Maquiladora Workers Rising in Ciudad Juarez
authors: Karl Kramer, Campaign Co-director, San Francisco Living Wage Coalition; David Frias, Campaign Co-director, San Francisco Living Wage Coalition; Rodger Scott, Treasurer, San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, and AFT Local 2121 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council; Lalo Gonzalez, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA); Cynthia Diaz, MEChA; Alexia Mora, MEChA; Carol Costa, Marin Task Force on the Americas
This report is based on interviews with maquiladora workers, community organizers, attorneys and academics conducted by a delegation from the San Francisco Bay Area from October 11 to 13, 2015. This has been part of a campaign to build cross-border worker solidarity that has been supported financially by the Aztlán Fund of the Peace Development Fund, San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, the San Francisco Labor Council, American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 and the Mission Economic Development Agency. Las Hormigas – Comunidad en Desarrollo, a non-profit community organization in the Anapra district of Ciudad Juarez, provided meeting scheduling and logistical coordination.
This year, Juarez is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the maquiladoras, factories that are built in special zones along the border to assemble, and in some cases to manufacture, products that are not for consumption in Mexico but are for export to the United States. Like many other features of neoliberalism, the boom in maquiladoras started in the Reagan years during the 1980s, and then was legislatively cemented in place with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 during the Clinton administration.
While trade and migration have the potential to improve the lives of workers, trade and migration policies have prioritized corporate interests over workers rights, according to a 2016 study by the AFL-CIO, “Trading Away Migrant Rights: How the TPP Would Fuel Displacement and Fail Migrant Workers.” The neoliberal trade architecture of deregulation, coupled with strong investor protections, allows companies to outsource labor-intensive components of their supply chain to areas with weak labor laws and low wages, according to the AFL-CIO. To attract corporations, many governments suppress wages and repress labor rights in a vicious race to the bottom.
NAFTA ravaged Mexican agriculture. Small farmers, especially of corn, were unable to compete with the price of imported U.S.-subsidized corn and had to leave their land in search of a way to survive. Subsidized agricultural exports from the United States led to Mexico losing 1 million jobs in corn alone between 1991 and 2000, and an additional million in the agricultural sector, according to the AFL-CIO report. Undocumented immigration from Mexico doubled after NAFTA took effect, leveling off after the 2007 economic downturn and declining due to stagnant job growth and harsh immigration enforcement, according to the AFL-CIO. From all over Mexico, migrants ended up at the border. U.S.-militarization of the border and a repressive U.S. immigration system contributed in forcing many to stay as cheap labor in the maquiladoras. Since NAFTA, wages in Mexico have lost purchasing power and the U.S.-Mexico wage gap has increased, according to the AFL-CIO.
Ciudad Juarez leads border cities in the number of workers employed in maquiladoras. According to a 2015 report from the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness, published by the University of Texas at El Paso, Juarez is ranked first in Mexico based on the number of employees who work in assembly-for-export plants. It is only second to Tijuana in the number of companies that assemble products to export from Mexico. The number of export-oriented manufacturing firms has been declining from 335 in 2010 to 315 as of December 2014. In contrast, the number of employees increased from approximately 156,500 to 193,093 during the same period. The trend has been towards bigger plants with more employees. Just 10 of these companies provide jobs to 75,000 people in Juarez. According to the Hunt study, drawing on data from December 2014, employees of maquiladoras in Juarez earned among the lowest wages in all Mexico, including the border area. The Hunt Institute survey found that the average pay of Juarez maquiladora workers was 18 percent less than the average for manufacturing workers in Mexico’s border cities. By contrast, the companies’ managers and directors were among the best paid in Mexico.
According to a July 2016 report by the Center for Reflection and Action on Labour Issues (CEREAL), a faith-based workers rights advocacy organization, workers are paid around $200 to $300 per month, based on the workers they interviewed in Ciudad Juarez. (This was calculated at an exchange rate of 17.5 pesos to a U.S. dollar. By January 2017, it was more than 20 pesos to a U.S. dollar.) This salary is not enough to afford the basic food basket, which this year increased in price by 24 percent in Mexico’s border region. A great number of maquiladora workers in Juarez are internally displaced migrants. In 2015, nearly 20,000 migrants from various Mexican states arrived in Juarez in search of work. More than 40 percent of the workers in the maquiladoras are women, who have come from all parts of Mexico, often without a mate–either widowed, separated, or divorced. Many are single mothers.
Dr. Cesar Fuentes is a researcher at the Colegia de la Frontera Norte, or Northern Border College, a research institute with eight campuses investigating issues dealing with the U.S. Mexico border region. According to Dr. Fuentes, the big problem with the free trade model is that it is based on the hyper-exploitation of workers. They are stripped of basic workers’ rights and forced to work in harsh conditions for low wages. Production that was moving to China in the 2000s with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization is now moving back into Mexico, primarily along the U.S.-Mexico border. In return, Mexico does not tax the maquiladoras for the goods that are assembled, so long as they return to the country of origin and do not enter the Mexican economy. This incentive, coupled with cheap labor and lower transportation costs, leads to cheaper goods that are more competitive in the global market, making the maquiladoras’ border location highly profitable, said Dr. Fuentes.
According to Cecilia Espinosa of the Women’s Network Roundtable, a women’s human rights organization, the city of Juarez is divided. On the east side are the factories. On the west side, workers live in impoverished neighborhoods. People live a precarious existence in structures of cardboard or wood pallets that are the garbage produced by the maquiladoras, Espinosa said. The downtown area is a connection between the east and the west sides. It is a location where workers may be found at a bus stop to change buses–or where women are kidnapped, and their bodies found later discarded in secluded areas, Espinosa said. Since women’s organizations began keeping a list in 1993, 1,620 women have been abducted, often raped, then murdered and dumped in open spaces, according to Dr. Julia Monárrez, a researcher at the College of the Northern Border. The common thread linking them is that the majority are young and almost all of them poor, according to Dr. Monárrez.
The city economy revolves around the maquiladora industry. With more than 320 plants, Ciudad Juarez is the leading factory-work employer in the country, according to Dr. Monárrez and Ms. Espinosa. It is estimated that 140,000 women work in maquiladoras, including a projected 25,000 new workers in 2016 alone, according to Dr. Monárrez. As the main source of employment, multiple family members work in maquiladoras with all contributing to the household income to provide a sense of financial stability, according to Dr. Fuentes. But poor working conditions, long hours and low pay also fuel adverse family relations. Marriage conflict, child neglect and domestic violence are the direct results of stress endured while working at the maquiladoras, according to Dr. Monárrez.
José Luis Flores, Executive Secretary of La Red por los Derechos de la Infancia, or the
Network for the Rights of Children, in Ciudad Juarez, painted a very sad picture of the lives of the children of maquiladora workers. More than 40,000 children live in homes where the average income is the minimum wage. There is a devastating lack of facilities for children provided by civil society. There are not enough daycare centers, schools or parks. Children are cared for by a variety of family members or non-relatives while their parents are at work, and abuse sometimes occurs. If no one is available to care for them, children are often locked up in their home alone. Mothers sleep a daily average of four to five hours and are consequently exhausted and short-tempered. Children are growing up without enough communication or stability. Many are suffering from lack of attention, maltreatment and sexual abuse, according to Flores.
In the 1960s, maquiladoras were set-up in a Zona Franca and did not pay taxes, according to Espinosa. The land does not belong to the transnational corporations that have their products assembled in the plants. The companies that own the land are usually powerful families like the Bermudez family who are tied to the political establishment, according to Espinosa. The Association of Maquiladoras sets “topes,” or maximum wages, to quash competition for workers and wage inflation, Espinosa said.
In the Bermudez Industrial Park, there are maquiladoras emblazoned with signs for well-known manufacturers such as Electrolux appliances, Xerox, and Ansell, which specializes in surgical gloves and condoms. Another company, MFI International, offers flexible manufacturing services, that is, they will manufacture any line of products for a corporation. Recycled U.S. school buses, usually white and identified as “Transporte de Personal” or Personal Transportation, ferry workers into the parking lots of maquiladoras. In the driveways and parking lots, spouses exchange children as they greet each other at the shift change.
According to Espinosa, an estimated 49 percent of workers are in a union but they are in what are called disparagingly “white unions,” or Sindicatos Charros, fake or false unions. These unions are part of labor federations affiliated with the governing party, the Party of the Institutional Revolution, Spanish acronym PRI, which include the Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM), the Confederation of Mexican Workers; Central Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos (CROC), the Revolutionary Center of Workers and Peasants; La Confederación Nacional de Organizaciones Populares (CNOP), The National Confederation of Popular Organizations; and Confederación Revolucionaria de Trabajadores (CRT), Workers Revolutionary Confederation. These unions made a practice of signing “protection contracts” with management that would guarantee labor peace. Most workers would not know that they are in a union. If workers petitioned the government for union recognition, management could wave the union contract and say that they already had a union, according to Espinosa.
According to CEREAL, all manufacturing plants in the electronic industry in Mexico have a union, but not unions following International Labor Organization Convention and international norms. They are registered by a labor authority, but actually exist only on paper. They do not hold meetings or elections of officers. They do not negotiate contracts or go on strike. Usually they are formed by a single person, who is the general secretary, who was never an employee of the factory where they represent workers, and often has never set foot in the plant. The workers in the plant have never met their representative. Some general secretaries have registered multiple unions. For more than 30 years, labor authorities have no longer granted registration to new unions. Only old registrations continue to be valid, hence the name – “white unions.” Companies sign collective bargaining agreements with these “white unions” before they open a plant to protect themselves because Mexican Labor Law says companies can only sign a contract with one union. For a monthly or annual fee, the company keeps out a real union. CEREAL estimates that more than 90 percent of collective bargaining agreements are protection contracts.
