From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Mexican Border Workers Strike Against COVID, But The U.S. Keeps The Factories Open
Date May 26, 2020 12:00 AM
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["The maquiladora industry has never cared about the health of its
operators, just its profits. Their production lines must not stop, and
in the best colonial tradition, Uncle Sam has pressured Mexico to keep
the assemblers operating..."] [[link removed]]

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David Bacon
May 4, 2020
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_ "The maquiladora industry has never cared about the health of its
operators, just its profits. Their production lines must not stop, and
in the best colonial tradition, Uncle Sam has pressured Mexico to keep
the assemblers operating..." _

A young worker pulls plastic parts from a plastic molding machine
which will be assembled into coathangers for the garment industry, in
the Tijuana, Mexico, maquiladora of Plasticos Bajacal. Workers tried
unsuccessfully to organize., David Bacon


In Washington, D.C., President Trump is trying his best to reopen
closed meatpacking plants, as packinghouse workers catch the COVID-19
virus and die. In Tijuana, Mexico, where workers are dying in mostly
U.S.-owned factories (known as maquiladoras) that produce and export
goods to the U.S., the Baja California state governor, a former
California Republican Party stalwart, is doing the same thing.

Jaime Bonilla Valdez rode into the governorship in 2018 on the
coattails of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And at
first, as a leading member of López Obrador's MORENA Party, he was a
strong voice calling for the factories on the border to suspend

López Obrador himself was criticized for not acting rapidly enough
against the pandemic. But in late March, in the face of Mexico's
rising COVID-19 death toll, he finally declared a State of Health
Emergency. Nonessential businesses were ordered to shut their doors,
and to continue paying workers' wages until April 30.

Bonilla's Labor Secretary Sergio Martinez applied the federal
government's rule to the foreign-owned factories on the border,
producing goods for the U.S. market. Again, only essential businesses
would be excepted.

When news spread that many factories were defying the order to close,
Bonilla condemned them. "The employers don't want to stop earning
money," he said at a news conference in mid-April. "They are basically
looking to sacrifice their employees." But now, a month later, he is
allowing many non-essential factories to reopen.

Explaining the about-face are two competing pressures. At first,
workers in the factories took action to shut them down, a move widely
supported in border cities. But as the owners themselves resisted,
they got the help of the U.S. government. The Trump administration put
enormous pressure on the Mexican government and economy, vulnerable
because of its dependence on the U.S. market.

Now as the factories are opening again, the deaths are still rising.


Although Baja California is much less densely populated than other
Mexican states, it's now third in the number of COVID-19 cases, with
1,660 people infected. Some 261 have died statewide, and 164 in
Tijuana alone. That's more deaths than 131 in neighboring San Diego, a
much larger metropolis. Fifteen percent of those with COVID-19 in
Tijuana die, while only 3.5 percent die in San Diego. As is true
everywhere, with the absence of extensive testing, no one really knows
how many are sick.

In Tijuana, most who die are working-age. Since one-tenth of the
city's 2.1 million residents work in over 900 maquiladoras, and even
more are dependent on those factory jobs, the spread of the virus
among maquiladora workers is very threatening.

Alarm grew when two workers died in early April at Plantronics, where
3,300 employees make phone headsets. Schneider Electric closed when
one worker died and 11 more got sick. Skyworks, a manufacturer of
parts for communications equipment with 5,500 workers, admitted that
some had been infected.

In the growing climate of fear, workers began to stop work. In
Mexicali, Baja California's state capital, workers struck on April 9
at three U.S.-owned factories: Eaton, Spectrum and LG. Protesters said
the companies were forcing people to come to work under threat of
being permanently fired, refusing to pay the government-mandated wages
and failing to provide masks to workers. The factories were forced to
close by the state government.

Work then stopped at three more factories - Jonathan, SL and MTS.
There, the companies offered bonuses of 20-40 percent if workers would
stay on the job, but employees rejected the offer. One striker,
Daniel, told a reporter for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, "We want
health - we don't want money, or bonuses or even double pay. We just
want them to comply with the presidential order that nonessential
factories close, and to pay us our full salary." Jonathan makes metal
rails for machine guns and tanks for U.S. companies. Workers denied
company claims that they made "essential" telecommunications
equipment, a common claim by factories that want to stay open.

