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CFO

For the labor rights and all human rights of the maquiladora workers

 
   
   
   
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BORDER WORKERS STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE

Arizona Daily Star
July 23, 2000

Mexico’s minimum wage of 38 pesos ($3.80) a day is unlivable, say labor activists, whose push to get it raised will impact the entire Mexico/Arizona border area.

By Ignacio Ibarra

Agua Prieta, Sonora –Labor activists are pushing for an increase in Mexico’s minimum wage, saying workers are struggling to survive in areas like American-owned maquiladora factories along the Mexico-Arizona border.

They plan to tell President elect Vicente Fox and a national commission that the minimum wage of 38 pesos ($3.80) a day is inadequate in the border’s “dollarized” economy. They say it doesn’t conform to Mexico’s Constitution, which mandates compensation that provides for the basic needs and dignity of the worker and his family.

Even with bonuses and incentive payments, workers at the maquiladoras earn about 500 pesos ($50) a week, said Pola Pantoja, co-director of the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (Border Labor Committee) of Agua Prieta.

She said the only beneficiaries of such poverty-level wages are the owners of the maquiladoras, many of them companies that have moved their manufacturing operations from Arizona and other U.S. states to Mexico.

“Workers in the United States should not have to lose their jobs so that Mexican workers can be exploited,” Pantoja said.

The issue could affect Arizonans in other ways, too, from boosting the economy to discouraging illegal immigration from Mexico.

The U.S. border region, which is heavily dependent on Mexican shoppers, would benefit if Mexican factory workers had more money to spend. Research has shown that a “considerable portion of the maquiladora workers’ salaries were spent in Arizona’s border towns,” said Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi of the University of Arizona’s Office of Economic Development.

But maquiladora industry spokesmen say production workers at the maquiladoras earn 2.5 times the minimum wage for the region. That makes the more than 2 million workers in Mexico’s 4,000 maquila factories among the highest-paid unskilled workers in Mexico.

The industry also argues that a large salary increase could damage the competitiveness of Mexico’s maquiladora industry, which is already facing increasing pressure from developing countries where labor is even cheaper.

And instability in the maquila industry could threaten the estimated 1 million jobs in the United States that rely directly or indirectly on the Mexican border plants.

The effects could be still more devastating to Mexico’s domestic industry, which already has trouble competing with the maquiladora industry and immigration to the United States –legal or illegal – for labor.

Minimum-wage workers on the border (Mexico’s zone A) earn about 3 pesos (30 cents) per day more than minimum-wage workers in central Mexico (zone B) and 6 pesos (60 cents) more that minimum-wage workers in southern Mexico (zone C).

Martha Ojeda, executive director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a pro-worker advocacy group based in San Antonio, Texas, said the maquiladora industry has successfully used the same arguments against higher pay for nearly a decade.

And, in that time, Mexican workers have seen the purchasing power of their earnings decline by more than 40 percent.

She said Mexican labor groups along the border would launch a campaign next month to document the decline’s effect on families. They will then present the information to Mexico’s National Commission on Minimum Wage when it meets in November to discuss adjustments for the coming year.

The commission meets every year, but the July 2 election of Fox, the opposition presidential candidate who ended 71 years of domination by Mexico’s ruling party, has introduced an element to the debate –and an opening for the activists, Ojeda said.

She said they are watching to see how Fox’s party “responds to the needs of the people, how they will deal with poverty, the real state of the national economy.”

Fox has made no specific statements regarding the national minimum wage. But last week, while discussing his proposal for a more open border between the United States and Mexico, he told reporters that the “challenge for the United States and Mexico is to close that brutal difference between the income of a worker on the Mexican side who makes $5 a day and the $60 that he makes on the American side doing the same job.”

Several recent studies, including one conducted by the Mexican sub-secretariat of labor, have concluded that the official minimum is inadequate to provide a Mexican family of four or five people with food, housing, clothing and other basic needs.

The minimum wage is so low that according with the National Institute for Statistics and Geography (INEGI), only 12 percent of the population earns the minimum wage or less, while learning half of the population earns up to two minimum-wage equivalents.

The significance is underscored by a study conducted by the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which determined that the average family needs between three and five minimum wage equivalent to meet its basic needs. The Mexican labor department’s study put the figure at 4.54 minimum wages, a pay level achieved by only about 10 percent of the working population.

That’s no surprise to the women who head maquila households, many of whom do double duty as factory workers themselves.

Juliana de los Santos, 36, works six eight hour days each week at the minimum wages of about 38 pesos per day at Adflex Systems, where she makes flexible wire cabling for the computer industry. With overtime, bonuses and incentive payments, she takes home between 450 and 500 pesos ($45 to $50) a week, roughly twice the minimum wage.

“We spend about 300 pesos a week on food, just basics, beans, potatoes, and eggs. I also have to set money aside for the rent, another 160 pesos a month for electricity and water… It doesn’t reach; there is not enough money, “ she said.