In 2008, many workers were calling for the democratization of their unions but these workers were dismissed and black-listed, Espinosa said. Between 2008 and 2012, unemployment and violence were at a high level in Juarez. Counter-intuitively, those who were working had to work more hours. According to a survey done by CEREAL, on average maquiladora workers labor 9 hours and 37 minutes in addition to their 48-hour week. Most workers rely on the extra hours as necessary income, but nearly 10 percent reported not being paid for them. Between 2012 and 2015, the economy began getting better. President Enrique Peña Nieto and former Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte went to Europe to offer Juarez as a place to move factories, Espinosa said. Because of rising wages and labor unrest in China, production was moving back to Mexico. By 2015, there was a boom in production and currently maquiladora operators talk about a 27,000 worker deficit, according to Espinosa. With little or no employment in other regions in Mexico, maquiladoras lure truckloads of new workers from other states, such as Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas, with promises of incentives like housing and guaranteed employment. This maneuver also served to undermine ongoing organizing efforts by pitting the new wave of workers against current workers. The newly recruited workers are willing to work more hours and for less pay out of necessity, according to Dr. Fuentes. These newer workers often speak an indigenous language rather than Spanish, leading to further alienation both within the maquiladora and in the community. Moreover, the city is not creating the necessary public infrastructure for the additional workers, said Espinosa. Poverty is getting worse, housing more scarce and transportation more difficult, according to Espinosa. Factories needing workers, and a decrease in violence from the drug war, have created the conditions for workers to start organizing for better working conditions, according to Espinosa.
Cuauhtémoc Estrada is a labor attorney who represented workers at Foxconn Scientific Atlantic Las Torres, which assembles cable boxes for Time Warner and Comcast, and networking equipment for Brocade, Technicolor and Cisco; CommScope, which manufactures fiber optic cable and equipment for Verizon, AT&T, Nortel, Telmex, and Televisa; and Honeywell, which manufactures security cameras and smoke alarms. In Juarez, an estimated 8 percent of maquiladoras have a collective bargaining agreement, according to Estrada. However, these are “white” or “charro” unions and independent unions do not exist in Juarez. If you want to register an independent union that is not part of a PRI-affiliated labor federation, it is very hard to do so without losing your job, according to Estrada. While Estrada said that he has seen no proof that the Association of Maquiladoras enforces a maximum wage, it sets parameters from minimum to maximum wages in maquiladoras.
Filing a petition for union recognition is the basic first step in the legal process, allowing an organizing committee to function as a legal entity that can raise money. Petitions for union recognition first go to the state government. If a petition is denied, that decision can be appealed to the federal government. Beginning in 2015, seven petitions for independent unions had been filed by workers in Juarez, and all had been denied, according to Estrada. Former Governor Cesar Duarte was not pro-union, Estrada said. The new Governor Javier Corral, campaigned on a human rights platform, but has hired staff that is pro-management, according to Estrada. The 2013 labor law reforms have made it more difficult to get a collective bargaining agreement, according to Estrada. If workers want to go out on strike to gain leverage for a collective bargaining agreement, it must be a majority decision of workers, all workers must vote and the company counts the vote, according to Estrada. “The reforms have a lock that makes it impossible to call a strike,” Estrada said. “It is a trick to say to the international community that there are unions.”
Susana Prieto Terrazas, a labor attorney, represented workers at the maquiladoras for Lexmark, which assembles and refills ink and toner cartridges for computer printers; Eaton Bussman, which assembles fuses for cars; Johnson Controls, which produces interiors for cars from synthetic materials; and Eagle Ottawa, which makes leather seats for cars. At the beginning of NAFTA, the maquiladoras would do an initial process or assembly, and then the product would be finished in the United States, according to Prieto. Companies made the argument that Mexican workers were paid less for low-skilled work and then U.S. workers were paid more for their expertise in finishing the product. Now the products are finished in Mexico but Mexican workers are not paid more, Prieto said.
Miriam Delgado, originally from Coahuila, worked at Lexmark. There are between 1,500 and 2,800 workers employed in the plant. At Lexmark, Delgado was making around 650 pesos per week, around $34.21 USD (This was calculated at the past exchange rate of 19 pesos to the U.S. dollar. As of January, 2017, it is more than 20 pesos to the dollar.) If they did not make their quota of filling cartridges, they would be paid less and have to work extra hours, Delgado said.
According to the report by CEREAL, wages at the Lexmark plant had not increased since 2008, until around April 2015, when workers were told that they would receive a wage increase of seven pesos per day to raise their daily salary to 105 pesos. They had been expecting an increase to 125 or 130 pesos per day to match those offered by other maquiladoras in the electronic sector. The company also announced that workers would have to take a test to re-certify for the wage increase and be graded the same as newly hired workers, regardless of their seniority rights provided under Mexican labor law. The highest level they could aspire to is Level C, after completing several years at the company and passing tests for certifications, at which they would make 120 pesos per day.
Fernando Hernandez, originally from Veracruz, worked at Eaton Bussman. At Eaton Bussman, when workers began organizing, the minimum wage was 80 pesos per day, around $4.21 USD. The company raised the minimum wage at the plant to 100 pesos per day, or $5.26 USD as part of their union avoidance strategy, according to Prieto.
Gabriela Ramos, born in Juarez, worked at Johnson Controls, which produces interiors for cars. In what is called an “inversion,” Johnson Controls, a U.S. corporation, bought Tyco, a security systems company incorporated in Ireland, in order to avoid paying 35 percent in taxes to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and instead pays a 12 percent tax rate to Ireland, according to Prieto. Ramos worked eight to nine years with the same wage at Johnson Controls while watching other workers arrive and then move upwards to higher pay, leaving her behind. When she asked for a raise, the supervisor said that she would first have to provide sexual favors and then he would consider it.
