The PBS documentary series "P.O.V." continues tonight with "Maquilapolis: City of Factories," which takes viewers inside the lives of factory workers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Carmen Duran and other factory workers display the products they assemble. (David Maung)
By giving cameras to workers Carmen Durán and Lourdes Luján, filmmakers Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre incorporate a sense of immediacy and closeness that resonates in this documentary about the human and environmental tolls exacted by multinational corporations.
Maquiladoras are essentially sweat shops that sprung up along the border in the 1960s, bringing promises of steady labor and wages. The North America Free Trade Agreement in 1994 increased the number of maquiladoras to about 4,000, which encompassed about 1 million workers.
But as corporations find even cheaper labor in Asia, they begin pulling out of places like Tijuana—the self-described world capital of TV manufacturing—and Carmen Durán loses her job at Sanyo after the company moves its plant to Indonesia.
Sanyo decides it doesn't want to pay a mandated severance package to workers, so Carmen and others began arming themselves—with knowledge about workers' rights. They seek the help of Jaime Cota, a sensible yet inspiring attorney who prepares them for the long, uphill fight.
Carmen and Lourdes, a 29-year-old worker who, like Carmen, lives along a polluted river and among polluted streets, join the ranks of promotoras, local factory women who learn the regulations and advocate for workers' rights.
Women, we learn, are considered optimum factory employees because of their alleged agile hands, cheap wages and docile demeanor. But as the women gather to discuss their rights, laughing through the injustice and hardship, we are struck by their commitment and resilience. We may also be shamed by our lack of connection between our television's components and the hands that made them.
Carmen, a single mother of three, gets a new factory job at Panasonic. She makes $68 a week and says it's a "good job."
"The only problem is the lead contamination," she adds matter-of-factly. And that's one of the oddest things about these women: their tendency to speak, in our eyes, without much emotion about their deplorable living and working conditions. Carmen, for example, built her house out of discarded garage doors from the United States.
Raw sewage runs down the streets in these globalized shanty towns, mingling with wastewater from the maquiladoras situated on surrounding mesas. Live electrical wires lie in the streets as children play nearby. Carmen takes us to meet a girl who was electrocuted.
So this Maquilapolis is essentially polluted by working factories as well as defunct ones. The documentary devotes part of its time to the story of a car battery recycling plant that left town, leaving behind a dump whose lead pollution was not only harming the community but also going unnoticed by government officials.
As the women fight for some action to be taken about the dump, attorney Cota is prompted to wonder which is worse: a government corrupted by multinational companies, or the multinationals that pay a government to ignore or break its own laws.
"Maquilapolis" is a subjective film in that the filmmakers chose to immerse us in the experiences of women like Carmen and Lourdes. They do this practically by putting cameras in the hands of the women themselves, creating a collaborative approach to telling a largely ignored story.
With plentiful time-lapse photography and a score sounding like the mechanical whir of a maquiladoran life, "Maquilapolis" blends the modern horror of an automated day with the eternal beauty of a resilient life.
These women show us that Maquilapolis is more than a city of factories. It's also a wellspring of courage.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
P.O.V.'s official Web site is here.
The P.O.V. "Maquilapolis" Web site is here. (It includes a discussion guide and many more good materials.)
Read our reviews of other "P.O.V." documentaries:
"No More Tears Sisters"
"Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball"
"Waging a Living"