Behind the Lines

Brownsville Birth Defects

 BABIES ARE BEING BORN WITHOUT BRAINS and with other serious birth defects in Brownsville, Texas at an extraordinarily high rate, and city residents suspect a link to air and water pollution associated with the maquiladora factories located in Matamoros, Mexico, directly across the Rio Grande from Brownsville. Seventeen babies conceived in Brownsville between January 1989 and January 1991 were born without brains. Thirty babies conceived during 1991 were born with neural tube defects - either without brains or with spina bifida. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Texas Department of Health are conducting an investigation into why neural tube defects in Brownsville are occurring at a rate six times the normal U.S. incidence.

 "Everyone has been suspecting that it's due to solvents and pesticides and lower nutrition levels," says Domingo Gonzales of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.

Many U.S. companies have opened maquila plants in Mexico to take advantage of cheaper labor and weakly enforced environmental regulations. The quality of health care and the standard of living in border towns in both Mexico and the United States are notoriously low. Brownsville ranks in the bottom three cities in the United States in per capita income, wages and housing value.

 The CDC and Texas Health Department study is expected to be completed in April.

Made By Slaves

CHINESE IMMIGRANTS WORKED under slave labor conditions in garment factories in Saipan, a U.S. territory in the Pacific, according to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Labor Department against the owners of the factory. According to the Labor Department, the workers, most of whom were young women, were recruited from China to work in several factories owned by the Tan family. Once in Saipan, they were forced to surrender their passports, housed in fenced and guarded barracks and required to work seven-day weeks. Goods produced in the Tan factories were shipped to the United States and sold under major U.S. brand names, including the Levi's Dockers brand.

 The Labor Department lawsuit, however, only concerns back wages owed to the workers, who were being paid $1.63 to $1.75 an hour with no overtime in 1990, though the minimum wage in Saipan is $2.15 an hour. That year, in response to Labor Department pressure, the Tan family wrote checks to workers for back wages. However, the Department now charges that the workers were forced to return the checks soon after receiving them.

U.S. garment manufacturers are attracted to Saipan and the other Mariana Islands which became U.S. possessions during World War II because of the low wage levels, and the fact that goods produced on the islands can carry the "Made in U.S.A." tag. Goods shipped to the United States from the Marianas are also exempt from import duties.

 Keir Jorgensen of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union says, "It is clear that these apparel companies have found a little platform in the middle of the Pacific Ocean from which they can take advantage of this anomaly of the Mariana Islands." Garment manufactures, says Jorgensen, are using "low-wage, substandard working conditions to produce goods with the śMade in the U.S.A.' label."

Greasing the Regs

MAJOR WESTERN OIL AND GAS CORPORATIONS are funding and participating in a program that may draft the very petroleum laws that will govern their activities in the Russian Republic.

Energy companies including Exxon, Conoco, Amoco and Marathon have each donated an average of $100,000 to the Russian Petroleum Legislation Project, which is being administered by the University of Houston Law Center. Model legislation drafted by the project will be presented to Russia's Committee on Industry and Energy in March, and then submitted to the country's Parliament for debate and adoption. The project and the energy companies' role in it were first revealed in January by the weekly Legal Times.

Corporations contributing to the project are permitted to place representatives alongside academics and lawyers on the legislation-writing teams and to review the draft laws. Several of the private lawyers involved in the project also have strong ties to the energy industry. George Hardy III, the director of the drafting committee, for example, is a partner in a Louisiana law firm that represents Exxon, Pennzoil, Phillips Petroleum and other oil companies.

 Critics question the ethics of corporations' involvement in the drafting of laws that will later regulate them. The situation "raises some serious questions of objectivity," says Chris Wold, assistant director of Central and Eastern European programs at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Environmental Law. Wold says that oil and gas companies have "a huge stake in the laws that are ultimately adopted" because there "is so much money involved" in exploiting the Russian Republic's oil and natural gas deposits. Wold says that the project should "bring others into the discussion," particularly representatives of public interest and environmental organizations.

 - Holley Knaus