The Organization of the Workers and Peoples, a radical group among
maquiladora workers in Baja California, reported a week of work
stoppages at Skyworks, and a strike at Gulfstream on April 10. At
Honeywell Aerospace, workers began shutting down production on April
6. "The company then laid off 100 people without pay, and fired four
of them," said Mexicali worker/activist Jesus Casillas. Honeywell
closed for a week, and then reopened.

As the strikes progressed, workers reported the death of two people in
Clover Wireless's two plants that repair cellphones. They were closed
for one shift, and then started up again. Finally, on April 14, a
general strike was called by Mexicali maquiladora workers, and
supported by the state chapter of the New Labor Center, a union
federation organized by the Mexican Electrical Workers Union.


Companies that said they were closing never really did, workers
charged. "They'd close the front door and put a chain on," Casillas
explained. "Then they bring workers in through the back door. They'd
call the workers down to the factory, and would tell them that if they
didn't go back to work, they'd lose their jobs permanently."

Elsewhere on the border, workers also complain about being forced to
work. Company scofflaws even included breweries. In the rest of
Mexico, beer began to disappear from store shelves as a result of
López Obrador's order, shuttering breweries because alcohol
production was not deemed "essential." Modelo and Heineken, two huge
producers, complied. Constellation Brands' two enormous breweries in
Coahuila, which make Corona and Modelo for the U.S. market, did not.

On May Day, a Facebook post even showed workers at the Piedras Negras
glass plant that makes the bottles for Constellation Brands lined up
without masks. A message from a worker, Alejandro Lopez, charges, "We
ask for masks and they deny us, like they do with [sanitizing] gel,
which they only give us at the [brewery] entrance, and that's it." The
response posted by the plant human relations director, Sofia Bucio,
says the company does everything required, and then goes on to berate
the worker: "We didn't go take you out of your house and force you to
work with us, right?... If you don't like the measures IVC [the glass
company] is taking, the doors were wide open to let you in when you
came here, and they're the same to let you out."

In border cities across the Rio Grande from Texas, other factories
that wanted to stay open said they'd let workers worried about the
virus stay home, but only at 50 percent of their normal wages. "People
can't possibly live on that," charged Julia Quiñones, director of the
Border Women Workers Committee. Since López Obrador ordered a raise a
year ago, the minimum wage on the border has been 185.56 pesos ($7.63)
per day. Fifty percent of that, in Nuevo Laredo, would barely buy a
gallon of milk (80 pesos).

"There's no other work the women can do in town," Quiñones explained.
"In the past, some workers crossed the border to earn extra money by
donating blood. But the border is now closed, even for those that have
visas. They can't sell things in the street because of the lockdown.
The only option is to work."

One worker told her, "It is better to work at 100 percent, even if
we're risking our lives, than to be at home with 50 percent."

Meanwhile, work stoppages spread to other border cities, as the death
toll rose. Lear Corporation, which employs 24,000 people making car
seats in Ciudad Juárez, closed its 12 plants there on April 1. Lear
had more COVID-19 fatalities than any company on the border. It won't
cite a number, and says it only learned of the first death on April 3.
By the end of April, however, 16 Lear workers were dead from the
virus, 13 from its Rio Bravo factory alone.

As other plants continued operations despite a death toll, strikes
broke out. On April 17, workers struck at six maquiladoras, demanding
that the companies stop operations and pay workers the
government-mandated wages. Twenty people in the city had died by then,
including two workers at Regal Beloit (a coffin manufacturer), and two
workers at Syncreon, according to protesters. At Honeywell, 70
strikers said the company hadn't provided masks, and had forced people
with hypertension and diabetes to show up for work.