With the lack of independent unions, there is favoritism in pay and promotions, and sexual harassment is rampant.
Adriana Rivera worked at Eagle Ottawa making luxury interiors for cars. Rivera asked for a raise from 105 to 145 pesos per day. The supervisor told Rivera that if she went out with him and had sex with him, then she would get extra hours and a better job. At Eagle Ottawa, there is a “white union,” the Confederation of Mexican Workers, Spanish acronym CTM, according to Prieto. The only workers who received a raise of 20 pesos per day were ones that signed up with the CTM, Prieto said. The union takes 1 percent of salary per week as dues. The union functions as an extension of management, according to Prieto.
From left, attorney Susana Prieto, Adriana Rivera – former employee at Eagle Ottawa, Gabriela Ramos – former employee of Johnson Controls, Miriam Delgado – former employee at Lexmark, Fernando Hernandez – former employee at Eaton Bussman
At a plant of the Robert Bosch company, which has 10 plants in Mexico with more than 10,000 employees total, Lila – who asked that her last name be withheld because she is currently employed at the company — is paid 100 pesos per day, around $5.36, the same amount she started at eight years ago, assembling electronic sensors to measure distance. Lila said that if she wanted better treatment, she would have to flirt with the supervisor. “In the maquila, they don’t pay attention to how well you do a job,” Lila said. Line chiefs have to approve any request for a raise and they only do that for favorites, Lila added.
Maria — who asked that her last name be withheld because she is currently employed at the company — is 25 years old and works at Rio Bravo Electricas #5. Maria connects cables for automotive parts, including for Tesla. Maria works from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. and is paid 1,500 peso per week, about $79. When she makes a mistake, the supervisor sends her home for the day without pay as a punishment. Supervisors discipline workers for talking on the job. If Maria asks to be off for a few hours, she is not granted permission. If she leaves work early, she loses the entire day’s pay, and is further punished by losing another day’s pay. When they have a lot of work, she is forced to do extra hours. “Maquilas are always using you. It is never in your favor,” Maria said.
Maria said that she has a child with problems whom she has to take to neurologists and other doctors. Her supervisor has been pressuring her for sex when she asks for permission for time off work. He further pressured her by giving her harder jobs. He told her that management will believe anything that he tells them. By chance, she met the head of human relations, to whom she told her plight. She moved Maria to another part of the plant. Nothing was done to the supervisor.
Maria has been working at Rio Bravo Eléctricas for five to 10 years but only three years ago was she promoted to a higher level. Maria said that another worker who has been at the factory for three months got a raise because the person is a favorite of the supervisor. Maria expects that she will have to wait years for another raise.
Liseth — who asked that her last name be withheld because she is currently employed at the company — is a single mother and started working in maquiladoras at 18. She worked at the recently-built Foxconn plant at San Jerónimo, assembling Dell and Hewlett-Packard computers and screens. At Foxconn San Jerónimo, Liseth had no benefits and had to pay for everything including her uniform. The factory charges 20 percent interest on loans to workers. She was paid 800 to 960 pesos per week, $42 to $50 USD. Liseth would be forced to stay extra hours to a time when there were no buses leaving to get home. A supervisor punished her for making a mistake by withholding a whole month’s production bonus. Liseth said workers cannot take the risk of going union because they could lose their job.
The recently constructed Foxconn San Jerónimo plant near the border crossing into Santa Teresa, NM
Workers depend on the bonuses which can be up to 40 percent of their income, according to Estrada. Women at Honeywell began organizing because every time that they went to a doctor they would lose their bonus, Estrada said.
Even higher level positions are low-paid. At Foxconn Scientific Atlantic Las Torres, Jesús Alejandro Aguiña, a technical production supervisor, worked 15 years at the plant and made 463 pesos per day, or $24.37 USD. Carlos Octavio Serrano, a production supervisor and process engineer, with 15 years at the plant, made 651 pesos per day, or $34.26 USD. According to a survey by CEREAL, only 1.3 percent of workers in the electronics industry make more than 1723.80 pesos per week, about $90 USD. Victor Baquera, a client services and electronic technician, with 11 years at the plant, made 217 pesos per day, or $11.42 USD. The majority of workers at Foxconn Scientific Atlantic are receiving 85 pesos per day, according to Serrano. There are between 5,000 and 7,000 employees at the plant, according to estimates from Prieto and Espinosa. Aguiña said that at Foxconn Scientific Atlantic there are people who have worked there for 10 years who are receiving a lower wage than new hires. Even supervisors have abusive supervisors. Serrano said his supervisor would call him an idiot if he did not reach his production goal.
