by Kent Ian Paterson
Ethnic Media Services and Americas.org
Editor’s Note: Kent Paterson is a veteran reporter on U.S.-Mexico border issues. This article appeared first in Americas.org
Wildcat strikes by assembly plant workers concerned about their health and their futures rippled across Mexico as the Covid-19 coronavirus began walloping the country.
Mexican media outlets and social media postings reported March and April work stoppages in at least 60 maquiladoras – plants belonging mainly to foreign-owned companies that produce materials for export to the United States and other nations.
Job actions were reported in Tijuana, Mexicali, Tecate, Rosarito, Ciudad Juárez, Reynosa, Metamoros, Ciudad Juárez, Nogales and Gómez Palacio. Workers there demanded that companies send them home with 100 percent pay, in accordance with a March 30 federal emergency health decree ordering nonessential industries to close.
Besides wage demands, workers cited the lack of protective gear and crowded shop-floor conditions.
Elizabeth Flores, longtime Ciudad Juárez labor attorney and rights advocate with the Americas Program, likened the maquiladoras to “virus greenhouses.” The rickety private busses that transport workers to the plants add to workers’ health risks, Flores says.
Worker protests are concentrated in the electronics, telecommunications, automotive and aerospace sectors, including at Honeywell, Lear Corporation, Electrical Components International, Hyundai, Skyworks and Tridonex.
At the U.S.-based Lear Corporation’s operations in Juárez, at least 14 production-line workers and mid-level supervisors have died of Covid-19. Lear had shuttered its Juarez factories by the end of March, but the true number of Covid-19-caused worker deaths and illnesses there is not known because maquiladora workers and family members who might be infected have not been tested.
“I don’t know anyone who has been tested,” Flores said.
Tests costing more than $100 are available from privately owned labs in Juarez but are unaffordable for the typical Juárez maquiladora production worker.
A Covid-19 mortality undercount is likely, Flores added, because hospitals have recorded recent deaths as due to pneumonia or respiratory ailment complications.
With an estimated 314,824 workers employed in 914 plants, Baja California has been another hot spot for both Covid-19 infections and wildcat strikes, especially in the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali. Baja California currently ranks third in the number of Covid-19 cases reported in Mexico.
Even as the numbers of death and illness crept upward, and despite the state labor department’s closure of 141 plants employing 75,621 workers, the newspaper La Jornada reported that 68 percent of Baja’s maquiladoras were still operating in late April.
Jesus Casillas, representative of the Organization of the People and Workers-Baja California (OPT-BC by its Spanish initials), a labor advocacy group with roots in the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, estimated that worried workers had spontaneously staged wildcat strikes at 20 Mexicali factories in April, though few were reported in the press.
Workers charged that some companies closed their front door only to slip employees through the back door, Casillas said. And with some plants employing between 3,000-5,000 workers, the factories represent “enormous focal points of contagion,” he stressed.
As in Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican media has reported several maquiladora worker deaths in Baja California. The number is likely higher since deaths at hospitals classified as pneumonia-related could well be from the effects of Covid-19.
An April report compiled by the Border Committee of Women Workers (CFO) and translated by the Canada-based Maquiladora Solidarity Network documented complaints of health-endangering shop-floor conditions, a lack of in-plant sanitary supplies, and companies skirting compliance with the federal health emergency.
“Many factories have put business and their profits ahead of the health of their workers,” according to the CFO report. Maquiladoras began suspending operations in mid-March, but “this was only because they were supplying large auto plants in the United States, such as Ford and others, that had already halted work in previous weeks.”
The clash between worker health and private profit has played out in the definition of “essential production.” The March 30 Mexican federal health decree details essential activities, including the production of medical goods that some maquiladoras churn out, but excludes other products manufactured by the export-oriented factories.
Although President Andrés López Obrador’s government issued the federal decree, state governments wield the principal authority to enforce emergency health measures and some have promulgated their own differing orders.
In Baja California, Governor Jaime Bonilla was initially outspoken about the need to temporarily close plants dedicated to nonessential production, but many continued working secretly. By the end of April, pressure from U.S. interests had ramped up, and the Baja California press was reporting that scores of plants – renamed essential – had reopened.
As talk of rebooting the U.S. economy gains steam, U.S. leaders argue that the maquiladoras are a vital link in integrated product supply chains and that the rhythm of maquiladora production is inextricably linked to that of the U.S. economy.
U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau, the U.S. National Association of Manufacturers, and the Pentagon all issued statements in April urging Lopez Obrador’s government to keep the maquiladoras running.
On April 29, a group of 11 U.S. senators led by Democrat Diane Feinstein and Republican Senator John Cornyn sent U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a letter urging the State Department “to coordinate with the Mexican government to clarify Mexico’s definition of essential businesses to avoid disruption in the U.S. supply chain.” It noted Mexico’s “integral role” in the U.S. supply chain and its strategic position in “the functioning of essential American businesses, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Meanwhile, the immediate outcomes of the Covid-19 wildcat strikes vary. Some workers have won demands for 100 percent of wages during the health closure, while others have settled for a smaller percentage. In response to bonus offers by some companies hoping to keep the workers on the assembly line, the OPT-Baja California posted a statement from a worker that captures the reality of working in a maquiladora during the era of Covid-19.
“My life and health have a price for the maquiladora that I’ve worked for during the last 10 years. It’s a bonus that runs between $12 and $42, plus two packets of supplies. They want me to work during Phase 3 of the pandemic in Baja California, 3rd place in. the number of infected.”