For the labor rights and all human rights of the maquiladora workers
The Border - The Bridge that links two countries, two worlds
By Michelle Tarantino
Michelle Tarantino, student from the Communication Arts High School in San Antonio, went with Alcoa Shareholders delegation in February 2008 to Ciudad Acuña and Piedras Negras. This is the magazine about the trip for her class.
Driving onto the Alcoa premises felt very much like driving into a gated community: A guard greeted us at the car window asking us to please sign in, there were streets and sidewalks connecting nine different plants, and people were casually walking around everywhere you looked. The only real difference I could see was the absence of landscaping and the presence of many large trucks.
Alcoa is an American company that specializes in aluminum based products and components. The company employs 97,000 people in thirty-four countries with thirty-four different federal labor laws that need to be followed. I accompanied shareholders concerned with social responsibility to Acuna, Mexico, where we visited a factory that fell under the Electrical and Electronic Solutions branch. Before the tour began, we were supplied with safety glasses, and then presented with two easels filled with the plants general information. Built in 1986, the plant stands at 64,436 square feet. The workers are primarily male with a sixty forty split, and the education levels are nothing to brag about. Thirty-eight percent of the workers have an elementary education, and only 17% finished high school. Two shifts are usually run, one starting at 7a.m and ending at Sp.m, while the second shift starts at Sp.m and ends at 12a.m. Each worker is supposed to have three breaks everyday: fifteen minutes in the morning, thirty minutes for lunch and ten minutes in the afternoon. Daily salaries range from sixty-seven to two hundred pesos, with an average of one hundred and nine pesos a day. With an exchange rate of eleven pesos to one dollar, this is roughly the equivalent of ten American dollars.
"Does anyone have any questions?" the supervisor eventually asked. Silence answered him, and the doors leading into the factory finally opened.
The structure reminded me of a warehouse: the ceilings were roughly twenty-five feet high, and the floor was the dull gray of glossed over cement. To the right of me, blue racks held rainbow colored wires the workers used in constructing their harnesses. Stationary machines stood to the left of me, with even more wires spilling over every surface. The workers wear no uniforms, other than the gray gloves provided by the company. People with special positions did have colored shirts to signify their authority: team leaders wore yellow, routers wore orange and supervisors wore blue. Team leaders are in charge of small areas, whereas several supervisors overlooked the entire plant. Routers are in charge of getting all necessary materials to the machines. I noticed that certain women were wearing heels and dangling jewelry as the plant manager, Raul Salinas, assured us that pregnant women now have chairs to sit in while they work. Some workers were provided with black mats, placed on the floor with yellow tape, in a hope to relieve their feet of the stresses from standing all day.
Cork bulletin boards hang on the wall next to the cafeteria, covered with colorful graphs displaying the plant's production numbers. The director of operations, Mark Doss, informed us that all cafeterias have monetary ATM's that can be used during breaks at work. Payroll is directly deposited every week to the Banamex bank accounts workers are required to have.
Factory life is run on a tight schedule, one that hardly alters. The entire factory does shut down for two weeks in the summer and two weeks during Christmas, but all other vacation days must be earned, just like most other jobs. Termination can be expected after four unexcused absences, but again, that is like most other jobs. The real differences between factory life in Mexico and a more traditional job lies in what can't be seen in a tour.
Facilitating from the Sidelines
As Alcoa workers and executives faced off in one of their meetings, I sat on the sidelines with Sister Susan Mika, and three other people with religious affiliations: John of the Passionate Priests in Chicago, Pat of the Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh, and Ricardo of the American Friends Service of the Quakers in Philadelphia. Our being in the room may not make sense, but the hard work and determination of those people made these meetings possible. All from different religious organizations, these four people had one thing in common, their membership in the Socially Responsible Investment Coalition. This organization, made of religious sects, utilized their powers as shareholders by encouraging large corporations to maintain a moral responsibility when dealing with social and economic factors of business.
The Benedictine Sisters of Boerne, Texas owned roughly three thousand dollars worth of shares in Alcoa in 1995, and the sisters decided to file a stockholder resolution with Alcoa in order to address working conditions in Mexico. The corporate secretary came to Acuna, Mexico to meet with workers and shareholders, and to discuss the main problems facing factory. Afterwards, Sister Susan Mika wrote a letter to then CEO, Paul O'Neill, summarizing shareholder concerns. No response ever came, so the Sisters decided to have several workers present their case at the annual shareholder's meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mika claims "You could have heard a pin drop, as the workers described their situation."
The workers spent an extra hour and a half with with Paul O'Neill in order to discuss factory problems more in depth. After invedtigating the issues, O'Neill immediately raised wages by $5.30 a week, and fired the CEO of that specific division of Alcoa.
CEO's following O'Neill wanted to continue meeting with factory workers and shareholders, so the Pilot Project was created to keep the lines of communication open. Human resources personnel, plant officials and workers meet every two to three months to discuss working conditions.
