At night, he comes home to a dirt-floor shack with a bare light bulb and no indoor plumbing. Mosquitoes buzz incessantly. He and his family live like poor dirt farmers.
His salary of $7.50 a day is enough to provide for the family dinner table, the cost of bootleg water and electricity, and an occasional article of discarded clothing for his wife or two girls, but rarely anything else.
Martinez, 35, is emblematic of the industrial sector of Mexico, a magnet for foreign investment hitched to a strong U.S. locomotive. Factories in Mexico pump out plasma TVs, BlackBerry smartphones, kitchen blenders, airplane components and automobiles. Yet millions of workers, like Martinez, can only dream of climbing from the lower class to buy the appliances, smartphones and cars they help manufacture.
Some four decades after welcoming foreign assembly plants and factories, known as maquiladoras, Mexico has seen only a trickle of its industrial and factory workers join the ranks of those who even slightly resemble a middle class. Instead, the poverty trap clutches them tightly. Some have earned the same wages for years. The government subsidizes credit, allowing purchases of appliances and even simple houses. But the credit sinks them into debt they can never hope to repay. Their teenage children, rather than staying in school, rush to factories themselves or join criminal gangs.
Without deep political and social reforms, experts say, the thousands of maquiladora plants that cluster at the U.S. border and around cities in the interior will remain a fixture for decades to come, and Mexico won’t build a middle class that’s big enough to fuel faster economic growth.
Mexico does all it can to ensure that workers don’t unionize, or if they do that they join so-called “protection unions” designed to assure the interests of plant owners and keep wages low.
For nine years, Martinez has been a constant presence on a fast-moving assembly line. He unspools and tapes electrical wiring systems for Ford pickups, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Volvo and Scania trucks and other vehicles.
He and his wife, Elba, are from a rural area of Veracruz state on the Gulf of Mexico, part of a large community from that state that’s moved to Mexico’s northern border. Once a municipal policeman, Martinez heard of good-paying jobs so he migrated, later bringing his wife and starting a family.