Maria Elisa Villaescuza is building a strong and influential network of workers' rights activists in Mexico by training and consolidating organizations that serve the women working in textile factories, known as maquiladoras.

This profile below was prepared when Maria Elisa Villaescuza was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


Maria Elisa Villaescuza is building a strong and influential network of workers' rights activists in Mexico by training and consolidating organizations that serve the women working in textile factories, known as maquiladoras.


Despite the presence of unions and grassroots organizations representing the rights of women working in Mexican maquiladoras, Maria Elisa recognizes the inadequate technical expertise and poor integration of different groups' efforts as their greatest barrier to national success and categorical impact. She has developed a core code of conduct and ethics in the treatment of maquiladora workers that she conveys to labor rights activists, union leaders, and civil society professionals through educational workshops and seminars. The members of this growing sector launch new strategies for citizen sector protection, mobilization of advocacy campaigns, and public policy change as a result of more effective communication, idea sharing, and reflection on past efforts. By bringing the disparate groups together, Maria Elisa builds a network of service providers unified around a code of conduct that is more accessible to workers and beneficial to the labor rights movement in Mexico and around the world.


The maquiladora industry, which makes up a significant portion of Mexico's private production sector, is a leading source of the country's human and labor rights violations. Sexual and reproductive rights of female workers are routinely ignored, including discrimination against pregnant women, rape, unjustified dismissal, nonpayment, unequal salary and treatment based on gender, illegal labor hour requirements, refusal of required benefits, unsanitary conditions, contact with harmful substances, prohibition of free association, and sexual harassment. To this point, unions and citizen organizations have not successfully assessed the dire situation of maquiladora women nor have they effected substantial change to law or practice.

Workers in the maquiladora export industry generally do not know about or attempt to enforce codes of ethics assumed of all enterprises, despite their inclusion in many companies' corporate by-laws. Moreover, few laws exist to enforce human and labor rights in the workplace, despite a population of more than 1.3 million workers in 3,700 maquiladora factories.


In order to disseminate codes of ethics and conduct among professionals supporting the rights of female maquiladora workers in Mexico, Maria Elena has organized a national network of all service providers to better consolidate, track, and follow up efforts. By joining groups into a cohesive whole, the disparate unions, citizen organizations, and labor and women's rights representatives can more efficiently address workers' needs and collaborate on encompassing strategies to create change at the source of the problems.

Maria Elisa has identified codes of conduct that many of the maquiladoras have published within their institutional constitutions but failed to adhere to. She has essentially made the companies with the best labor practices into partners within the network of service providers, to act as examples of corporate ethics and to consult on how to best enact social values within the workplace. From these "best-practices" companies, Maria Elisa has developed a core set of codes to which she believes all maquiladoras should subscribe. Rather than lobbying for immediate change within the factories, though, she has trained her network of service providers to support workers according to their immediate needs while instilling values of dignity, fairness, and humanity. Maria Elisa's workshops provide necessary technical assistance to make service providers better leaders, and they train members of the network to disseminate the codes of conduct broadly and effectively among the workers.

Through leadership and a cohesive mission, Maria Elisa's network joins the workers and ethical companies in an organized labor rights movement that addresses the inadequacies of the companies' mistreating female maquiladora workers and the failure of the Mexican government to pass protective legislation. She has successfully spread her initiative to four states throughout the country: Baja California and Tamaulipas in the north, Yucatan in the south, and Puebla in the center. The professional maquiladora movement has become a standard for other workers' rights initiatives, as Maria Elisa has joined forces with other leaders to adapt her strategies toward various objectives around the world.


The discovery of feminism and the conscience of gender labor discrimination marked her path. She has dedicated her life to the diffusion and defense of human and labor rights of female workers, particularly in the maquiladora sector, creating specific citizen organizations, promoting and organizing campaigns, and working together with international union groups. She has conducted multiple workshops for unionists and maquiladora workers and has shared her experiences in national and international forums.
Maria Elisa´s first contact with the maquiladora sector was at 16-years-old, when she went to Nogales, Sonora, in search of employment and independence from her family. She was amazed by the number of young girls working in textiles factories, but she was so sickened by their working conditions and their treatment by male bosses that she refused offers of employment in order to continue her studies. She returned to visit maquiladora factories several years later in Ciudad Juárez but found the situation even worse than she remembered.

In 1992 she collaborated with other labor and women's rights organizations to found the Trinational Encounter on the Impacts of Industrial Reconversion on Female Employment based on a code of conduct and ethics she modeled after a similar national core value system in Canada. She joined MUTUAC, Mexico's first organization dedicated to supporting female laborers, in 1994, and learned about many other organizations with similar objectives. In 1998 she launched her first national campaign against mistreatment of pregnant female laborers, which grew into her program to better serve female maquiladora workers and the groups that support them.