The Multinational Monitor

November 2000 - VOLUME 21 - NUMBER 11

Double Standards

U.S. Manufacturers Exploit
Lax Occupational Safety and Health
Enforcement in Mexico's Maquiladoras

An interview with Garrett Brown

Garrett Brown is coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, a volunteer network of over 400 occupational health and safety professionals who provide information, technical assistance and on-site instruction regarding workplace hazards in the maquiladora (foreign-owned assembly) plants along the U.S.-Mexico border. Network members, including industrial hygienists, occupational physicians and nurses, and health educators, donate their time and expertise to create safer and healthier working conditions for the over 950,000 maquiladora workers employed by primarily U.S.-owned multinational corporations along Mexico's northern border.
In the real world, there is no meaningful enforcement of any occupational and environmental health regulation in Mexico. Multinational Monitor:What are some of the leading occupational safety and health issues in the Mexican maquiladoras?
Garrett Brown: There are quite a range of production facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border that are known as maquilas. The number has about doubled since the NAFTA treaty went into effect in 1994. There are around 3,200 maquilas along the U.S.-Mexico border, and perhaps another 1,000 maquiladora plants spread throughout Mexico. They undertake a wide range of activities. In Tijuana, 14 million television sets are produced every year for export to the United States. Ciudad Juarez has become "Little Detroit" in the sense that a growing percentage of key auto parts, such as headlights, windshield wipers, steering wheel columns, electrical harnesses and the like, are now produced not in the United States, but in Ciudad Juarez. At the Texas end, by Matamoros and Reynosa, you also have electronics, medical supplies and garment shops. The hazards will vary from plant to plant according to the production processes used in each.

In the case of electronics, for example, there is a tremendous amount of chemical solvent exposures during cleaning operations, and other types of exposures during soldering operations. In the Matamoros-Reynosa areas, there are exposures from actual chemical facilities.

There are ergonomic problems throughout all of these industries, since most of them are predominantly assembly-type operations with a lot repetitive motion, a lot of forceful activity in awkward or uncomfortable positions.

MM:How do legal protections for worker health and safety compare to those in the United States?
Brown: On a formal level, the occupational health and safety regulations are roughly equivalent to those in the United States. But in the real world, there is, in fact, no meaningful enforcement of any occupational and environmental health regulation in Mexico.

That is for a number of reasons. First, it is related to the big picture problem that Mexico is a heavily indebted country which is completely dependent on foreign investment to pay the interest, let alone the principle, on the debts that are owed primarily to U.S. banks and international financial institutions. The Mexican government cannot afford to "discourage" foreign investment by actively enforcing existing regulations or adopting new regulations that impact on occupational and environmental health.

A second aspect of the international picture is that Mexico, like many other Third World countries, is under very strict financial plan requirements from the International Monetary Fund. These requirements have greatly reduced public expenditures, so the amount of money available to the Mexican government, should it actually want to enforce its regulations, hire inspectors and support those inspectors with technical and human resources, is extremely limited.
MM:How do standards in the maquilas compare to those in the United States?
Brown: It is important to remember that these Mexican plants, unlike garment or sports shoe sweatshops in Asia, are facilities that are directly run by Fortune 500 companies. It is corporate management that is responsible for the health and safety conditions in these plants. Corporate America cannot claim some Third World subcontractor is responsible for the plant conditions on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Most of the companies claim to have one global standard. That is, no matter where the plant is located in the world, they have the same set of practices with regard to occupational safety and health. It has been our experience in the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network - since 1993, we've accumulated a lot of experience on the border - that that simply is not true in many, if not most, of the plants on the border. Whatever standards are promulgated in corporate headquarters in the United States, they are not put into practice on the border.
MM:How do actual conditions compare?
Brown: On a plant level, there is also a wide variation. Among the 3,200 plants on the border, there are plants that are basically no different than those you would find in the United States, and plants that are considerably different in that many of the standard occupational safety and health programs that exist in the United States simply are not implemented.

There is almost no effective employee training in the maquiladoras. Basic worker education about the hazards they face, the substances they are working with, the potential adverse health effects of those chemical substances, how people can protect themselves - all of that, while certainly not universal in the United States, is almost totally missing in Mexico.

In part, that is because there is such a high turnover rate. You have turnover rates in some of the maquilas along the border as high as 85 percent per annum. So even if the plant management was concerned and wanted to do employee safety and health training, it would be a real challenge.

As a result, in the trainings that our network does along the border, we have found that people literally have almost no idea of the substances they are working with. All of the requirements for hazard communication, as it is known in the United States, and which would certainly be part of a single global standard of a major corporation, simply aren't implemented. People don't even know the names of the substance they are working with. So hazard communication is a big problem.

