For the labor rights and all human rights of the maquiladora workers
News from the Chinese-Mexican-Michigan border
AFSC Now - Central Regional News & Views
By Judith Rosenberg
Lately every time I get on an airplane or land in an airport, I fall down a rabbit hole and wake up globalized. Last April, coming back from Des Moines, I ran into the ex-President of Mexico, Vicente Fox. We both had a long layover in Houston. He, his wife, and daughter were lounging in an airport fast-food court when I spied them.
Some people believe Fox should be in jail for human rights abuses during his presidency. Nevertheless, after a few double takes, I began hatching a plan to recruit him for one of AFSC's Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border) delegations to the border. I foiled myself, however; I had no ATCF brochures and was unsure of how to begin a conversation.
Later, while flying to my niece's wedding, I didn't meet any presidents, but someone more interesting. From Dallas to Detroit, I sat next to Trin Li, a young industrial engineer from Shanghai who knew a lot of English but struggled with pronunciation. Yet we communicated quite well. He was just returning from Ciudad Juárez and heading for a training facility near Motown.
He was traveling with two US colleagues; they all worked for Delphi, the GM spin-off and car parts manufacturer. Trin Li works for Delphi in Shanghai. He has a strong respect for education and is a graduate of Xian University. Currently he's working on a Master's while pursing his career. He was in the US for three weeks of Delphi training in "project management."
Delphi's operation in China supplies local, US, and Japanese carmakers producing for the new Chinese middle class, which is eager to buy personal transportation. You may know Delphi, as I do, for their maquiladoras in Mexico along the border. They are the second largest foreign employer in Mexico.
AFSC's sister organization at the border- Comite Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), or Border Committee of Women Workers - has been organizing their workers for some time in Reynosa. In 2003, 14 women, under CFO guidance, successfully sued Delphi for firing them illegally and denying severance pay. The court supported the women's claims and required the global giant to pay each the equivalent of $8,000, on average, a lot of money in the workers' community and certainly more than a worker might otherwise amass at one time.
The October 2006 ATCF delegation visited one of these ex-Delphi workers, Doña Alejandra, who put her court awarded severance pay to good use. She now owns a taco stand that supports her.
Trin Li's job in China is to recommend changes in manufacturing processes that will increase productivity- give the company more for less. I asked him for an example. "Suppose one work cycle takes ten minutes," he said. "And after that the operator rests for five minutes. If we eliminate the five minute rest following each work cycle, we can increase the productivity."
He went on to explain that the best step then for the company would be not only to eliminate the five-minute rest periods but also three out of ten workers, thus holding the rate of production the same, but reducing the company's costs. In general, he strongly favors changing the human design rather than introducing robotics. The market is so changeable, he says, and human beings so much more flexible than machines that it is safer to invest in changes among "operators" (his word for workers) than in equipment.
We didn't discuss the added benefit- from the employer's point of view-that human beings are easily replaced if they wear out, machines not. But I did raise the question of salaries. If the "operator" does 30% more work, shouldn't she be paid more? I also doubted the existence of work cycles that include five-minute rest periods. I cited seven years of worker testimony about "the pace of work" in Mexico. We began to disagree about evidence.
Trin Li was alarmed by my mention of salaries. That was not within the purview of his job, and if he didn't stick to his own work mission he would be fired. Our argument was heading toward different and incompatible sets of facts and values.
I decided to approach from a different direction. I retrieved my laptop computer from the overhead bin and offered to show Trin Li pictures of Delphi workers in Mexico, including Doña Alejandra and the CFO organizer, Maria Elena, who led the legal strategy against Delphi. Trin Li was receptive.
I showed him photos of the workers, their homes, the colonias without infrastructure in which people live while working more than fulltime, Doña and Maria, the Mexican Federal Labor Law - all 1,200 impressive pages of it - and the workers reading it. Trin Li exclaimed: "They're reading that! And they don't have a high level of education!"
I explained that they are very organized and they teach each other how to find particular laws that correspond to needs as they occur. It was an intense moment there at 26,000 feet over Michigan. Trin Li snorted.
"I have never heard of things like this! I will have to think about this." He was shaken. I was charmed. I tried to exchange email addresses but he wouldn't reveal his. This time I had an ATCF brochure and gave it to him. He promised to read it. A little later, we parted with enthusiastic handshakes.
As I write this, I am seated near my departure gate, waiting in the Detroit airport for my flight home. As I leave the world of my family, I sense I have discovered another part of the US-Mexico border here in the airport. People who work in the automotive industry surround me. To my right a woman carries a flight bag decorated with United Auto Workers logos. The man across from me talks on his cell phone and works on his laptop. He tells Joe on the other end of the connection that he's going to Mexico and will be back on Wednesday.
While apparel manufacturing disappears from the border, the total maquiladora industry is, in fact, growing again after the 2000-2003 decline, and the automotive segment leads the way. Strictly speaking, the city of Reynosa is in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas. However so many work-hungry migrants from the south have arrived, some people call it Reynosa, Veracruz. Still other people call it the Detroit of the south or, because of growth in the job market, the China of the border. Geography is not what it used to be.
Judith Rosenberg is a member of the Austin Area Program Committee and the Central Regional Executive Committee. She holds both a new doctorate and a new puppy.
www.cfomaquiladoras.org is produced in cooperation with the
Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)