“The experience defined me as a labour rights leader” she explained, “I knew I had to go on with this work… We've seen that despite women’s double and triple work days, they have been at the forefront of many labour struggles and have shown great courage…Women’s empowerment is so important.”Blanca Velázquez, CAT
Inspirational activist risking it all to champion workers’ rights in Mexico
Since the 1960s Mexico has had a thriving maquiladora industry, manufacturing and exporting goods for the clothing and automotive sectors. Today, countless maquiladores (factories) give hundreds of thousands of people across Mexico much needed jobs, and the maquila workforce is primarily female. However, these factories have a history of systematic corruption and poor labour rights. Their workers typically have low wages, work in unsafe conditions and for very long hours. Women also face discrimination and sexual harassment and their complaints are usually ignored. The violation of maquila workers’ rights is one of Mexico’s hidden human rights crises, and powerful and often violent forces are determined to keep it that way.
In the state of Puebla, in the heart of Mexico, maquila workers have spent years struggling to defend their rights and to demand change. Their right to organise themselves in independent unions is rarely respected. Instead, Puebla’s government and labour officials promote non-democratic unions – known as charro – that fail to advocate for workers’ interests and whose main aim is to stop labour costs from rising. In spite of the threats, strong women leaders like Blanca Velázquez are determined that maquila workers are not forgotten in Mexico…
Blanca Velázquez started as a maquila worker for a German auto-parts manufacturer in 1999. She helped push for an independent union to be formally recognised in Puebla and the case was ground-breaking; it was the first such union in the auto-parts industry in Mexico to get recognition, and Blanca was its first female leader:
Blanca decided to dedicate her life to promoting workers’ rights and in 2001 she founded the Centre for Worker Support (Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador – CAT) along with a few other young, female labor rights activists. Blanca is the Director of CAT, now one of the leading NGOs empowering workers, particularly women, to defend their basic human and labor rights in Puebla. She has worked tirelessly on the front lines with workers, determined to end the corruption and abuse which they bear the brunt of and promote women’s leadership. The work of CAT and Blanca has had some significant achievements. For example after years of campaigning, CAT pushed for the signing of a collective bargaining agreement in 2011 with a workers’ union after a long and dramatic struggle at one of the world’s largest independent automotive manufacturers.
But Blanca’s work has come at a high cost. She has consistently suffered serious harassment, death threats and smear campaigns. Her offices have been vandalized and forced to close, and one of her staff members even kidnapped and tortured. In spite of having to flee Puebla and live in safe houses, often abroad, Blanca refuses to let this stop her and continues CAT’s work from wherever she is based.
In 2013 Blanca’s exemplary leadership and bravery were formally recognized when she won the Óscar Romero Award, naming her an unsung hero in human rights activism.
The Fund for Global Human Rights has been supporting the Centre for Worker Support since 2003 and will continue to support the organization in 2015.