The Ottumwa Courier. January 26, 2004


by Duane Nollen, Courier City Editor

Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of stories about Mexico, its people and its culture. City Editor Duane Nollen and 20 other Ottumwa-area community leaders and residents are traveling with Iowa State University Extension to discover "The Culture of Mexico." Nollen will file daily stories reviewing what the group sees and experiences.

CUERNAVACA, Mexico - Buenavista is a small town near Cuernavaca that is growing thanks to several maquiladoras - assembly plants.

Members of Iowa State University's "The Culture of Mexico" tour took a field trip to visit Buenavista and learn about these plants.

The FM pants plant is a maquiladora that produces 1,300 pairs of pants per day for the Mexican market. It employees 100 workers in a three-story structure and has been open for seven years. Oswaldo Olivares and his mother own the plant.

Workers at the plant take fabric that is shipped in, and cut and sew it into pants. The plant serves four name brands, Olivares said through an interpreter.

After fabric is cut in the maquiladora's first floor, is sent to the plant's two upper floors for a five-part assembly process. Pants are the sum of the back, front, pockets, belt loops and quality control, he said.

While men worked in the cutting room, both men and women worked on the sewing floors. The workers are organized into teams and assemble pants to fairly loud Latino music. The workers have an almost open-air atmosphere at their work place. One ground-level wall area was open to the street. Also, the third-floor sewing area had a large rectangular area removed so people could look down at the second floor.

Workers are trained in 28 days, and a worker's average pay is about 450 pesos per week.

Several members of the ISU tour group noticed several interesting details while touring the plant.

Marvin Knoot of New Sharon said he noticed that one woman in the sewing area wore a surgical-type mask over her nose and mouth, and yet no one else did.

He also noticed that the workers did not wear any ear or eye protection while working on the factory floor.

University of Iowa associate professor of nursing Kerri Rupe also noticed the lack of ear protection for workers. When the constant noise level is louder than conversation, "it's not a question of if but how much" hearing loss will occur, she said.

Rupe also observed that the downstairs cloth-cutting saw did not have guards to protect workers' hands.

"But, on the other hand, they're working," she said.

Rupe said she was glad to learn that the workers' labor was not being exploited by American companies.

"The pants stay in the Mexican market," she said.

"They're on their way," Rupe said of the workers. "It's better than working at the dump."

"The workers were highly productive," said businessman Joe Van Ginkel of rural Cumming. With cheap labor and high productivity, Mexico is attractive to maquiladoras, he said.

"The whole town had a higher standard of living," Van Ginkel said.

"This was a family factory," said Van Ginkel's wife, Margaret. "Joe's grandfather started their business ...," she said in reference to her husband's business. "There's not many left in the U.S."

The workers were "very productive, very happy," she added. However, she said she was "shocked" to see electrical cords hanging down to create a hazard.

Robert Dorgan of Fairfield said he did not want to rush to judgment about the plant after seeing it only for a short time. However, Dorgan said the plant allows workers to stay in Buenavista instead of looking for work elsewhere, which he thinks is a plus.

Dorgan said it was interesting to learn that after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States, that tariffs were too high for the maquiladora to produce pants for the U.S. market, so the plant switched to the Mexican market.

Dorgan, who is the head of the Fairfield-based Institute for Small town Studies, said he wanted to learn about the relationship between the maquiladoras and the community, and compare it to the way Ottumwa's factories impact the city.

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