On one side of me, three men sat quietly in suits, with briefcases sitting beside them and papers scattered out in front of them. On my other side, a number of women and men in casual clothing sat in a row, talking quietly while anxiously eyeing the three men I mentioned earlier. This may sound like a bad situation, especially since I was in Mexico, but thankfully it wasn't. The people surrounding me all worked for Alcoa, and were partaking in the Pilot Project that brought factory workers and corporate executi ves together to discuss worker issues.
Workers from Piedras Negras have been meeting with Alcoa since October 2006. The Acuña workers began meeting this January. The meetings are civil and even quite personal, as there are few workers present. The face to face method ensured the workers that all problems would be acknowledged, while allowing the President, Walt Frankiewicz, and Vice President, Jim Borsi, a chance to explain themselves and become aware of what went on in the factories.
The first issue mentioned, in both cities, was salaries. In Piedras Negras workers deemed a four percent increase in wages too low. "Wages have been stagnant for more than three years and the cost of living has increased more than that percentage," the workers stated in their outline. At the meeting in Acuna, Frankiewicz attempted to explain to the workers the many factors behind wages, such as the company's overall profit. "As we continue to provide wire equipment to companies that end their year in a deficit, we too end our year barely breaking even, making it hard to raise salaries" he explained. The simple concepts of economics are lost to the under-educated workers, who only see that the price of living is steadily rising and their incomes aren't catching up. Providing for a family can be quite tricky when you make roughly sixty dollars a week.
In Acuña, the workers requested to know what had been addressed from previous meetings. Borsi announced that pregnant women were now allowed absences for doctor visits, but only when scheduled with a specialist, which did not include a gynecologist. This mendment seemed to contradict itself, and the workers were not happy. "What is con¬sidered a specialist?" one worker asked. Another wondered what other doctor a pregnant woman would visit. Joca San Martin, the human resources representa¬tive, explained that gynecologists have flexible hours therefore they are not specialists. The issue was argued for quite some time, until the executives an¬nounced that they would clearly define the term "special ist." I didn't think the definition was the real problem.
Workers from Piedras Negras started their meeting on a positive note, acknowledging the changes they had seen at their factories due to the Pilot Project. Afterwards, the issues concerning the workers were once again addressed, as each worker explained certain problems and then shared personal stories. One worker explained that he never brings up personal issues, because investiga¬tors never find any truth in his claims. Borsi said,"You need to bring little prob¬lems to local levels and you need avenue for that. If the problem isn't addressed, then you should bring it to the meeting." Borsi seemed aggravated by the inefficiency of the four-hour meetings, but it is the only chance workers have to truly communicate with corporate executives, which can be quite a nerve wrecking ex¬penence.
When the meeting ended the company executives and the workers joined in sharing casual conversation and laughter. The stereotypical views of helpless workers and heartless ex¬ecutives aren't found at these meetings. Instead, workers full of voice and angst stand before you,just needing a nudge in the right direction, and executives seem to truly care and attempt to fix many problems. Self-interest is at the heart of all involved, starting with the executives desire to run a profitable company, and ending with worker's desires to have a sustainable income.
Problems will continue to exist in large corporations that run plants in third-world countries, but these same corporations must accept their social responsibility when dealing with em¬ployees and their host country One of the most important jobs of internation¬ al businesses is to stimulate economic growth and maintain positive relations between the two partnering countries. Alcoa executives did not always focus on worker's rights, and many issues still need to be addressed within the com¬pany, but progress is being made as the lines of communication are opening.
You would think that worker abuse ended with the job, right? Well, that isn't always the case in these border towns. Sometimes employees that are released on bad terms get blacklisted. This phrase describes situations in which companies, such as Alcoa, makes lists of former workers who they believe don't deserve jobs and then pass them out to other employers, who then deny those listed of jobs.
Still, the problem remains that certain workers are incapable of finding employment after losing a factory job, and even those who continue to work at factories remain frustrated with their conditions and wages. Surprisingly an alternative does exist, and we have the angered unemployed to thank.
Throughout the border towns of Mexico are small textile factories that are worker owned and operated. Julia Quinonez, a former Alcoa employee that now helps represent and organize arguments for current Alcoa employees in the Pilot Project meetings, runs one found in Piedras Negras.
The small building known as the "Justicia and Dignidada Maquiladora (the Justified and Dignified Maquiladora,)" employs roughly fifteen women, who spend their days among fabric and sewing machines, creating canvas bags and clothes with material provided by organic goods. com. The walls are filled with different patterns, and hand-made posters displaying the rules and beliefs of the factory.
"We work towards providing fair wages to our workers," Julia explained as we toured the factory. Photography was not only allowed, but encouraged, and one worker even insisted that I try on one of their newest designs. "A man from Paris has been sending us patterns, and we are testing the profits margin now," she explained, while pulling the grey dress over my head.
The entire premises radiated with positive energy, but not a single worker had forgotten their past. Every wall in the office area displayed a poster that pleaded for worker's rights in any corporation. After all, this was the first year the maquiladora broke even, but sustainable wages are a thing of their past.
www.cfomaquiladoras.org is produced in cooperation with the
Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)