with support from the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund.