Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, is the center of a growing rebellion of laborers in the border factories. Since September, workers have set up encampments, or plantones, in front of factories, they've marched through the streets, they've demanded recognition of independent unions. In response, the companies have fired hundreds and tried to stop the workers' movement from spreading.
About 255,000 people work directly in Juárez' 330 maquiladoras, about 13% of the national total, meaning Juárez has one of the largest concentrations of manufacturing on the U.S./Mexico border. Almost all the plants are foreign-owned. Eight of Juárez's 17 largest factories belong to U.S. corporations, three to Taiwanese owners, two to Europeans, and just two to Mexicans. Together, they employ over 69,000 people— nearly 30% of the city's total.
Five companies (two U.S. and all three of the Taiwanese companies) are contract manufacturers of electronics equipment sold under the familiar brand names of huge corporations. One, Foxconn, is the world's largest contract manufacturer. Its Ciudad Juárez plants assemble products for Hewlett Packard, Cisco and Dell. Three Juárez plants produce auto parts and electronics, including the city's two largest factories: Delphi, which employs 16,000 workers, and Lear, which employs 24,000 workers.
In most other maquiladora cities like Tijuana or Matamoros, workers are rigidly controlled— and independent organizing is suppressed— by a political partnership between the companies, government authorities and unions tied to Mexico's old ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Juárez has been an exception. Its selling point to major corporations has been the fact that it has some of the lowest wages anywhere on the border; the average pay of Juárez maquiladora workers was 18% less than the average for manufacturing workers in Mexico's other border cities.
The new workers' movement in Juárez began last August at four maquiladoras: Foxconn, ADC Commscope, Lexmark, and Eaton Corporation. Commscope manufactures laser optic cable, Lexmark makes cartridges for inkjet printers, and Eaton is an auto parts plant. On September 16, Mexico's National Independence Day, a group of 190 Commscope workers went to the local labor authorities at the Conciliation and Arbitration Board, and filed a request for a registro, or legal status, to form an independent union. At Foxconn, workers also asked for a registro for their own union that same month.
Both efforts were greeted by mass firings, which led workers to set up encampments in front of those plants last fall in protest. At Lexmark, 120 workers were fired in December for protesting bad wages and conditions, and they have maintained a plantón there ever since. Workers lifted similar worker encampments at Foxconn and Commscope after the companies promised them a registro in November. At the time of this article’s writing, the Lexmark plantón continues in front of that factory. A network of supporters in the U.S. has organized solidarity demonstrations, including a concert headlined by folksinger legend Charlie King. One demonstration has even confronted the company at its headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky.
This insurgent wave of worker protests threatens the established economic order at the center of maquiladora production on the border, as Mexico continues to feel the impact of the U.S. recession. By U.S. standards, the companies are huge: Foxconn's two factories alone employ over 11,000 people while Commscope employs 3,000 workers, and Lexmark another 2,800 workers.
While a wave of worker activism spread through Juárez in the 1990s, such militancy declined as the city's women became victims of a notorious series of mass murders that terrorized the city for a decade. Juárez has become a huge metropolis built on the labor of tens of thousands of young women, overwhelmingly migrants, who have traveled north from cities, small villages, and rural areas in central and southern Mexico. Between 1993 and February 2005, over 370 women had been murdered. In 2010 alone, 247 women were murdered, and between January and August of the following year, another 130.
The mothers of Juarez organized despite the terror to fight for the lives of their daughters. They charged that larger social forces are responsible for creating a climate of extreme violence against women. This new wave of worker protests, therefore, is breaking the cycle of fear and terror that has gripped working-class neighborhoods for over a decade.
In the two personal accounts that follow, Verónica Rodríguez, a fired Commscope worker, and Elvia Villescas, a community organizer, explain the origins of this new workers’ movement, and what it might mean for the maquiladora workers of Juárez.
VERÓNICA RODRÍGUEZ, who was fired from ADC Commscope:
I've worked in many maquiladoras. I have three kids— two boys and a girl— and I went to work there because I was only able to complete secondary school. The workday is nine hours. You can get Saturday and Sunday off, so you can do the work you have at home, and at the end of the day you're with your family and can help your children with their homework. But you have to ask permission from the company to let you go if your child is sick, and you practically have to pray on your knees. It's kind of contradictory.
I began working at ADC Commscope twelve years ago. I worked for eleven years, was out for three months, and then came back for a year after that. When I began there, I worked really hard so that I could get a better job. But when I achieved that, I could see that there were a lot of abuses.
