Trade pacts like NAFTA encourage corporations to set up shop in Mexican border towns. Instead of elevating communities with good jobs and healthy practices, they create a spiral of toxics and illnesses that degrade the lives of low-paid workers and pollute their environment.
Carmen Durán and other factory workers display the products they assemble.
SIERRA CLUB RESPONSIBLE TRADE PROGRAM INTERN
At the age of 13, Carmen Durán arrived in Tijuana alone and in need of work. She found a job in what is called in Spanish the maquiladoras, foreign-owned assembly factories known for capitalizing on cheap Mexican labor. She was hired by Sanyo to work the graveyard shift for $6 a day, manufacturing a single component used in televisions. Despite routine harassment and pressure, Carmen remained at Sanyo because she didn’t feel she had any other options.
Each day Carmen and other workers were exposed to toxic chemicals, the smell of burning plastic clung to their clothes and hair long after their shifts were done. When she started the job, she got nosebleeds. Later, a lack of potable water and bathroom breaks began to take a toll on her kidneys. After six and a half years at Sanyo, Carmen and her coworkers were laid off without the legally required severance pay when the company moved its factory to Indonesia.
This was only one in a string of factory jobs that required Carmen, now 34, to work through the night six days a week. As a single mother, she left her children with a family member overnight and picked them up when her shift ended at 7am The family then would head back to the home Carmen forged from used garage doors, where she would heat breakfast and bathe the children before taking them to school.
After cooking lunch and dinner, Carmen would squeeze in an hour or two of sleep before her children got home from school and spent a few precious hours together before her next shift.
Though she continued to be paid very little, her jobs extracted a high price. Constant exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals while working at Panasonic caused skin sores and repeated illnesses. To avoid contaminating the family, Carmen would wash her clothes separately from her children’s and stay away from them when she got home from work. Finally, a doctor told her that she had symptoms of lead poisoning and was at risk for leukemia. The time had come to decide between working in a maquila and her life. However she never got to make that painful decision: After another bout of illness, Panasonic fired her.
The Legacy of NAFTA
Tijuana wasn’t always at the mercy of the maquiladores. Thirty years ago it was smaller and less polluted. Today the border city’s rolling hills are crowded with substandard houses, industrial parks and 300,000 maquiladora workers.
The North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA has played a significant role in the transformation of Tijuana and other border town by allowing the establishment of foreign-owned assembly factories along the Mexico/U.S. border. Not only do Mexican workers earn 75% less than their American counterparts, but NAFTA’s insufficient environmental protections also assured that foreign companies would find it more cost effective to relocate to Mexico. It was said that a NAFTA-induced spike in production would bring prosperity to Mexico. But ten years later, the minimum wage south of the border remains unchanged while the environment is littered with toxic dumps and factory waste.
Maquiladoras create hazardous conditions, without taking any responsibility for destroying the lives of people who work and live there. The streets contain open sewage, spreading infection and disease, especially in children.
Seven-year old Sarahi Alvarez Mendoza and her family discovered firsthand the dangers of conditions created by the factories. Sarahi fell into a ditch behind her home in the maquiladora town of Reynosa, Mexico. A U.S. costume jewelry manufacturer had illegally dumped and burned toxic waste in this open-air site. Sarahi was severely burned, and her right leg now needs periodic surgeries to maintain normal growth. Her family struggles to pay for her treatments.
Lourdes Luján, an ex-factory worker in Tijuana, reminisces sadly about a childhood of swimming and bathing in the river that runs through her neighborhood. Today, hazardous waste sites and smoke stacks ooze pollutants into the communities that surround an industrial park of hundreds of maquilas which looms just 100 yards away on the Otay Mesa.
The river of Lourdes’ childhood is no more – it runs green or red, sometimes black from the toxic stew that spills into it. The moment it rains, factories flush their waste into the river. Lourdes and her neighbors can watch the refuse rushing down the street through the center of their community.
Unusually high rates of respiratory and circulatory diseases as well as fatal congenital defects like spina bifida (an incompletely formed spinal cord) and anencephaly (children born without a brain who die immediately) are found in communities surrounding the maquiladoras.
