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Mexican workers start to fight back

The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday May12, 1991

By Julia C. Martínez
Inquirer Staff Writer

REYNOSA, Mexico — A woman giving birth inside a factory because managers refused to take her to a hospital. Workers washing their hands in methylene chloride, a known carcinogen, to remove grease. Women exposed to hazardous chemicals giving birth to children with birth defects. Chemical wastes from factories flowing down muddied streets near workers’ homes.

These are just some of the allegations the Philadelphia-based American Friends Service Committee has documented over the last 15 years at maquiladoras, foreign-owned factories set up to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor.

And these are circumstances the Quaker, organization has been working to improve, by educating workers about their rights and by interceding to help better their working and living conditions.

“When workers come the maquiladoras, they enter a world that is far removed from any place they’ve ever been before,” said Primitivo Rodríguez, director of the Quaker organization’s U.S.-Mexico border program. “They’re not aware of the abuses. They don’t know anything else.”

Although many big corporations, such as General Motors, are considered to have clean, safe working environments and have a reputation of treating workers fairly, many other companies consistently violate Mexican laws, said Rosemary R. Miranda, a McAllen, Texas, lawyer who works on AFSC’s Mexico project.

Since 1976 the AFSC has been documenting cases of abuse and unfair and unsafe working conditions at border assembly plants. Through its efforts, conditions in some factories have improved, she said.

“I get the feeling that these corporations are good corporate citizens in the United States, but the minute they cross the border they think they can get away with all sorts of stuff,” Miranda said.

But Robert L. González, president of the Economic Development Council in Brownsville, Texas, which promotes the maquilas, says, “Many of these plants are new and are even nicer than some U.S. plants, which are old, dirty and unsafe. To say (the Mexican plants) are unsafe…is untrue.”

Nevertheless, Miranda says, it took a plant in Reynosa 20 years to find a way for workers to wash sensitive electronic components without putting their hands in chemical solvents. With a push from young female workers educated about the law by the AFSC, the company last summer changed methods.

Some of the most frequent complaints have to do with forced overtime, arbitrary firings, short pay and exploitation of women, she said.

The Mexican government started the maquila program in 1965 to find employment for more than 180,000 border residents left jobless by the end of the U.S. bracero, or farm worker program. Mexican workers had been allowed to make up for the shortage of domestic labor in the United States during War World II, but in 1964, under pressure from labor unions, the United States canceled the program.

Critics, however, complain that the maquilas are not providing work for the Mexican farm laborers, most of whom were men. Instead, the plants have employed mostly young women 16 to 23 years of age. That ratio has changed slightly in recent years as more heavy duty industry moved to Mexico: in the 1970’s, only a fifth of all workers were male; today, nearly a third are, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank.

Rodríguez said women were the workers of choice because they were willing to hold a job for a lower wage and were not as likely as men to unionize or complain about working conditions. For many young Mexican women, work in maquilas represent the first formal jobs they’ve ever had.

“They feel grateful to have a job, so they don’t complain if the lighting is bad or the ventilation is poor or they can’t get to a restroom during their breaks because the plant’s only two bathrooms were full,” Rodríguez said. “They say it’s just bad luck. It doesn’t occur to them that they’re working for some of the richest companies in the world.”

Through meetings with workers in their homes along the border, the Quakers try to determine what abuses are occurring and educate the workers about their rights under Mexican law. They also help workers from support groups to take their concerns to management.

“The law is the best weapon the workers have for improving conditions,” Rodríguez said. “We’re not asking them to do anything wrong, just help companies comply with the law.”

Today, AFSC estimates that more than 10,000 worker have been involved in worker rights groups. In plants located mainly in Matamoros across from Brownsville, Texas, the workers have succeeded in making major changes in some factories, Rodríguez said.

They have improved wages, obtained such safety equipment as gloves and eyeglasses, forced the installation of vents and air-filter systems and ended free overtime. Some of the successes are attributable to labor unions, which are stronger in Matamoros than in any other border city.

But many more changes are needed, Rodríguez said. More than 1,900 assembly plants operate in Mexico, and it is expected that many more would open under a free trade agreement.

“The companies assume that every poor Mexican need a job and is ready for abuse,” Said Rodríguez. “We’re trying to change that.”

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