The other supervisors wouldn't give them permission to leave the line, for instance. One of them I fought with all the time. Once a worker asked for the next day off because he had an appointment for his son, who'd just been born. The supervisor said, “No, tell him [the doctor] to do it another day.” I told him, the appointment is for tomorrow— he couldn't change it. In the end, the supervisor said he had to find someone else to replace him, and so I told him I'd do it.
The same thing happened when another woman, María, had to go to the doctor. She was a good worker, and never asked for time off. But the supervisor said, if she leaves, you have to do her job.
If older workers need to go to the bathroom more often, they have to wait til the break. I heard him tell one older woman not go to the bathroom: "If you can't do the work, you should just leave. There are more people who want to work out there, young people, 18 or 19 years old. You should leave so they can come to work." There's an area at work they call the jail. You can't get up from your position. You can't go to the bathroom, except for the ten-minute break you have in the morning or afternoon. Another woman began looking ill at work one morning. She had low blood pressure, and she looked pale and couldn't stand up. She asked to go home, but the supervisor wouldn't let her. At the end of the day, she could hardly walk out of the factory. Later we heard that she died at eight o-clock that evening.
Sexual harassment is a big problem at Commscope as well. Young women who try to complain about it with Human Resources don't get help. They say there's a hotline, but no one ever answers the phone. Lots of supervisors demand that young women go out with them to eat or go dancing. When they say “No,” the supervisor talks with the person in charge of their line and they give the women more work or a difficult job to complete. If a new girl comes in, the supervisors gather around her and talk with her and touch her. Supervisors have been found having sex with girls in the parking lot, and nothing is done about it. There's no punishment.
When I went to work at Commscope I was making 145 pesos [roughly $8.40USD] per day. Now with the movement we've organized, they've raised it to 172 pesos [roughly $10USD] a day. They raised the wages in a lot of the maquiladoras after we started our movement. It's given us a little more money for our families, but it's not much better because the prices have been going up for food, clothing, school— all the things we need.
Our wages were never enough to support a family. The economy in Mexico has been in the dirt for years. The wages have never been enough. We could never eat meat much— maybe one day a week. And it was the cheapest meat— ground meat or chicken. Meat like chops would cost 100 or 120 pesos [approximately $6 or $7USD] a kilo. You'd have to work a whole day for a kilo of meat. When school starts you have to buy uniforms, shoes and other things. But many families can only afford second-hand clothes and shoes. That's the only thing mothers can afford, and both husbands and wives have to work.
There are a lot of young people working at Commscope who are 16 or 17 years old. Their parents give permission because the family needs another wage to survive. The children have to work for the family to eat, and at 16, adolescents have their own needs too. Sometimes they're trying to earn enough money to go to school, because their mother and father don't have enough to pay for it. So they leave school and go into the factory.
Now we're speaking up about it. We're telling the companies what they should be paying. These are huge corporations that make millions of dollars. What's their justification for paying such miserable wages?
The movement in Commscope began when we decided to organize a union and we went to a lawyer to find out what we had to do. At our first meeting we expected 30 people to show up and we ended up with 200. The lawyer told us we had to get a registro from the authorities [the government's legal recognition of the union's existence, which was very hard to get. But he said we could do it. On September 16 we went with him to the labor board to get the registro. And on October 12 we had a small meeting at work - a symbolic one really. We wanted to show the company that we had made this decision. But after that the supervisors and Human Resources began harassing us. They said organizing a union was a waste of time and they'd never permit it. They told us to go back to work. And on October 19 we were fired. They say it's because we organized a work stoppage, but we never did that.
So we decided to organize an encampment in front of the factory and hold a press conference. We lived there for 43 days, in a very organized way. We had groups of 15 or 20 people, and each group had a shift of 6 hours. We were there in the plantón day and night. The company called the police on us. They said we couldn't have the planton there, that we'd have to do it somewhere else. Everything we did was legal, and within our rights, but the police kept harassing us on behalf of the company.
Finally the state labor secretary visited us, the right hand of Governor [César] Duarte. He asked us to lift the plantón because we were damaging the company's image. We said we wouldn't leave. We asked him to get us the registro for our union, and he refused. We looked at the example of Foxconn, where workers ended their encampment after they got a promise of a registro for their union. But they didn't give them anything, and none of the fired workers there were rehired. We told the labor secretary that if we got a registro for our union, we'd lift the plantón. He came a second time in November and they didn't give it to us then either, so we organized a march to demand it. We waited for four hours outside the Labor Board office, and he finally came out and said he'd give us the registro.