From left, top row, attorney Cuauhtemoc Estrada, Alejandro Aguiña – former employee of Foxconn Scientific Atlantic, Karl Kramer – San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, Carol Costa – Marin Task Force on the Americas, Lalo Gonzalez, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), David Frias – San Francisco Living Wage Coalition; from left in the front, Victor Baquera – former employee of Foxconn Scientific Atlantic, Carlos Octavio Serrano – former employee of Foxconn Scientific Atlantic, Cynthia Diaz – MEChA, Rodger Scott – San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, Elvia Villescas – Las Hormigas of Ciudad Juarez
According to CEREAL, Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group, the largest electronic devices manufacturer in the world, purchased Scientific Atlanta’s set-top-box facilities in Mexico from Cisco Systems in 2011. Foxconn became internationally infamous in 2010 when several workers, feeling trapped in their oppressive working conditions, committed suicide jumping out of their buildings at their Chinese factories. Both Foxconn, and the companies it supplies – Cisco and Technicolor – have signed the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition’s Code of Conduct, a set of principles that include the right of workers to freely join unions and engage in peaceful assembly, according to CEREAL. Workers report that labor conditions deteriorated after Foxconn bought the plant. With the restructuring imposed by the company, new hires have a starting wage of 90 pesos per day while workers with 12 to 15 years of seniority are only getting 94 pesos per day. After an annual evaluation, a worker may receive a wage increase up to 3 pesos a day, or none at all.
Protections for health and safety on the job are sorely lacking. A major complaint of workers is a practice they call “celulas” or “bumping” – doing multiple positions on an assembly line. To increase productivity and efficiency, supervisors make workers do the work of three to five workers. For example, at Johnson Controls, one worker would have to manage three to five machines, doing around 14 operations in the same day for the same wage, according to Prieto. This causes permanent injuries, Espinosa said. Employees were overworked resulting in tendonitis, worn joints, carpal tunnel and arthritis. Workers have filed more than 700 lawsuits for health damages and unfair dismissals, according to Espinosa.
At Eaton Bussman, employees work with dangerous chemicals, Prieto said. By law, the company is obligated to tell workers with what chemicals they are working and what are the potential health consequences, according to Prieto. There had been a sign posted on a wall but the company took it down because workers were quitting when they saw that they could get cancer, Prieto said.
At Lexmark, workers took cell phone photos and video of a black plume of smoke rising from the roof of the plant, Espinosa said. Plant management told city officials that it was water vapor. Workers pointed out that, besides the environmental contamination, this was material that they were breathing every day as they refilled ink and toner cartridges. In a building that workers call The Mine, women inject ink into cartridges. They wear paper masks and wear latex gloves that do not protect them from the chemicals, according to Delgado. Periodically, the company does a medical examination of workers but does not release the results to them, according to Delgado. Many workers have breathing problems, she said.
Factory management at Eaton Bussman figured that a good way to save money was to cut electricity use, according to Prieto. So they began shutting off air conditioning from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. each day during the brutally hot Juarez summer in plant buildings with metal roofs, Prieto said. Workers were getting sick and it was rumored that two died from heat exhaustion, Prieto said. A percentage of the energy savings were earmarked as bonuses for plant management, according to Prieto.
There are long-term health effects related to working in maquiladoras. After 35 years, people can no longer work in the industry because they have protuberances in their shoulders and no one will hire them, Prieto said. There are women who cannot hold a drinking glass because their hands have been damaged, according to Espinosa. With low wages, workers sustain themselves with unhealthy food. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of employees have diabetes and hypertension because they make it through their shifts on candies and colas, Prieto said.
Medical facilities at plants are inadequate. The factory clinics only have a doctor for one hour per day and do not have licensed nurses on staff, according to Prieto. At Foxconn Scientific Atlantic, there are only two medical areas in the plant, according to former employee Serrano. A worker died after his request to have time off to see a doctor was denied, Serrano said. He went into the bathroom, began vomiting blood and died before the ambulance arrived. Women have had miscarriages in the plant, Serrano said.
Sick leave and family leave are major issues for workers. Some people have died on the assembly line because supervisors would not let them leave when they were sick, according to Prieto. At Eaton Bussman, if employees needed time off to go to a doctor, it would count as a vacation day, Prieto said, and by the Christmas holidays, they had no vacation time left. A worker got a call from school that her son was sick. When she asked management if she could leave to pick up her child, they told her that she needed to go to a psychologist because she had problems.
According to the CEREAL report, under Mexican labor law, if a worker is obliged to work on a rest day, the employer is required to pay double time. Workers may get 12 vacation days per year. Usually at maquiladoras, manufacturing stops for the final two weeks in December. At Lexmark, workers were not paid double time for working on rest days, but forced to exchange them for the days that the plant is closed in December. Sometimes when production demand is up, workers are forced to work through the holidays. This is a burden for workers who are originally from other states, and need several days in a row to travel back to visit their families.
There is a general lack of childcare facilities in Juarez, according to Jose Luis Flores of the Network for the Rights of Children. Only two maquiladoras have childcare centers. More than 150,000 children need childcare while their parents are working, according to Prieto. Workers rely heavily on extended family or neighbors to provide childcare. Heavy work loads lead to many workers missing time interacting with their children. Couples often work different shifts in order to rotate caring for their children.
In 2015, Juarez had its worker uprising. Labor actions occurred at five maquiladoras. Workers faced retaliation for speaking out or organizing. There is a lack of protection by the government for workers’ right to organize and a lack of government recognition of unions, according to Estrada. There have been seven failed union registrations between 2015 and 2016. The pattern of union organizing drives in Juarez is that the government takes no action against a company for discrimination and mass firings of workers for union activities, and the companies wait out the workers who finally, out of hunger and desperation, negotiate an agreement for severance pay, which is legally required, that contains a confidentiality clause to prevent former workers from disparaging the company or influencing any current workers.
