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

 
   
   
   
Home> CFO in the Media 2002
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The Maquiladoras: A Summer Trip to the Texas-Mexico Border

Massachusetts Community College Council
August 2002

By Linda Stern

A couple of birds kept flitting into a hole in the roof of the house next door and I occasionally flicked a fire ant away that had wandered up my arm. The sun was beating down and we kept moving our makeshift chairs to try to find a small space in the shade under a tin roof that covered part of the dirt yard. An occasional truck would bounce down the rutted road; one was selling coke; and a man riding a bicycle cart pedaled by selling ices.

This was an all day meeting of the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras (or Border Committee of Women Workers or CFO) with a group of us that had driven down to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to Austin, Texas. The group that organized this Solidarity Delegation is an offshoot of the Austin office of the American Friends Service Committee. We were a diverse collection of academics and activists. There were about 25 of us in Julio’s yard; his house made of concrete blocks, was one of the sturdier houses we saw in this colonia; a curtained outhouse was in the back. Several large posters with news clippings and the like had been taped to a couple of trees in the front yard for our meeting. One poster listed prices of various staples that an average salary might cover; there were no fruits or vegetables on the list nor was there any meat.

Around 4000 maquiladoras dot the border towns in Mexico. They are foreign-owned assembly plants, mainly American. Their number has drastically increased since NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was passed in 1994. NAFTA’s purported intent was to create an open market including the US, Canada, and Mexico that would eliminate barriers to the flow of money, goods, and services. Since 1994 poverty, inflation, and pollution have increased dramatically in Mexico while unemployment in the US has increased as jobs flee to Mexico.

Jorge and Paola were the two organizers of our weekend program; they had just arrived in Nuevo Laredo to organize in the Maquiladoras; working out a car, they went door to door. Paula was a volunteer organizer they had just met; speaking with us was her first speaking opportunity. Marguerita wore a t-shirt that read, in English, “Listen to Women for a Change.” Javier helped to organize the CFO victory at a recent union election at Alcoa. All of the organizers had previously worked in the maquiladoras.

Shifts can run up to 10 to 12 hours a day or more with many workers having to work 6 or 7 days a week. Bathroom breaks and toilet paper are frequently monitored. Pay per week ranges widely from about $20 to 90. Wages are sometimes arbitrarily reduced and often overtime pay is not paid at the posted rate. One worker stuffed envelopes for a Readers Digest “junk mailing;” another glued mirrors of plastic cosmetic compacts.

Most of the labor force is female who customarily start working around the age of 13 or 14 when they drop out of school; they are paid at a lower hourly rate than the men. Proof of not being pregnant is sometimes required for employment though it’s a violation of Mexican labor law. There has been a horrendous string of murders in the area around Ciudad Juarez, west of where we were; in the last nine years, at least 274 young women have been sexually assaulted and brutally murdered.

Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos or Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) is the official union, too closely allied with management to trust it. The CFO, whose goal is the organization of independent, autonomous, and democratic unions, helps workers to understand their rights. They study Mexican labor law, strategize about actions, and role play various scenarios.

Springfield Wire de Mexico in Nuevo Laredo, a subsidiary of the Springfield Wire Inc. in Springfield Mass., makes refrigerator coils, dishwasher elements, compressor heaters, and heater wire. There about 3000 workers in three shifts. Many chemicals are used in the manufacturing process, and none of the workers are given any information about the possible side effects of these chemicals. The company has refused to let health inspectors from the town come in to inspect and they have surveillance cameras aimed at anyone going by.

We drove by Dimmet, a factory that makes Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Liz Claibourne & Polo; they had just vacated their facility to move south of the immediate border area where they pay an even lower hourly pay, though it is mandate by Mexican law. Strangely, landscapers were still being paid to keep up the grounds of this empty factory building.

Some housing is supplied by the government, but most workers live in a jumble of shantytowns with minimal public services. Housing is improvised using wooden pallets, tin, concrete, cardboard, scraps of almost anything.

The CFO has worked with other Mexican and American labor unions; Alcoa and GM workers from both countries have attended not only each other’s meetings but have also attended stockholder’s meetings together. The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center has lent support as have the U.S. Steelworkers.

The determination of these organizers was inspiring. Paula, asked if she was afraid she might lose her job, stated “I am not afraid’ I can get another job like this one.” Paola, when asked if he was afraid for his personal safety, laughingly said, “Well, if I get killed, I just won’t be here any more.” Another: “You’ve helped me break my chains.”


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