In the end we got the registro, but that was all. The 173 people who were fired at Commscope, like me, have not been rehired. We're demanding, not just our reinstatement, but reinstatement with a union. The company is telling everyone that we don't want to work. We have the registro, but outside the plant we can't do anything. We have people inside, who belong to the union, but they're afraid they'll be fired if they show support for it. We go out to the neighborhoods looking for the workers, so we can talk with them at home.
Part of our strategy is to come here, to the U.S., and ask people to support us. We met with the head of the labor council in San Francisco. He told us the city is installing new fiber optic cables, which is the product we make in the plant. He said his union will make sure the city won't buy cables from Commscope unless we're rehired and the company negotiates with us.
We want to put pressure on the government too, so that they'll go to the company and demand our reinstatement. We have a legal case over the firings, demanding that the company recognize us and accept us. The government has to enforce the labor law and protect our rights, and not be so on the side of the companies.
Our perspective for the future is to struggle, struggle and struggle for better conditions in the maquiladoras. The company has to understand that we want to work, but with our union. That's the way we're going to win improvements in our situation. We just want better wages, better jobs, and a better life for our families.
ELVIA VILLESCAS, director of Las Hormigas (The Ants), a community-organizing project in Juárez:
We're located in Anapra and Lomas de Poleo, very marginalized communities in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, on the U.S. border. We began Las Hormigas to organize educational and human development projects. Anapra and Lomas de Poleo became famous because of the number of women's bodies found there during the feminicides. In both neighborhoods there are many families that have lost a daughter or have a sister who disappeared or was murdered.
Anapra is a community that has been abandoned. On the surface it looks developed. It's on a big highway, and big trucks go by all the time to the border crossing. There are some big businesses along the highway because the government has opened this commercial space for them. But if you walk just one or two blocks into the neighborhood, you'll see very dire poverty. Anapra has about 20,000 inhabitants. People living there have major health problems because the sanitation is so bad. Many homes still have no sewers or drains, so the wastewater runs into the streets. The government hasn't invested money in the schools. So in that sense, there is a lot of repression against this community.
The majority of the people living there are migrants, and a great number work in the maquiladoras. In Las Hormigas, we've done mini-surveys during our workshops, asking people to raise their hands if they work in a maquila. Out of 30 people, 10 or 12 will raise their hands. So imagine that in Anapra 30 or 40 percent of the people living there work in a maquila. There's a great need in this community for education— not schoolbook education, but education in rights and solidarity.
The media refuse to run stories about this movement in the four maquiladoras or treat it with the importance it deserves. At Commscope, 178 workers were fired, and there are four maquilas where this has happened. Yet people have little information about this. Those who do know about it don't want to talk because they're afraid that if they say anything they'll be identified as troublemakers and the companies will start watching them.
There is a list of workers who the companies are watching and following. There are threats all the time that if you do something they don't like, you'll never get a job in a maquiladora. Workers in the maquilas are always very afraid that anything they say may lead to the loss of their jobs. And a maquila job is still seen as a job with some security. Very poorly paid, but at least you're working.
The workers are producing all the wealth, but receive very little benefit from it, while the companies make a lot of money. The maquiladoras will not permit workers to organize unions. To allow that would mean that they would have to listen to them and respect their labor and health rights. The maquiladoras have no conscience, no sense that workers have rights. They comply with the minimum that the law demands, but there's no sense that because they have thousands of workers they should give them better wages or a clinic or a child care center for the women workers.
People are tired of the wages. At 170 pesos [less than $10USD] a day you can't buy anything. You go to the store and buy three or four things and you've spent 500 pesos [approximately $29 USD]. But I think that in Mexico generally there is also growing feeling of exhaustion. People have grown tired of the fact that so many abuses are tolerated by those who are on top, whether it’s a maquiladora or the authorities. The demand is growing that they begin to respect peoples' rights. This process has developed over a long time, and we're reaching the breaking point. That's important because for so many years we've been living with everything.
This movement of people in the maquilas is very important. We have to know about it and support it. It is the power of unity against the economic power. It's something incredible.
A union with power here would make a very big difference. It would give power to the people, to the workers. Instead of just working to earn their 800 pesos people will feel they have the ability to make decisions, to demand what they need. Right now, if you are a worker and if you need someone to take care of your child, that means nothing to the maquiladora. You say, I need someone to take care of my baby, but the maquiladora doesn't hear your voice. But if there's a union, with the strength that comes from unity, the maquiladora will have to listen.
I love my country but sometimes it gives me great pain. We need to wake up and recover who we are. We have to change the direction everything is going, all the corruption. It's a very important moment. This movement of maquiladora workers is taking the leap, making us question who we are. It's a very positive signal that things might be difficult, but that we are going to see a change.
David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist covering labor, migration, globalization and human rights. His latest book is The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2013).