At Foxconn Scientific Atlantic in June, 2015, workers kicked off a wave of actions protesting bad working conditions and sexual harassment. They were represented initially by attorney Rodrigo Stanley, according to former employee Serrano. They then divided into three groups represented separately by attorneys Gustavo De La Rosa Hickerson, Cuautémoc Estrada and Susana Prieto, according to Serrano. In August, workers filed their first petition for union recognition.
Workers protested several times at the gates of the plant. In retaliation for demonstrating, management assigned pregnant women to heavy lifting duties in an attempt to force them to resign, according to Serrano. To punish a worker, management would move the person to the same shift as a spouse so one of them would have to resign to take care of the children, according to Prieto. Supervisors would deny overtime hours or vacation requests as punishment. When workers complained about not getting vacation time, the company began harassing them by watching them on cameras and prohibiting other employees from getting close to them, according to Prieto. Supervisors would bully them and say that they were trying to be like Che Guevara, according to Prieto. A production manager ordered Serrano to be hidden from other workers. Management and human resources labeled him as untrustworthy.
In August, workers demonstrated outside of the plant, lying on the driveway for an hour to stop tractor-trailors at the entrance gate, according to Estrada. Foxconn filed criminal charges and a civil lawsuit for $134,000 against 180 workers, Estrada said. Some went back to work after human resource managers made them sign an agreement not to engage in demonstrations in exchange for not being sued. Between 120 and 130 workers were fired. After workers staged the demonstration blocking the driveway, Serrano said that the federal police went to his house to harass him. The company filed civil suits for loss of profit against workers, threatening to take their homes away. These forms of intimidation had psychological impacts on individuals and their families, according to Estrada. There were waves of mass firings. Around 103 workers were fired for organizing activity, Estrada said, and supervisors accused of harassment and sexual assault were also fired to cover up the accusations or relieve the company from any liability. The fired workers filed charges with the Labor Arbitration and Conciliation Board to demand that they receive the legally-required severance pay or get their jobs back. More than 400 workers were involved in actions from July to August.
On October 12, 2015, workers started a plantón, an encampment, outside the factory gates, according to Estrada. The Minister of Labor and Social Welfare of the State and the President of Mexico’s Labor Arbitration and Conciliation Board visited the plant and tried to convince workers to disband their plantón. The corporation flew in high-level managers from Taiwan to get workers to stop organizing. Management fired 124 workers, Prieto said. The factory told workers they could not demonstrate during shift changes, to limit their visibility to other workers.
Engineer Serrano started a hunger strike on October 14, 2015, for 72 hours to protest the harassment and to protest the company’s lack of response to worker demands. The company reacted by initiating three legal processes against him: a civil case based on damages to property, a labor case for organizing a union as an exempt supervisor, and a criminal case for the protest at the facility gates, according to CEREAL. The human resources staff mocked and harassed him during his hunger strike. On October 28, 2015, the company dismissed him without severance pay after he refused to take 50,000 pesos which the company offered for his resignation, along with dropping charges. According to a statement by Foxconn sent to CEREAL, “Serrano was terminated because, in carrying out activities that disrupted our operations and caused financial loss to the company, he violated the terms of his employment contract and our Code of Conduct.” According to CEREAL, Mr. Serrano’s activities were carried out in conformity with Mexican labor law and with international labor treaties that Mexico has signed.
Foxconn workers filed another petition for union recognition with the state Secretary of Labor in November. By December 29, 2015, labor authorities informed workers that it would not grant them registration to form a union because, as dismissed workers, they could not form unions, according to CEREAL. The company paid 100 workers, represented by Prieto, their severance pay two weeks later but workers had problems cashing their checks, Prieto said, but finally the company paid them in cash. More than 100 workers are still out of a job since they organized and filed for union recognition in November, 2015, according to Estrada. These fired workers are still suing to be reinstated, according to Serrano. The government does not protect workers, only mediates, Serrano said. He cannot prove a black-list exists but it is obvious to him because human resource managers at other plants tell the fired workers when they hear that they are from Foxconn that they do not want to create any problems by hiring them. According to CEREAL, at the height of their movement, the workers organization had reached the necessary number of members to claim the right to sign a collective bargaining agreement with the company.
When workers started organizing to improve their working conditions at Lexmark, the company retaliated by not offering overtime to protestors, according to CEREAL. The company also changed their positions to prevent them from speaking to other workers and encouraging them to join the movement. At Lexmark, management moved organized workers into a part of the factory it called the Zona del Yonke, or Junk Zone, and called them the “production line of rotten apples,” according to Espinosa. Other workers considered ‘bad apples’ by management were placed in areas of the factory called ‘Hell’ with very strict supervisors. Workers stopped work for one day and videoed statements from inside the plant on their phones and sent them out on social media, Espinosa said, and management dismissed 110 workers for the action. Workers started a plantón outside the factory gates in early October, 2015. They filed a petition for a union on November 3. When workers signed a petition for union recognition, then state Secretary of Labor Fidel Perez gave the list to management and 100 workers were fired a day before they were supposed to receive their aguinaldo, a legally-required Christmas bonus. Between December 7 and 11, 700 workers in one building stopped the assembly lines for five days. Then in an adjoining building, 150 workers stopped work from December 9 to 11. According to CEREAL, the company requested the presence of the Juarez Police and the Attorney General’s office to try to intimidate workers and force them back to work. At one point, the police tried to bring demonstrators out of the plant by force, even though the actions by workers were carried out legally, according to CEREAL. On December 9, 2015, the company fired 90 workers. Of the fired workers, 76 were involved in the plantón.
