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Maquiladoras meltdown

As the multinationals' factories leave Mexico for cheaper pastures, a bad situation for workers gets worse

Montrealmirror.com
Sep 25-Oct 1.2003 Vol. 19 No. 15

By Ken Hechtman

Globalization at work: Gildan employee

While the anti-globalization protests were raging in Cancun-the Mexican press call them globalicriticos when they like them and globaliphobicos when they don't-at the other end of the country, Mexico was still losing the race to the bottom.

The border city of Matamoros , on the Gulf Coast across the Rio Grande from Brownsville , Texas , has been called the birthplace of globalization because the first maquiladora-or cross-border factory-was built here in 1965. At their peak in 1994, 2,589 maquiladoras employed 641,000 people (among the Me xican maquiladoras counts Montreal-based Gildan Active Wear, official T-shirt manufacturers for the Jazz Fest).

In the last two years, however, dozens of factories employing a third of the maquiladora labour force have moved, mostly to China and Guatemala , in search of cheaper labour, lower health, safety and environmental standards and more ruthless local law-enforcement authorities.

Bothersome rules

Nobody can blame the Me xican government for not trying to keep them there. Two years ago, Francisco Guerra, director of the Matamoros office of the Me xican environmental protection agency, was a regular fixture in maquiladora exposés. He'd explain to anyone who asked that his agency had no lab facilities to test soil or water samples, no money for outside tests and consequently had to rely on the maquiladoras' own test results. "Certainly, the results are doctored," he told graduate journalism students at UC Berkeley who were covering the issue in the fall of 2000.

It wasn't much of a surprise to learn that Guerra doesn't work there anymore and his replacement, Felipe Sanchez, is a lot more careful about what he says for publication. On the same question, Sanchez answers, "It may happen that the results are fake. If we think they're fake we can do the test ourselves."

The last time he challenged any company's test results? Six months ago, on a lot next to a gas station. The last time he challenged a maquiladora's results? Never.

The maquiladora sector is governed by a slew of local, national and transnational laws. Transportation of waste, for instance, falls under Me xican law. A factory that imports its raw materials must export the ensuing waste products back to the country of origin, and enforcing this is part of Sanchez's job. Once again, he relies on the companies to report their toxic exports and he can verify that outgoing trucks actually contain what's listed on the manifests. Incoming trucks full of raw materials have to stop at customs and declare their contents and destination. From this information, it shouldn't be too hard to put together a picture of which companies are producing which wastes in what quantities and make them account for it. Unfortunately, Sanchez says he doesn't have access to customs data. Which would mean that anyone can dump anything anywhere and he'd never know it. "You're being extreme," Sanchez protested against that charge.

Hardly. Extreme is when a 10-year-old girl falls into an illegal and unmarked toxic dump near the Maquila Works jewellery factory and the acids burn all the skin off her legs. When her father sued the company, court officials claimed to have lost the paperwork three times in the last two years and his lawyer, Ohmeira Lopez of the Border Center for Human Rights, fully expects them to continue losing it until he gets the message and goes away.

Beatings and blacklists

Labour standards haven't done any better. All maquiladora workers are members of the Confederation of Me xican Workers (CTM), considered by critics to be a corrupt, compliant, politically-connected company union.

"Maria La Luz," a former organizer with the rival Border Committee of Women Workers (CFO) wouldn't let her real name be used because of the industry's nation-wide blacklist. "If you challenge the maquiladoras or the CTM, you get fired and then no other company will hire you," La Luz explains. The CFO deliberately relied on women organizers because the police were more reluctant to torture and kill women. They also hoped to avoid a conflict with the CTM by not explicitly calling themselves a union. It didn't help. Although they still exist in other parts of the country, they were crushed in Matamoros in the late '90s and a visibly terrified La Luz wouldn't answer questions about how it happened.

She's returned to factory work at half the money she made 10 years ago. Her pay stub shows a take-home pay of 600 pesos-about $70 Canadian-for a 56-hour week.

This is actually worse than it sounds. Northern Me xico is flooded with narco-dollars and everything costs one-and-a-half to three times what it does in Canada . "On Friday I get paid, by Sunday I have nothing left," La Luz says. "There doesn't exist anyone who can provide for their family on this, but the gringo foreman said to me, 'This is what you have to live on and not a cent more. Take it or leave it.'"

La Luz has given up on labour organizing for now. "If anyone new wants to take it on, I'll answer their questions and maybe they can achieve something, but I'm not even thinking about it," she says.

Crushing resistance

Ohmeira Lopez described what happens to workers who don't either take it or leave it. In June 2000, there was a strike at the Duro giftwrapping plant in Rio Bravo, the next town over from Matamoros . On June 19, the strike was broken with an assault by armed plainclothed soldiers, federales and judiciales, police officers from the justice department. Although none are visible in Lopez's photos of the attack, she says that uniformed agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the dreaded la migra, were there as well.

Lopez presented an affidavit from 13 strikers, mostly women, injured in the attack to the National Human Rights Commission in March 2001. Nothing was done. Nothing is expected to be done. Also mentioned in the affidavit is the charge that on the day of the attack, the strike leader, Felipe de Jésus Valdez , was abducted from his home and tortured for three days by federales. According to Lopez, Valdez disappeared in 2002 and no one knows where he is now.

Juan Villafuerte Morales represents 48,000 maquiladora workers in one of three CTM-affiliated unions in Matamoros . The CFO, human rights lawyers and journalists have accused him of corruption and compliance, but never of being stupid. He can read an employment graph as well as anyone and he knows that, at the current rate of decline, the entire maquiladora sector will be wiped out in five years.

"They used to accuse Me xicans of stealing American and Canadian jobs because we'd take $60 a week where they make $60 a day. Nobody wants to hire a Me xican for $60 a week when they can get a Guatemalan for $60 a month or a Chinese worker for half of that," Morales says.

He describes the benefits his union had won which now make Me xico uncompetitive in the global market. "The company has responsibilities to provide housing, health insurance and overtime pay."

(Lopez clarifies: the houses don't have electricity or running water, health insurance means a cursory checkup from the company doctor and no compensation for work-related injuries, and overtime pay is rarely collected.)

" China doesn't provide these things," says Morales. "The Chinese work day is 12 hours. Me xico doesn't allow workers under 17. China uses 10- and 12-year-olds."

He doesn't see much hope. "Wages are dropping all over Me xico and the only way to create new jobs is to lower them even more. We don't want to accept pay cuts down to $60 a month. All the unions are trying to push the government to get out of the FTAA and WTO. We want to defend our jobs, but we also need to defend basic minimum conditions so workers can live."

Deportation & destitution

In nearby Reynosa , Luis Valdez and José Juan were found sitting on church steps under the Día del Migrante [Day of the Migrant] banner, a commemoration of those who have died trying to cross the border illegally. Five years ago, they'd bought a package of fake ID cards (green card, social security and driver's licence) for $150 ( U.S. ) and taken the long and dangerous walk through the Texas desert. They found work in an auto parts factory in Travers City, Michigan-until la migra caught and deported them two weeks ago.

When they were deported, they had to leave all their money and possessions behind in the U.S. The Border Patrol confiscates deportees' cash and issues a cheque marked "not valid without both signatures" of two border policemen. Valdez and Juan's cheques, for $50 and $350 ( U.S. ) respectively, only have one signature. They say this is standard practice.

They plan to get new sets of ID and return to the U.S. "I didn't even try to get a maquiladora job," says Valdez . His tone says he didn't even think about it.

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