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ORGANIZING IN THE MAQUILAS

NCLA Report on the Americas/Free Trade
Volume XXIV, Number 6 (May 1991)

By Miriam Davidson

Nearly half a million Mexicans are currently employed in maquiladoras . The 1500 in-bond assembly plants clustered along Mexico 's northern border. These overwhelmingly U.S.-owned businesses import most of their inputs from the United States and produce exclusively for export. If the free trade agreement goes through, many more are expected to set up shop, lured by low wages (about 50 cents an hour), lax worker health and safety standards, low axes, weak environmental protection laws, and a primarily female, non-unionized work force.

The lack of labor organizations is a main selling point for maquiladora promoters, says Victor Muñoz, an AFL-CIO representative in El Paso . "The whole climate along the border is very anti-union," Muñoz adds. Only about 10 percent of the maquiladora workforce is organized, compared to 25 percent of all Mexican workers. Because maquilas have brought desperately-needed jobs and hard currency to Mexico , criticism has been muted.

Many if not most of the 400,000-plus workers live in cardboard shacks in squatters' camps surrounding the factories, without light, heat, or running water. Disease is widespread, due to the lack of health care and sanitation. Even if adequate housing were available, most employees make barely enough money to feed and clothe their families. Many of them work with dangerous machinery or chemicals without adequate protection or training. Casual toxic waste dumping is thought to be common, due to the lack of controls by the Mexican environmental protection agency. Residents of one shantytown in Nogales , Sonora store drinking water in discarded chemical drums salvaged from maquilas.

Add to these conditions the reluctance of Mexican unions to call attention to problems, and the situation is, on the whole, very bleak for maquiladora workers. Membership in official unions affiliated with the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) does not guarantee representation, since the unions share the government's favorable view of maquilas. According to Victor Clark Alfaro, head of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana , workers who have tried to form independent unions have been fired, blacklisted, arrested, tortured, and even killed.

All 1,200 workers at a Eureka vacuum cleaner plant in El Paso walked off the job in 1988 after the company fired 20 employees who had tried to organize a union. "When the workers were outside," said AFL-CIO representative Victor

Muñoz, "the company security force and the police started beating them up, hitting the women with baseball bats, and then they tear-gassed them." Muñoz claims some companies prevent local fire or emergency personnel from entering their plants: "When there's an explosion or an accident, the supervisors carry injured workers to the door to be picked up, no matter what condition they're in."

Nevertheless, some organizing is going on in and around the maquilas. Much of it is informal and underground, or in response to a specific condition in a particular workplace. Rather than mounting a challenge to the powerful CTM, workers have tried fielding their own candidates in CTM elections, or agreeing to CTM representation in return for a commitment to push for certain demands.

In the gulf coast city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, a dynamic and charismatic CTM leader named Agapito Gonzáles has managed to win the shortest work week (40 hours) and the highest pay in the region (about $5 a day) for almost every maquiladora employee in town. Gonzáles is the exception in the CTM, however, and no one equally capable of challenging the pro maquila stance of the official unions has emerged in any other border city.

In the numerous cities and towns of the Rio Grande Valley , an informal confederation of women's committees, the CFO (the Confederation of Border Workers) has managed to implement a number of improvements in their factories, such as gloves, fans and other safety equipment, clean bathrooms, and an end to verbal harassment by superiors. These committees work to improve conditions in the shantytowns, and to disseminate information about health care, nutrition, and potential hazards at work. The CFO has been aided in these efforts by the Comité de Apoyo, a binational support group made up of religious, community, labor, and university leaders founded in 1980. When the Comit6 de Apoyo learned that workers at a Kemet plant in Matamoros were washing chemicals off equipment with their bare hands, it contacted the United Church of Christ, which owns stock in Kemet's parent company, Union Carbide.

Soon after church officials complained, Kemet provided gloves and tongs.

West of the Rio Grande Valley , the level of organizing is less visible. In El Paso , Victor Muñoz estimates that only 10 of 330 maquiladoras are represented by labor organizations. In Nogales , the number drops to one or two out of 70, and in Tijuana , fewer than 50 of 600 have unions. Too often, these unions are worse than ineffectual. Last November, in Agua Prieta, across from Douglas , Arizona , leaders of another official union, the CROC, encouraged workers to strike after the clothing maquila where they worked hadn't paid them in five weeks. Once the strike began, the workers learned that union leaders were in league with the company's owners. The maquila closed its doors and sold off the equipment; the workers have yet to receive any payment.

All along the border, observers are discouraged about the effect the free trade agreement may have on maquiladora workers. University of Arizona economist Arthur Silvers argues that increased competition among U.S. industries will lead to higher wages and improved standards of living. Victor Muñoz disagrees: "They used to say the same thing about maquiladoras." The huge supply of Mexican labor and the desire of the Mexican government and U.S. industry will work to keep wages down. Neither Muñoz nor Silver believes the free trade deal, as currently envisioned, will effect worker health and safety standards and border environmental problems. With or without free trade, the workers' only hope for improved conditions seems to lie in informal, underground organizing that doesn't threaten the status quo.

Miriam Davidson is a freelance journalist who specializes in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

 

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