It is understandable that the film and many of the people in the film conflate globalization with industrialization. If this (pollution, poverty, and joblessness) is globalization, I don’t want it, was the sentiment in the film. But the horrible problems that have occurred in Mexico, such as pollution causing babies to be born without fingernails or brains, aren’t unique to globalization per se. It is probably more accurate to say that these things are the awful pains that occur when a country goes through the wrenching social, economic, and environmental changes that correspond with an Industrial Revolution. Just ask America at the turn of the century or China at present.
While I was watching the film, I kept thinking: If these factories moved from Mexico to Asia, I wonder how bad conditions are in a place like China that doesn’t have the civil society mechanisms that are profiled in Maquilapolis and eventually brought about justice. The industrial dump that was contaminating the Tijuana neighborhood with lead and other chemicals was finally cleaned up, thanks to the women advocates.
The horrors of industrialization are nevertheless very real and very serious. One of the main characters, Carmen, spends all night working at a television factory only to come home to a shack built with discarded garage doors and a dirt floor. She suffers from kidney damage from the chemicals in her factory and only makes 6 dollars a day with which she must support her self and her three children. A young girl and a dog were electrocuted from electrical wires frayed in puddles. Raw sewage runs everywhere. After running through the rest of her harrowing schedule of taking care of her house, her children, and the factory job, she gets about one or two hours of sleep a day. In the end of the film, Carmen wins enough severance pay to cover the costs of paving her home’s floor.
The second problem in the film is more about globalization: When cheap labor became available in East Asia—after China’s accession into the WTO—many of these factories exited Mexico, leaving many Mexicans jobless and hopeless. The problem of capital flight in Mexico was analyzed in depth during our recent book talk with Kevin Gallagher. He spoke about Mexico’s enclave economy and the need to complement foreign direct investment with strategic domestic policies. From Gallagher’s essay, The Enclave Effect:
New research shows that although Mexico was initially successful in attracting multinational corporations, foreign investments waned in the absence of active government support and as China became increasingly competitive. Moreover, the foreign investment created an "enclave economy" the benefits of which were confined to an international sector not connected to the wider Mexican economy. In fact, foreign investment put many local electronics firms out of business and transferred only limited amounts of technology.
This evidence doesn't suggest that foreign investment or trade agreements are bad things. They suggest that the costs of lifting performance requirements and adopting draconian expropriation rules could very well outweigh the benefits of new treaties with such provisions.
One of the most thought provoking moments in the film is when Tijuana labor leader thinks aloud about the relationship between corporations and the government. With both the government and the companies shirking their responsibility to the communities, Jaime Cota asks, “Who is worse: The one who pays for sin or the one who sins for pay?” For a moment, the viewer thinks about the possible tradeoffs before realizing that this rhetorical question digs deep into the assumptions underlying the marriage of democracy and capitalism.
Like the film Black Gold, Maquilapolis uncovers some of the misery that accompanied the production of everyday goods like TVs or plastic bags. In Black Gold’s case, it is your daily cup of coffee. But the innovation in Maquilapolis was that the subject of the film, the factory women, produced some of the filming (like the documentary about Calcutta’s red light kids Born into Brothels), images, and sounds. The result is honest and profound.
Photo from California Newsreel.