In the factories, health hazards and other labor violations are commonplace. Workers handling hot metal or hazardous materials are often forced to work without gloves, leading to accumulated damage in their hands and internal organs. They also work in dangerous facilities where exposed electrical cables hang from leaky roofs and decrepit cranes routinely crash to the floor. When asked for better working conditions or improved wages – the average maquila salary is $11 a day — most companies respond with threats to move to Asia where labor is cheaper still.
A Lack of Accountability
It’s hard for workers to make maquiladoras accountable. Factory managers prohibit cameras inside their work areas, while workers who press for change are ignored or met with punishment and violence. If cases ever reach the courts, they can drag on for years because there are no time limits for meting out justice. Though Mexican labor laws should be sufficient protection for workers, they are rarely enforced. The goal is to lure investment or comply with international agreements rather than make companies meet standards.
To find solutions, women factory workers like Carmen and Lourdes have turned to local non-governmental organizations like CITTAC, the Tijuana’s Workers’ Information Center, and have banded together to form their own groups, like the Colectivo Chilpancingo for Environmental Justice. Such groups provide the information and resources necessary for these brave women to act as advocates or promotoras for the enforcement of Mexico’s labor and environmental laws.
On June 24, 2004, Lourdes spoke alongside U.S. and Mexican officials at the commencement of the joint cleaning of a former lead recycling maquiladora known as Metalos et Derivados. The company had ceased operations at the site several years before, leaving 23,000 tons of exposed lead and other toxics sitting right next to Lourdes’ neighborhood. After long years of cross-border organizing around this issue, the site cleanup marked a significant victory for maquiladora workers and their families as well as the environment. “Tijuana is nobody’s trash can,” Lourdes said in her speech.
Carmen also carried through with her quest for justice. After Sanyo fired her and her coworkers without severance pay, Carmen took matters into her own hands and led a group of women to sue the company for the violation of their labor rights. The women refused the initial settlement offer of $860. In 2002, she received $2,500 and her coworkers received $2,000 each.
Carmen’s triumph allowed her to put a floor in her home. And if she can continue to find jobs in factories where lead is not used, her illnesses may not recur. In the long-term, she has her eyes on a law degree, although with children to raise and feed, the road is hard and uncertain.
Here and Now
Maquila workers in Mexico and activists from NAFTA countries—Mexico, the United States and Canada—are working to spread awareness about the negative effects of U.S. trade agreements as they are designed today.
The Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program is one of many groups focused on educating people around the country, drawing links between our policies and their global consequences and pushing for change. The Fast Track legislative mechanism which Congress can grant to the President expired on June 30. Congress’ refusal to renew it will reinstitute the democratic process and provide greater oversight for our future trade negotiations.
NAFTA should not be the model the U.S. continues to follow; protecting the rights of workers and maintaining a clean, healthy environment ought to be promoted, not discouraged, by trade agreements.
When you consider that Los Angeles’ twin ports handle more than 40% of the nation’s total imports that arrive in cargo containers and 24% of the nation’s total exports, it’s evident that the U.S.’ vast power as a world trading partner must be used deliberately and fairly. Trade is not an end in itself,; it’s a way to improve living standards, working conditions and environmental quality—all stated as goals of our trade agreements. Yet with 70% of Mexico still living below the poverty line and 60% of Mexican children severely malnourished, NAFTA is not living up to its promise.
Note: Much of this article is based upon the accounts of two women, Carmen Durán and Lourdes Luján, from the documentary, MAQUILÁPOLIS [city of factories], released in 2006 by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre.
To Do List
Write your Congressional representatives and ask them to support trade agreements that include strong and enforceable labor and environmental provisions and to oppose Fast Track.
To host or attend a screening of Maquilápolis, which documents the struggle of women like Carmen, visit the Sierra Club Responsible Trade Program’s website: www.sierraclub.org/trade, or contact Susan Ellsworth at 202-548-6593.
To participate in the trade program’s U.S.-Mexico border tour on October 27 and 28, contact Ellsworth for more details.