There are other expenses, said her husband Miguel Angel Melendez. They spend about 400 pesos per quarter for their son’s tuition at a local trade school, and they must also buy fuel for their older-model compact car and fill the propane tank they use for cooking and heating.

“You have to limit your purchase to necessities. Sometimes, the children need clothing or something for school, and you don’t have it and you can’t, so you put that off,” said Melendez.

To make ends meet, the Melendez family shares its home and splits the rent with Miguel’s sister and her children, putting a total of seven people in the four-room apartment.

And last month the struggle to make ends meet got harder. At the end of June, Melendez lost his job at Adaflex Systems, which is relocating to Thailand, where factory workers’ pay is even lower.

He got a 10,000 pesos ($1,000) severance package form the Arizona Company, which is based in Chandler. He spends his days working at any day-labor jobs he can find and applying at other factories.

His wife’s job will be gone by the end of the week, and Adaflex –which once employed more than 2,000 people –is expected to shut down its operation in Agua Prieta completely by mid-August.

Florinda Escobar Maldonado’s family is also struggling. Her husband, Pedro Maldonado, came to Agua Prieta from the highlands of Chiapas, seven years ago, attracted by the maquiladora industry, which paid more that twice what he could earn as an agricultural laborer back home.

He bought a small piece of land on the southwest edge of the city and built a small shack so his wife and the children could join him four years ago. The tiny plywood shack has given way slowly to a four-room concrete house that still has dirt floors but provides a home for the family of seven.

Maldonado works in the construction industry, which is flourishing in Agua Prieta, due in large part to the constant arrival of immigrants from central and southern Mexico who are headed for the United States.

His two daughters, ages 17 and 24, work at maquiladoras making seat belts and electronic components for U.S.-owned companies. His eldest son crossed illegally into the United States some time ago and is working somewhere in Phoenix.

Escobar said her husband earns about 600 pesos a week, and her daughters each contribute about a quarter of the 400 pesos they earn each week to the family expenses. She estimates that she expend 400 pesos a week in food and said that meals consist primarily of beans, tortillas and eggs supplemented by other vegetables the family grows in a small garden.

“Now and then, if we can, we have a little bit of meat, in a soup or a stew,” she said. “Look, you can see we aren’t living in what can be called a mansion; we are living in poverty, we’re struggling very hard. But in Chiapas, where we came from, things were much worse than here.”

She said the family spends another 200 or 300 pesos a month on the mortgage and 200 more for utilities. She relies on help from her church for minor medical care and used clothing for the children. She and her husband do without.

“You make do. In four years, I haven’t bought a single bit of clothing. In all that time, the only new dress I’ve gotten is one my children bought me on Mother’s Day,” she said.

While she would like to see the wages go up, she said every other little income boost that working families have received in recent years was eaten up by increased costs for food and other necessities. She has no expectation her quality of life will improve.

Boris Kozolchyk, president of the National Law Center for Inter-American Free Trade in Tucson, said the Mexican government will likely raise salaries in January, but he expects an increase strategy of holding down inflation by suppressing wages.

Manuel Lira, secretary of labor for CROM, the national maquila-workers union, which represents 4,000 of the nearly 9,000 maquila workers in Agua Prieta, said he favors higher wages. CROM workers currently earn about 4 pesos (40 cents) above the minimum per day.

But the city as lost nearly 1,000 maquiladora jobs to other border cities where salaries are lower, like Reynosa in Tamaulipas state, bordering Texas. And the loss of Adaflex Systems to Thailand will leave another 2,000 workers idle.

Araceli Almaraz, a professor of economics at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Mexicali, Baja California, says higher wages on the border could also increase a flow of people from Mexico’s interior to the border.

While that would have an adverse effect on domestic industry, it could help slow the flow of illegal immigration to the United States. “But we wouldn’t see those changes right away,” she said.

Higher maquila wages would also draw more people to the border, adding to the overcrowding and lack of housing, water and sanitation in border cities. Those are some of the adverse impacts that have to be considered when talking about wage increases in the border region, said Luis Peralta, who heads the Maquiladora Association in Nogales, Sonora.

“We’re already having problems competing as far as wages and costs with other manufacturing zones around the globe, such as Asia, such as Central America, Africa, the Philippines, etc…zones where the cost of production is much lower than ours,” Peralta said.

While some companies may, in fact, relocate, Pavlakovich-Kochi, program director of the UA’s office of Economic Development, said there are strong incentives to stay in Mexico, including lower transportation costs, stable supply lines, an increasingly status under the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Although losing industry and jobs to other countries would not be good for the border region, some of the companies that choose to leave could also relocate to Mexico’s interior, providing jobs in southern states that are feeding the migration north, she said.

“If where to happen, it would be more in line with what the Mexican government says it wants: more companies moving to the interior,” said Pavlakovich-Kochi.

She and other analysts say the Mexican maquila industry has also evolved in its 40 years plus of history, from assembly of products from imported goods to full in-house production from design to manufacturing of the finished product.

And, as the skills and work experience increase, so do the wages the workers can demand.

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