The government did nothing about the mass firing, Prieto said. Then Secretary of Labor Perez continued to discourage the workers’ campaign for a union by telling workers on December 18 that the company would give them a 750 peso bonus every three months if they did not miss more than a day of work. The company reinforced the union-avoidance strategy by promising to increase salaries by 4.2 percent. Management steadfastly refused to meet with workers. Workers suspect that they were black-listed from being hired by other maquiladoras, according to Prieto. Factories are requiring a letter of recommendation and references from job applicants in order to avoid hiring workers “black-listed” for their organizing activities. According to CEREAL, the threats against the workers’ attorney, Prieto, became so frequent that she went to the Office of the State Commission on Human Rights to file a complaint and request necessary precautionary measures.
On December 29, labor authorities informed workers that they would not allow registration of their union because their request contained typographical errors and omissions. Their attorney Prieto filed an “amparo,” or protective measure, challenging the decision. The government denied petitions for union recognition from workers at Lexmark two times, according to Prieto. A further legal process to challenge the denial of union recognition would have taken two years, Prieto said. In addition, the government denied Lexmark workers the right to strike, Prieto said.
Workers remained in the plantón until the end of March, 2016, enduring extreme weather including a freak blizzard in December. On March 23, 34 organizations from the United States, Europe and Mexico, including the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition and the San Francisco Labor Council, signed a letter to Paul Rooke, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, at the Lexmark International headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, demanding that Lexmark reinstate the fired workers and respect their right to organize. The company had been buying off desperate workers at reduced severance pay, depleting their ranks in the plantón. On March 29, there was supposed to be a hearing at the Labor Board on the firing of workers, but the board had failed to send Lexmark a copy of the complaint. The board attempted to cancel the hearing and reschedule it in four months. The Lexmark attorney said the letter they received from more than 30 organizations had them worried and they would not object to scheduling an earlier hearing. The board scheduled the hearing for the following week. On April 5, 56 workers who had remained in the plantón outside of the factory gates for five months and one week reached an agreement with Lexmark on their unjust firing case, but in exchange had to drop their petition to register a union with the Labor Board and would have to keep the settlement confidential.
At Eaton Bussman, once when an investor was visiting the plant, a supervisor locked up workers who were involved in organizing activities, according to Espinosa. They were accompanied by supervisors when they went to the restroom, to limit their contact with other workers, Espinosa said. Plant management fired 37 workers, according to Prieto. Afterward the fired workers set up a plantón outside the factory gates on November 5, 2015 and distributed flyers to employees at every shift change. Workers would spend 12 hour shifts on the plantón, according to former employee Fernando Hernandez, who confided that he had marital problems because he was missing time with his two daughters, having to spend so much time on the plantón. The factory managers threatened employees with firing if they spoke to the fired workers. Around 12 workers were fired but workers also won demands that air conditioning stay on longer than one hour a day and that the company repair air vents to take out toxic fumes. After 18 days outside the gates, the factory paid them severance pay, Prieto said.
CommScope has two manufacturing plants located in Juarez. Along with a plant in Delicias and Mexico City, it has 4,200 employees in Mexico, according to CEREAL. At the CommScope factory, better known by its legal name as ADC, workers met on September 16, Mexican Independence Day, and the next day delivered a petition, signed by 190 workers for a union, to the Labor Conciliation and Arbitration Board. They called for respect for freedom of association, a decent wage that adheres to the Mexican constitution, specifically in regard to women, who are a majority of workers at ADC, and no unjustified changes to work shifts because those changes complicate the care of their children, according to CEREAL. Workers complained of a skin rash caused by the fiber optics, lesions on their arms from repetitive motion, lack of personal protection equipment and adequate ergonomic adjustments, also verbal abuse by supervisors, according to CEREAL, and intimidating interviews with workers. Workers have video footage of company representatives threatening workers by telling them that what they were doing was illegal and that they would be dismissed, according to CEREAL. On October 19, management fired 172 of those who had signed the petition for a union. Workers started a plantón and camped for 43 days outside the factory gates. On December 4, 2015, they took their plantón down as part of an agreement with the president of Juarez’s Labor Conciliation and Arbitration Board in exchange for being registered as a union. Workers had to engage in a sit-in of the Labor Board’s office to get the promise fulfilled. On December 16, they won legal recognition as the first independent union in 30 years in Ciudad Juarez. CommScope workers won formal legal recognition for a union but they lost their jobs. Around August, they reached an agreement with the company but cannot say what it is because of a confidentiality clause. None of the former union leaders are currently working in a maquiladora and fear that they may be on a black-list.
