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Workshop highlights costs of free trade

The Daily Texan
Monday, April 9, 2001

Por Eric Garza
Daily Texan Staff

A panel of factory workers from Mexico and the United States discussed Saturday the adverse impact the North American Free Trade Agreement has had on their lives at a workshop in the Texas Union.

The workshop was the first stop of a “Free Trade Reality Tour,” in which factory workers discuss free trade and its effects on immigration, health, labor conditions and the environment.

“We want to educate people about what’s been going on with NAFTA,” said, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, the group sponsoring the event. “Normally we read about this, but we never hear the voices of those affected.”

NAFTA enacted in 1994 to eliminate barriers between Mexico, the United States and Canada prompted many U.S. companies to relocate in Mexico, where they could employ a cheaper work force.

Petra Mata and Viola Casares, co-coordinators of Fuerza Unida, spoke about their experiences working at a Levi’s factory in San Antonio. Fuerza Unida is a group of factory workers who educate women workers and advocate economic justice.

Mata and Casares were Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio to find work. They lost their jobs when the company closed the factory to find cheaper labor in Costa Rica and China in 1990. Workers were left without severance pay, pensions or retraining programs, they said.

“In 15 minutes, our lives were shattered,” Casares said. “I didn’t have much education and no experience in organizing. I just wanted to work, get money and help my family. It was sad that I lost my job, but it allowed me to see what was going on around me.”

Members of the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (Border Committee of Women Workers) from Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña, two cities on the Texas-Mexico border, also spoke at the workshop.

CFO claims NAFTA has accelerated the spread of maquiladoras, or foreign owned assembly plants, into new areas of Mexico’s interior. These factory jobs typically pay between $22 and $55 a week. Low wages, the difficulty of creating worker unions and harsh and unsafe working environments are some of the problems CFO is fighting.

Sarino Reyes, a worker in a maquiladora in Piedras Negras, Mexico, that produces clothes for companies such as Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, Nautica, Gap y Old Navy, said he has been working to end some of the poor working conditions there. He said if the company wants more production, they should reward the workers with better wages.

“They say they pay us enough to live, but that’s not true,” Reyes said.

Francisco Apolnio, also from Piedras Negras, said he is most concern with workers’ safety. He said workers are made to work without safety glasses, face masks or gloves.

Other workers talked about troubles they had supporting their families with low pay, unsafe working conditions for pregnant women, the fear of losing jobs and being blacklisted for trying to organize workers.

While the panel spoke about the negative impacts of NAFTA, supporters of NAFTA maintain that is good for all three countries involved.

“NAFTA has helped Mexico and Canada more that it’s helped the United States,” said Catherine Patton, a history senior and chairwoman of the Young Conservatives of Texas. “There may still be bad things in Mexico, but in the end, it will help and not hurt these people.”

Some members of CFO will travel with Fuerza Unida to workshops in other cities, and the group plans to protest a summit in Quebec City where trade ministers from 34 countries will gather to negotiate the Free Trade Areas of the Americas, a NAFTA-like agreement that will include all of the Americas, excluding Cuba.

 

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