Border Patrol: Organizing for Justice in Maquiladoras

Tijuana. Nogales. Matamoros. Ciudad Juárez. Nuevo Laredo. What comes to mind when you hear these names of U.S.-Mexico border towns?

For transnational corporations before and since the passage of NAFTA, the U.S.-Mexico border region represents what may be the quintessential free market—a site "free" from environmental regulations, "free" from labor laws, and "free" for the repression of anything that threatens corporate profits. The vehicle that transnationals use to capitalize on these opportunities are the "maquiladoras," export assembly factories, 2,300 strong in Mexico alone.

To an increasing number of concerned individuals and groups, however, what is happening in these border cities signifies "injustice" and issues a call for solidarity. Most who followed the NAFTA debate realize that conditions in the maquiladoras consist of hard work for low pay. But even more flagrant problems exist in a number of maquiladoras:

-12- to 15-hour work shifts for workers, who are typically young women

- physical and sexual harassment of female workers by factory supervisors and corrupt union leaders

- illegal toxic dumping by factories that pollutes ground water tables in worker neighborhoods

- refusal to translate into Spanish the English warning labels on hazardous chemicals handled in the factories

- suppression of genuine, organized labor unions.

Such abuses of basic human rights have sparked an impressive grassroots collaboration between maquiladora workers and a growing number of Canadian and U.S. solidarity groups. Organizing and raising consciousness around health, safety, and human rights has made the maquiladoras a meeting point for tri-national solidarity work, an ordered resistance to the unabated free-market enterprise.

THE COALITION FOR Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), formed in 1989, is a body of 98 groups from Canada, the United States, and Mexico. It combines churches, environmental, labor, and women’s groups who work both on the policy and ground levels to affect change. CJM’s work with the Zenith Corporation maquiladora in 1993 models the effectiveness of its work.

Problems abound at Zenith’s maquiladora, according to 1993 reports from CJM. Thousands of women at Zenith over the past two decades have worked with lead solder without knowledge of its dangers. They’ve worked without protective equipment and without break time to wash their hands before eating, all for 98 pesos ($30.43) for a 45-hour week.

Last year, a number of CJM-affiliated religious orders who owned stock with Zenith went for the corporate jugular—the annual Zenith stockholders meeting—filing a resolution to require Zenith to provide a comprehensive report on its operations. Three Mexican workers at the Zenith factory also showed up at the meeting and graphically described to the shareholders the working conditions in Mexico. Results followed: the handling of methylene chloride by workers to wash parts was eliminated, and methods of punishment imposed on workers by their displeased supervisors were wiped out.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), also members of the coalition, have worked in the maquiladoras for 15 years. The AFSC, along with a Mexican organization called SEDEPAC (Servicio, Desarrollo y Paz) worked with organizers in the maquiladoras to apply Mexico’s labor laws to their maquiladora work in much the same way that base Christian communities apply a daily Bible study to the context of their lives. In this fashion, committees of workers come together in their homes to review the law and arrive at resolutions collectively. Today the committees, collectively named the Border Committee of Women Workers, are 150 strong in maquila-filled towns along a 400-mile span of the U.S.-Mexico border.

There are many ways for individuals and organizations to get involved to help improve conditions in the maquiladoras. Direct complaints via fax or letter can be lodged at the headquarters of corporations that operate maquiladoras. Demonstrations can be staged at local distributor sites, and public relations campaigns can infiltrate the local media to help raise people’s knowledge of the factories. People who hold stock in companies operating in Mexico can effectively work together to bring change to the working conditions within the maquiladoras. You can also arrange a visit to one of the border towns where maquiladoras operate and then organize according to your findings. Consult one of the organizations listed here to find out ways you or your group might become more involved.

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