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Junked Workers Test NAFTA
Plant managers called them the jonkeadosthe junked ones. They were workers who got so sick, so chronically disabled, that they were given special jobs. But they werent put on light duty, to tide them over until they could go back to the line. Instead, these workers were put under even greater pressure, harassed, and assigned tasks so unpleasant that we knew they were just waiting for us to quit and leave, according to Joaquin Gonzalez.
In mid-December, Gonzales and some of his fellow jonkeados went to San Antonio, Texas. There they testified that the Mexican government had allowed their employer, Floridas Breed Technology, to systematically violate the countrys health and safety laws, casting workers aside in two border plants: Auto Trim in Matamoros and Custom Trim in Valle Hermoso.
That San Antonio hearing may be the final test for NAFTAs labor side agreement. After a history of dismal failure in protecting workers rights and decent factory conditions, the hearings results (or lack of them) may consign the agreement, not the workers, to the jonkeado scrapheap.
Bruno Noe Mantañez Lopez worked in the Matamoros plant for five years until he was fired in 1998. During the time he spent gluing leather covers to steering wheels, his son was born with spina bifida, a spinal tumor, an enlarged heart, and no kneecaps. Montañez struggled to keep his baby alive. When he tried to donate blood for him in the hospital, the doctor turned him away. He told me I couldnt give it since my blood was contaminated with drugs, Montañez testified at the hearing. I have never taken drugs. The only things I inhaled were the glues and solvents I worked with. After six months, his baby died.
Montañez explained that at work, fumes were everywhereso strong that when he opened one glue container, they overwhelmed him and made him so dizzy he almost collapsed. When glue got on his hands, his supervisor told him to wash them down with solvents.
Ezekiel Tinajero Martinez went to San Antonio to explain that he, too, had a child that dieda daughter born without a brain, a condition called anencephaly, in 1995. Tinajero documented a series of similar infant deaths and miscarriages among the plants workers. When he went to Auto Trims personnel director, asserting the rights of the workers to healthier conditions under Mexican law, a security guard marched him out of the factory. He was fired.
Another Auto Trim worker submitted testimony describing the birth of a daughter with no urethral opening in her vagina to urinate. She recalled large open containers of glue and fumes so strong she frequently complained of headaches and dizzy spells, even while pregnant. The only protective equipment the company gave her, she says, was an apron.
Some workers even felt they became addicted to the glue, suffering withdrawal symptoms at home on the weekends so bad they longed to go back to the lines, where they would sometimes suffer hallucinations.
In Valle Hermoso, things were no better at the Custom Trim plant. Heriberto Ramos Gomez recalled a 1997 factory fire caused when sparks from a blow drier fell on a pool of solvents on the floor. Despite their legal obligation to do so, managers refused to order even a partial evacuation.
At that plant, in May 1997, workers decided to do something about those problems. They struck for 5 days, demanding better health protections and an increase in their weekly $35 wage. Their union, a section of the Mexican Confederation of Workers (CTM) affiliated to the states ruling party, signed an agreement behind their backs with no guarantees of better conditions. Nevertheless, workers extracted a written commitment from the company not to retaliate against anyone.
It was a hollow promise. Days later, 28 workers were terminated. One of them was Isabel Morales Bocanegra, the plant nurse. She had belonged to the health and safety committee at Custom Trim, which the company was required to form under Mexican law. Morales tried to use the committee to document conditions, noting that in August 1996, five women in the plant suffered miscarriages. Further, the human resources manager told her not to make any appointments at the governments social security medical clinic for any workers who had more than one accident or injury at work and to mention only minor problems in reports sent to health inspectors. She never saw a government inspection of health and safety conditions in the two-and-a-half years she worked there.
The fired workers went to the state labor board, which ruled a year later that the terminations had been illegal. It ordered them reinstated, with full back pay. To experienced labor activists assisting the workers, like Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, the decision seemed suspiciously favorable for an agency notorious for bias favoring plant owners and government-affiliated unions. I suspect a trick, Ojeda said at the time. She was right.
In March of last year, the first two Custom Trim workers due to return to their jobs showed up at the labor board office. A board agent then accompanied them to the plant, along with one of Breeds local lawyers. But instead of going to Breeds new factory, where the work had been moved since the strike, the workers were taken to the old, closed facility. The government then declared that there were no jobs to return to, and that the company didnt have to pay the $25,000 it owed in back wages either.