The Electrolux plant stopped work on April 24 after two workers,
Gregoria González and Sandra Perea, died. Two weeks earlier, workers
there had protested the lack of health protection. When workers
finally stopped working, the company locked them inside and later
fired 20. One told journalist Kau Sirenio, "The company wouldn't tell
us anything though we all knew that we were working at the risk of
getting infected. They waited until two died before they closed, and
fired those who protested the lack of safe conditions. They still say
their operation is essential, but you can see how little they care
about the lives of the workers."

In Juárez, the mayor closed the city's restaurants but allowed the
maquiladoras to keep running. When workers at TPI Composites began
their protest, the city police were even called out against them.
Nevertheless, in Juárez and other border cities throughout April, the
pressure of workers did succeed often in forcing the government to
demand compliance from the companies.


At the end of April, the U.S. government intervened on behalf of the
owners of the stalled plants. The Trump administration is set on
protecting the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement set to go
into effect on July 1. While the agreement has theoretical protections
for worker health and safety, there is no expectation that it would be
invoked to ensure that plants remain shut until the COVID-19 danger
recedes. Instead, its purpose is to protect the chains of supply and
investment between Mexico and the U.S., especially involving factories
on the border.

López Obrador's order classified as "essential" only companies
directly involved in critical industries such as health care, food
production or energy, and excluded companies that supply materials to
factories in those industries. But from the beginning, many
maquiladoras claimed they were "essential" anyway because they
supplied other factories in the U.S. Luis Hernandez, an executive at a
Tijuana exporter association, admitted, "Companies have wanted to use
the 'essential' classifications of the U.S."

The military-industrial complex has a growing stake in border
factories, which exported $1.3 billion in aerospace and armament
products to the U.S. in 2004, climbing to $9.6 billion last year. To
defend that huge stake, Luis Lizcano, general director of the Mexican
Federation of Aerospace Industries, told the Mexican government it had
to give Mexico's defense industry the "essential" status it enjoys in
the U.S. and Canada.

Pentagon Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment
Ellen Lord announced she was meeting Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo
Ebrard to urge him to let U.S. defense corporations restart production
in their maquiladoras. "Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for
us, but we're working through our embassy," she said. She later
announced her visit had been successful.

Using the language of the Trump administration, U.S. Ambassador
Christopher Landau played down the risk to workers. "There is risk
everywhere but we don't all stay at home out of fear that we're going
to crash our cars," he said in a tweet. "Economic destruction also
threatens health.... On both sides of the border, investment =
employment = prosperity."

Finally, on April 28, Baja Governor Bonilla bowed to the pressure and
ordered the reopening of 40 "closed" maquiladoras. According to
Secretary of Economic Development Mario Escobedo Carignan, they are
now considered part of the supply chain for essential products. "We're
not in the business of trying to suspend your operations," he told
owners, "but to work with you to keep creating jobs and generating
wealth in this state."

Given that many "closed" factories in fact were operating already,
Julia Quiñones said bitterly, "This is what always happens here on
the border. The companies break the law, and then the law is changed
to make it all legal." And Mexico's federal government itself has
begun to back down as well, announcing three days after a U.S. request
that it will allow the many enormous auto plants in Mexico to restart
their assembly lines once automakers restart them north of the border.

The announcements didn't indicate that Mexico had flattened the
coronavirus infection curve or that the factories were now safe. In
one 24-hour period, from April 29 to 30, the number of cases per
million people went from 138 to 149. A million workers labor in over
3,000 factories on the border. The virus has already led to numerous
deaths among them, and if all factories resume production while it
still rages, the death toll will surely rise.

Luis Hernández Navarro, editor at Mexico's left-wing daily, La
Jornada (no relation to the Tijuana businessman), reminded his readers
that the catastrophic spread of the virus in Italy was caused by the
continued operation of factories in Lombardy until it was too late.

"The maquiladora industry has never cared about the health of its
operators, just its profits," he wrote recently. "Their production
lines must not stop, and in the best colonial tradition, Uncle Sam has
pressured Mexico to keep the assemblers operating.... The obstinacy of
the maquiladoras makes it likely that the Italian case will be
repeated here."

_David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A
former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy,
war and migration, and the struggle for human rights. 
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Copyright by David Bacon.  Reprinted with permission.

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