Organizing in the Maquilas

September 25, 2007

NEARLY HALF-A-MILLION MEXICANS ARE currently employed in maquiladoras-the 1,500 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 ex-
clusively 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 taxes, 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 Mufioz, an AFL-CIO
representative in El Paso. "The whole climate along the
border is very anti-union," Mufioz adds. Only about 10
percent of the maquiladora workforce is organized, com-
pared to 25 percent of all Mexican workers. Because maqui-
las 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 facto-
ries, without light, heat, or running water. Disease is wide-
spread, 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 with-
out 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
Mufioz, "the company security force and the police started
beating them up, hitting the women with baseball bats, and
then they tear-gassed them." Muiioz 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.
Miriam Davidson is a freelance journalist who special-
izes in the U.S.-Mexico border region.
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.
across from Brownsville, Texas, a dynamic and charis-
matic CTM leader named Agapito GonzAles 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 em-
ployee in town. GonzAles 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 man-
aged 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 supe-
riors. 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 Comit6 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 Car-
bide. Soon after church officials complained, Kemet pro-
vided gloves and tongs.
West of the Rio Grande Valley, the level of organizing is
less visible. In El Paso, Victor Mufioz 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 Mufioz 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 Mufioz nor Silver believes the free trade deal, as
currently envisioned, will effect worker health and safety
standards and border environmental problems. With or with-
out free trade, the workers' only hope for improved condi-
tions seems to lie in informal, underground organizing that
doesn't threaten the status quo.

Tags: Mexico, maquiladoras, free trade, unions, border

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