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Home> CFO in the Media 2002
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Aluminum Sweatshops
Alcoa’s Mexican Plants Deny Basic Human Rights

Steelabor
Volume 67/Number 2 Spring 2002

Alcoa likes to brag that it pays its Mexican employees a very good wage but a fact-finding group found the workers living in squalor. The $1.20 hourly base rate is just seven percent of what the company’s U.S. employees earn and it does not go nearly as far. Many Alcoa workers are selling their blood in order to survive. They walk over the bridge to the U.S. twice a week to a plasma center in Eagle Pass, Texas. The track marks on their arms show that they have been selling their blood every week for years.

Photo on page 4: Alcoa employees live in homes made of cardboard, tarpaper and pallets with no indoor plumbing or running water. A worn blanket serves as a privacy screen for the outdoor toilet.

“Alcoa workers and their families live in tiny makeshift dirt-floored huts, often put together with shipping crates, cardboard and some cheap shingles and tarpaper,” said USWA Rapid Response Coordinator Tim Waters. “Ten families share one outdoor faucet, and the water is not potable. There are no sewers. There is no garbage collection. There is no heat in the ‘houses,’ which seep with water when it rains. Temperatures are extreme, varying from 104 degrees in the summer to 30 degrees in the winter.”

Waters was among a group of U.S. trade unionists that made a fact-finding trip to Acuña and Piedras Negras in Mexico where the global aluminum producer employs 15,600 people. Management deliberately provoked a work action and fired 236 workers after they formed a “Workers Committee.” Alcoa called in 80 police –armed with teargas, clubs, shields and weapons –to throw the workers out of the factory. The company brought criminal charges against nine union leaders, suing them for $1 million in damages. They could face six years in prison.

Many discharged workers are blacklisted, especially the nine leaders of the Workers Committee. Though not legally recognized, the Workers Committee is operating as a union representing the workers.

After the Workers Committee was out in the street, Alcoa started slashing hard-earned benefits which the workers had won –for example, ending the distribution of blankets as a Christmas bonus and no longer providing the workers with transportation back to their home villages for the holidays.

No Voice, No Rights
Many of the Alcoa workers in Mexico say they feel like they are “in prison,” with no rights, no voice. They face arbitrary speed-ups of production lines and mandatory overtime. Their bathroom visits are limited to twice per day and they are monitored and timed.

All the workers agree that this struggle represents a critical turning point. Alcoa wants the workers to live in fear, that if they raise their voice, if they organize to defend their basic rights, they too will be fired, blacklisted and thrown out on the street with nothing.

Eighty percent of the fired workers, including all the leaders of the Workers Committee, are holding out. They are fighting for reinstatement. Sounding very much like a union, they say they will do whatever it takes to win. They will last one day longer than Alcoa. But, without income or savings, their conditions are growing more desperate. They cannot hold out forever.

“The American people may be getting used to seeing apparel sweatshops in China, Nicaragua, and Haiti, where workers churn out cheap t-shirts and shoes for the American market,” said International President Leo Gerard. “The fact that a major multi-national corporation like Alcoa is doing the very same thing in Mexico, with high-end production, will shock and anger people across the U.S. This could become the major anti-sweatshop campaign in the U.S. for 2002, with significant religious and student support.”

The USWA represents 12,000 Alcoa employees in 19 facilities nationwide including plants in Warrick, Ind.; Devenport, Iowa, Lafayette, Ind., Baton Rouge, La., Baden, N.C., Alcoa, Tenn., Wenatchee, Wash., Troutdale, Ore., Richmond, Va., Massena, N.Y., Lebanon, Pa., Point Comfort, Texas, Bauxite, Ark., Rockdale, Texas; Gum Springs, Ark., Hot Springs, Ark., and Louisville, Ky.

$86.50 a-week Falls Short of Families’ Needs

That Alcoa’s wages are below subsistence level is immediately obvious to any serious observer. In February 2001, a New York Times reporter wrote: “Despite Alcoa’s wage increases and improvements in factory conditions, its Acuña workers still live in a squalid grid of dirt streets, rotting garbage and swamps of open sewage.”


The very highest wage for the most senior and experienced Alcoa workers is $86.58 a week –including all bonuses and incentives. Even this wage does not come close to meeting basic subsistence-level needs.

 

FOR A FAMILY OF FOUR PER WEEK:

Food (the most minimal diet)............$ 59.46
Rent (cheapest government-subsidized
housing, 3 tiny rooms)……………......$ 17.91
Utilities………………....................... .$ 9.62
Bus fare to work (round trip)..............$ 5.70


TOTAL WEEKLY WAGE NEEDED
TO SURVIVE IN MEXICO.................$ 92.69

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