That was when the workers and their allies started preparing their case under NAFTAs labor side agreement. It was not an easy decision for them to make, given the record of previous cases. In the NAFTA process, charges cant be brought against individual companies, and instead must assert that governments arent enforcing their own laws. Since the treaty went into effect in January 1995, over 20 complaints have been filed. Almost all have charged that Mexico does not enforce laws guaranteeing workers the right to form unions of their choice, and to strike effectively when they do. A few have been filed against the U.S., charging a similar lack of enthusiasm in enforcing workers rights.
All of the cases have met a similar fate. Hearings were held. Workers testified, sometimes at considerable risk. The National Administrative Office (NAO) of the U.S. Department of Labor, which hears the complaints against Mexico, concluded in almost every case that serious violations of the law have occurred.
And thennothing. No remedies have ever been imposed that would have required rehiring a single fired worker. Not one independent union has been able to negotiate a contract as a result of any NAO ruling. In Tijuana last June, independent unionists in the NAOs most publicized casethe strike at the Han Young factorywere even beaten and expelled when they tried to attend a public meeting called by the Mexican labor sub-secretary. This forum on the right of workers to form independent unions was the only remedy sought by the NAO for the extensive violations of workers rights in the three-year struggle at the plant.
U.S. officials present made no public protest over the violence and expulsions. How one views what happened in Tijuana is in the eye of the beholder, commented Andrew Samet, deputy undersecretary at DoL for international affairs, to Larry Weiss of Minneapoliss Resource Center for the Americas. DoL Secretary Alexis Herman even wrote a letter to John Hovis, president of the U.S-based. United Electrical Workers, suggesting that the strikers had provoked their own beatings.
Despite these odds, however, Custom Trim and Auto Trim workers decided to file a complaint, hoping their case would be different because, instead of focusing on workers union rights, it dealt only with the issue of health and safety.
At Han Young, and at the Mexico City brake plant ITAPSA, workers also charged that health and safety laws werent being enforced, but in the context of widespread violations of union rights as well.
The possible remedy raises the stakes. If Mexico is found not to be enforcing its health and safety laws, it could be fined a percentage of its export earnings, a potentially huge amount of money.
So, on December 12, workers and occupational safety experts converged on San Antonio, Texas, for their long-awaited hearing. Workers testimony, documenting their personal experience in the Auto Trim and Custom Trim plants, was backed by Mexican health and safety expert Dr. Francisco Mercado Calderon. Mercado condemned Breed for provoking irreversible injuries to workers, but, he declared, gross negligence, or possibly wanton negligence by government authorities, had permitted the companys actions.
U.S. expert Garrett Brown, a CalOSHA inspector who trains maquiladora workers in health hazard assessment, went even further, The Mexican governments failure, he said, is due to the austerity programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and related institutions. Mexicos desperate need for hard currency to pay off loans has undermined its will to enforce the law, and risk alienating wealthy foreign investors like Breed, Brown charged.
U.S. unions also offered support. Lida Orta, a health expert from the United Auto Workers, flew in from Puerto Rico to testify. Breed Technologies, with $1.4 billion in sales in 1998, was represented at the hearing by a vice-president for legal affairs, Stuart Boyd. The company did not present evidence or respond to interview requests.
A flurry of accusations have appeared in the Mexican press along the border, accusing workers at Breed of being pawns of U.S. unions and calling Martha Ojeda a terrorist. But the AFL-CIO deputy director for international affairs, Tim Beaty, says the AFL-CIO favors economic growth in Mexico, including on the border, but only if the rules make that growth equitable. Instead, NAFTA has created a growing pattern of inequality, and the difference between rich and poor is growing, both inside Mexico, and between Mexico and the United States.
Ojeda calls the Breed case a final test for NAFTAs labor side agreement. We already know from the other cases that its protections for labor rights are worthless, she says, noting that Breed workers have been interrogated by supervisors, lost jobs and received death threats as a result of filing the complaint. Now well see if the language on health and safety can be made to work. If theres no remedy here, well have to look for some other alternative for protecting workers rights on the border.
The political terrain for that effort looks very hostile, however. Mexicos new president, Vicente Fox, was the candidate of a party with a long record of using low wages and weak government-affiliated unions as an incentive to attract investment to border states like Baja California. It seems unlikely that he will launch an effort to protect the rights and health of maquiladora workers if it promised to discourage companies like Breed from building new plants.
At the same time, under a new, Republican president, it also seems unlikely that the U.S. Department of Labor will be more enthusiastic about imposing sanctions on Mexico over labor and safety problems in those same plants. The Breed complaint will be a very good test of this new climate. Z
David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer based in California.