At Johnson Controls, more than 800 workers went on strike for two days and filed a lawsuit against the company, according to Prieto; later, 113 returned to work after agreeing to withdraw from the lawsuit. Hanson, a Shanghai-based technology company, hired workers fired from Johnson Controls and other factories because they had experience, offering them a better salary, Prieto said.
At Honeywell, workers filed a juicio amparo, an appeal of their denial for union recognition. They are expecting the federal government to issue a decision on whether to send it back to the state to review the application for union recognition, Estrada said. Workers are not holding out much hope that the government will do so.
The CEREAL report documents violations in Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Mexico of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition’s Code of Conduct. According to the report, “the most regrettable symbol of such violations is the implementation of an anti-labor union policy, shown by the collective contracts of employer protection that are signed off by inactive labor unions, and by the dismissal of workers who attempt to organize their own independent labor union.”
While 2015 was a year of economic growth in the electronics industry in Mexico, labor conditions have deteriorated, according to CEREAL. By the end of 2015, the industry included more than 800 companies that employ about 600,000 workers. The majority of these are foreign companies, of which 80 percent are U.S.-based. More than 90 percent of their products in the electronics industry are imported into the United States. Ten of these companies are world leaders in the production of electronic devices – Foxconn, LG, Samsung, BlackBerry, Flextronics, Intel, HP, Panasonic, Ericsson, and Motorola. Flextronics is responsible for half the production of Blackberry in Mexico. In 2014, Blackberry moved most of its operation to Ciudad Juarez. Foxconn and LG are the companies that have invested most in Mexico. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994, manufacturing exports have surpassed oil exports. Average nominal wages decreased 5 percent. The Mexican labor law reforms, issued in December, 2013, empowered employers to recruit and dismiss workers with fewer restrictions and almost no responsibilities, according to CEREAL. With the continuous devaluation of the peso, Mexican workers have lost 75 percent of their purchasing power over the last 25 years. A survey by CEREAL showed that more than 60 percent of workers in the electronics industry earned 114 pesos or less per day. This amount would cover only 30 percent of the basic food basket, according to the Multidisciplinary Analysis Center of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. According to the government National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policies, Spanish acronym CONEVAL, the monthly basic food basket costs 1,315 pesos per person, based on 2013 data, and the average worker in the electronics industry can afford only 65 percent of the food basket.
NAFTA was sold to the U.S. public as a vehicle to raise the standard of living in both the United States and in Mexico, reversing the factors that push Mexicans to migrate to the United States. This report highlights the failures of NAFTA in improving working conditions in Mexico and in protecting workers’ right to organize. This disparity creates an unlevel playing field for businesses that choose to keep manufacturing and assembly jobs in the United States, and a downward pressure on wages in those jobs. The 2013 labor law reforms were supposed to rectify these failures to show good faith participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but according to those on the ground, those “reforms” have made union organizing and collective bargaining even more difficult. In this context, treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are a further danger to the living standards of workers in Mexico and the United States. A renegotiation of NAFTA needs to include labor protections as part of the core agreement, with as robust an enforcement mechanism as that now afforded to protections for patent, trademark, copyright, and the potential profits of transnational corporations.
Fanning, Charlie. AFL-CIO report: “Trading Away Migrant Rights: How the TPP Would Fuel Displacement and Fail Migrant Workers,” 2016.
Center for Reflection and Action on Labour Issues (CEREAL), “Beyond voluntary codes and audits: A challenge for the electronic industry, Seventh report on working conditions in the Mexican Electronics Industry,” July 2016.
Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness, “Paso Del Norte Economic Indicator Review, Spring 2015.” University of Texas at El Paso. http://huntinstitute.utep.edu/projects/indicator-reviews
interviews conducted between October 11 and 13, 2016, in Ciudad Juarez:
Dr. Cesar Fuentes, researcher at the Colegia de la Frontera Norte, or College of the Northern Border
Dr. Julia Monárrez, researcher at the College of the Northern Border
Cecilia Espinosa, Women’s Network Roundtable
José Luis Flores, Executive Secretary of La Red por los Derechos de la Infancia, or the
Network for the Rights of Children
Cuauhtémoc Estrada, labor attorney
Susana Prieto Terrazas, labor attorney
interviews with maquiladora workers:
Miriam Delgado, former employee of Lexmark
Fernando Hernandez, former employee at Eaton Bussman
Gabriela Ramos, former employee at Johnson Controls
Adriana Rivera, former employee at Eagle Ottawa
Lila [last name withheld], employee at Robert Bosch company
Maria [last name withheld], employee at Rio Bravo Electricas #5
Liseth [last name withheld], employee at Foxconn plant at San Jerónimo
Jesús Alejandro Aguiña, a former technical production supervisor at Foxconn Scientific Atlantic Las Torres
Carlos Octavio Serrano, a former production supervisor and process engineer at Foxconn Scientific Atlantic Las Torres
Victor Baquera, a former client services and electronic technician at Foxconn Scientific Atlantic Las Torres
contact information: San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, 2940 – 16th Street, #301, San Francisco, CA 94103, tel. 415-863-1225, email@example.com, www.livingwage-sf.org