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de Obrer@s


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

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Mexicans need fair wages, not just backpacks

New Hampshire Business Review
June 14 -27, 2002

By Arnie Alpert

Ciudad Acuña, a Mexican city on the Texas border, has an industrial base New Hampshire municipal leaders would die for. Sixty factories employ tens of thousands of workers. Yet the schools are so poor Acuña’s children depend for basis supplies on Conval High School grads who started a “Backpacks to Mexico” club.

“The schools are ramshackle and made of cardboard; they’re not conducive to education,” Adar Cohen, a Peterborough resident and Wheaton College sophomore told the Keene Sentinel (April 6, 2002). “A lot of the kids never owned a pencil.”

Acuña’s employers are not fly-by-night operators. The biggest employer is Alcoa Fujikura, a division of Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, whose plants in Acuña and nearby Piedras Negras make electrical systems for automobile engines. The plants, known as maquiladoras, are clean, modern and perhaps as productive as the fiber optics factory Alcoa Fujikura owns in Belmont, NH.

Bur workers for companies like Alcoa, GE, Allied Signal and more are paid so little they live on shanties made of cardboard, cinder blocks, corrugated metal, scraps of plywood or whatever materials people can get their hands on. They have no drinkable water. Half the homes have no toilets. A New York Times article (Feb. 14, 2001) described the neighborhood as “squalid grid of dirt streets, rotting garbage and swamps of open sewage.”

When I visited Acuña two years ago, an Alcoa worker named Christina showed me her pay stub. She was working 50 hours a week for 472 pesos, at that time worth about $52. While $1.04 an hour might go a little further in Mexico than in New Hampshire, the cost of living is out of reach for Alcoa workers.

Dr. Ruth Rosenbaum of the Center for Reflection, Education and Action in Hartford, Conn., studies wages and the cost of living in communities near the U.S. border. She said someone at Christina wage level would have to work more than seven hours to buy a cheap pair of children sneakers and almost five hours for a boy’s pair of pants.

“The wages paid maquiladora workers for a full work week do not enable them to meet basic human needs of their family for nutrition, housing, clothing and non-consumables,” said Rosenbaum.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement was under consideration in 1993, NAFTA critics cited the low wages and miserable living conditions of the workers. The agreement’s boosters said increased trade would lift incomes and improve conditions south of the border. Eight years of experience has proved NAFTA’s boosters wrong.

According to a survey by the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, a grassroots organization that promotes union democracy and worker’s rights, real wages have declined since NAFTA went into effect. Trade has increased, and jobs continue to flow south, but Mexicans have seen little benefit.

And companies like Alcoa pay such low taxes that cities like Acuña have little to spend on essential services like street paving, drinking water, and schools. The city’s budget in 2000 was just $9 million. With a population of 150,000, that comes to just $60 for each person. In contrast, Manchester, a comparable sized city spends about $850 for each resident.

Acuña’s workers are not helpless. In fact, in a city with no formal unions, Alcoa workers have several times taken collective action to protest low wages and poor working conditions. With assistance from the American Friends Service Committee, they have even attended the company’s stockholder meetings and met with top executives. Some improvements have resulted. But the company continues to resist wage levels sufficient for parents to buy basic school supplies for their kids. Workers who have stood up for their rights have been fired and blacklisted.

In nearby Piedras Negras, where workers associated with the CFO ousted corrupted union leaders in a democratic election, Alcoa has conspired with the old guard to keep the new leaders powerless.

Meanwhile, Alcoa Fujikura is building a new factory in Nicaragua, where wages are even lower.

The assistance provided by the Backpacks to Mexico project is a source of hope. After all, it takes 12 hours of work to get enough money to buy a book bag, and approximately four hours to fill it with a notebook and pencils. And once they have paid for food and other necessities, there’s nothing left on the family peso to buy school supplies anyway. Mexican workers need to earn a living wage for their labor, and communities need taxes sufficient to pay for schools. The same could be said here.


Arnie Alpert, New Hampshire Program Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, visited Ciudad Acuña and Piedras Negras in 2000.


    is produced in cooperation with the
Mexico-U.S Border Program
of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)
Monterrey #1103, Col. Las Fuentes
Piedras Negras, Coahuila
C.P. 26010, México