For more than 10 years, Silver School of Social Work professor Liliana Goldín has been meeting predominantly with indigenous Maya workers in the export processing plants located in several communities of the departments of Sacatepéquez and Chimaltenango, central Guatemala. Through semi-structured interviews and surveys, she has been documenting labor conditions, the nature of the assembly plant work, and the organization of households.

The research reveals a large disconnect between working conditions in the factories, perceived rights, the existence of a wide spectrum of national and international labor laws to which Guatemala subscribes, and systems of tutelage and enforcement of the law. The study, “The Rule of the Law and the Enforcement of the Law: Workers’ Understanding of Labor Rights in Export Processing Industries of the Central Highlands of Guatemala,” conducted and authored with Courtney Dowdall of Florida International University, will be published in Latin American Perspectives, funded in part by a National Science Foundation cultural anthropology grant. Goldín and Dowdall conclude that because of such detachment, efforts to address workers’ plights need to engage the complex conditions of the current labor regimes.

These factories, or maquilas, operate in contexts that are virtually exempt from regulation and conflate national and global orders, precluding a clear perspective on issues of rights and legal claims. In the new geographies of power, workers in transnational factories fall in the interstices between state and non-state spaces, resulting in a loss of social rights, entitlements, and unclear places in the law. The production plants are but one link among several layers of contractors and sub-contractors producing for a variety of large retailers or for single brand stores, as they rearrange along specialized brand manufacturing. By removing the direct relation of dependency between the company and the worker, the company removes the worker from their areas of responsibility and creates several degrees of separation.

The authors contrasted the existing labor laws in Guatemala to worker’s perceptions of their labor rights. Export processing plants and those working in them are part of a complex web of global capitalism and transnational economic transactions that are intentionally fragmented. Retailers search for contractors and subcontractors where the inconveniences associated with production from the perspective of capital can be minimized; contractors search for states that are willing to relax state regulations; and consumers—often themselves members of marginalized minorities with few resources—search for
opportunities to purchase well-made, inexpensive goods at the expense of conditions they may choose to ignore. Within this, workers are supposed to enjoy the protection of labor laws designed to prevent unfair and intolerable working conditions. But on a practical level, these industries operate in contexts that are virtually exempt from regulation and that don’t follow a national organizational logic.

Incomplete and often improper inspections take place in offices and do not reach the production floor. Inspectors suspected of being paid off by subcontractors, or who are limited to quality control rather than compliance with labor laws, reinforce the lack of correspondence between rule and practice. This is compounded by the perceived government risks of losing foreign investment if not seen as sufficiently flexible and accommodating towards industry.

To counter these conditions, the authors believe continued and collaborative cross-national activism must be pursued, with educational campaigns about production processes to consumers and about rights for workers. Correcting the situation requires that capital would find ever fewer places to move, that consumers become more aware of the social force behind the product, and that states find ways to stimulate their economies relying less on foreign investment and more on intelligent exploitation of their own human and natural resources.

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