Sexual Harassment at Maquiladora

By Jean Bowdish, in Workers World, 7 January, 1995.

Some 180 Mexican women have filed a lawsuit in the United States court system to get back what is legally and rightfully theirs-- severance pay and dignity.

The women worked in a maquiladora, a sweat-shop factory set up in the "free-trade zones" established in Mexico before NAFTA. Maquiladoras are notorious for long hours, low pay, and miserable working conditions.

The company president and chief executive officer, John Shahid of California, took "free-trade zone" to mean "I can do anything I want without repercussions." He was wrong.

It was during a company picnic in September that Shahid showed his true sliminess. Using verbal and physical intimidation, he demanded that some of the women put on a bikini show. Then Shahid videotaped the women.

"I felt humiliated and violated," said Veronica Vasquez Baron, one of the women forced to participate. "Shahid treated us like objects. He thought because he has money he can do anything. I hope Shahid now understands that we are not his property."

The women sought action against the sexual harassment through Mexican labor authorities. Shahid refused to respond. He then closed down the maquiladora, firing all the workers without paying them the three months' severance pay required by law.

Determined not to let Shahid off the hook, the women filed a lawsuit in the U.S. It is the first of its kind. The women are asking that Mexican law be applied against the California company, American United Global Inc., in U.S. courts.

"The U.S./Mexico border will not be used as a shield by American companies to evade their legal obligations to Mexican workers," said Fred Kumetz, the attorney representing the women.

Shahid replied he does not own the maquiladora that employed the women, who inspected O-rings used in industry, and he stopped sending work there because of a dispute with the manager. This is the old practice of hiding behind dummy corporations, holding companies and partnerships that obscure the real owners. It is part of a growing trend of stranding maquiladora workers following sudden closings of plants dependent on U.S. companies.

Mary Tong, administrator of the San-Diego based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, said the women's case is a legal test of NAFTA. "If NAFTA opened the border to trade, the border should also be opened in terms of liability," she said.

"Hopefully our actions will set a precedent that can keep this from happening to other workers," added Vasquez Baron.

For more information, readers can contact Mary Tong at (619) 542-0826 or

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