There are equipment differences, as well. In Ciudad Juarez, some United Auto Worker members were able a couple years ago to visit some of the auto parts plants - GM allowed some of these folks to visit some of their suppliers' plants. A couple UAW people who came from a plant in Tennessee went to the plant in Ciudad Juarez that was producing the same window products they were. They were astonished to find that exactly the same equipment was being used, except the Mexican plant did not have the machine guards that are required in the United States. So the possibility of loss of limb in the operation of these machines was significantly higher in Mexico. That was done primarily in order to speed up production, so these guards would not interfere with an increased rate of production.

Very strict financial plan requirements from the International Monetary Fund have greatly reduced public expenditures, so the amount of money available to the Mexican government, should it actually want to enforce its regulations, hire inspectors and support those inspectors with technical and human resources, is extremely limited.

MM:To what extent do workers in Mexico have the right to refuse dangerous work, or the right to know, or any kind of right to avert hazards?
Brown: The right to know, meaning hazard communication, is written into Mexican law. Under Mexican law, it is required that workers be given training in Spanish with materials in Spanish such as Materials Safety Data Sheets and the labels that come on the containers of the chemicals they are using. In our experience, that almost never happens. There are some companies that do some hazard communication, but roughly 85 percent of the companies I have heard about over the last seven years simply do not do any hazard communication training, even though it is required by Mexican law.

In terms of the right to refuse dangerous work, that is a right that we don't really have in the United States. It can be interpreted from the OSHA regulations that people have a right to refuse. But both in the United States and in Mexico, it places people's jobs in jeopardy - if you don't want to do the work, there's the highway.

One of the things that is important to remember about the U.S.-Mexico border is that there is a tremendous labor pool there. One of the other aspects of the IMF/World Bank austerity programs is that they have cut all the supports that existed for rural agriculture. So the workers in the plants on the border are not people who were born and raised on the border, but are rather peasants or farmers who came from the interior because they cannot make ends meet. People are coming to the border at tremendous rates, thousands of people every day, looking for work. There has been a tremendous expansion of the maquilas, as I mentioned, so there is work, and there is a large workforce. It is very easy for a company to say, "You do this job, or if you don't want to do this job, there's the door - and there are four people standing outside of it ready to take your job."

The Korean managers have a reputation, in Mexico and also in Asia, for being very brutal. They scream at people, they physically strike workers, they will physically push workers around if they are unhappy with their production rates. Mexicans, like many other people, do not like to be shouted at, or struck, or pushed around by their managers.
MM:Do conditions vary among employers of different nationalities?
Brown: Most of the maquilas are U.S.-based corporations, but not all. In Tijuana, which as I said has become the electronics capital of North America, there are Korean, Japanese and U.S. companies. Among them, I think the Japanese companies are considered by the workers to be more responsible in terms of their health and safety and environmental health practices. The Koreans are probably the companies that are the least desired. Partly that is cultural. The Korean managers have a reputation, in Mexico and also in Asia, for being very brutal. They scream at people, they physically strike workers, they will physically push workers around if they are unhappy with their production rates. Mexicans, like many other people, do not like to be shouted at, or struck, or pushed around by their managers, so the Koreans have the worst reputation in Mexico, and in Asia for that matter. The U.S. companies, depending on the company, are somewhere in the middle.
MM:What kind of changes have taken place on these sets of issues since NAFTA was adopted?
Brown: Since NAFTA was adopted, there have been contradictory processes at work. On the one hand, NAFTA spurred the tremendous explosion of production and facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border, which has meant a completely unplanned explosion of the cities along the border.

A place like Ciudad Juarez has doubled in size over the last 10 years. In Juarez, only about 30 percent of the population has potable water and a sewage system. So you have these unbelievably fast-growing urban areas without any infrastructure at all, because local governments' ability to provide services to these rapidly growing populations is very limited, and they have very little money to begin with.

Making matters worse, the U.S. companies play Mexican cities off of one another looking for the highest amount of tax exemptions, the highest amount of subsidies. The local government provides, free of charge, all the services of a maquiladora park - they will pave it, and provide electricity, potable water, drainage, sewer service, services not provided to most residents - to the Fortune 500 companies, so they will locate in the city. But somebody pays for all this. And the people who pay for the subsidies given to the Fortune 500 companies are the very workers whose payroll taxes are used by the city as subsidies for the corporations.

The tremendous labor pool formed as more and more people straggle in from the countryside to try to make a living has exerted downward pressure on wages and working conditions.

There has been tremendous growth of environmental, community-based exposures because the plants spring up and little communities grow up right at the plant fenceline.

That is all on the negative side, and is getting worse. It is unchecked at this point. There is no government agency on either the U.S. or Mexican side that is dealing effectively with either the infrastructure or the explosion of urban growth or the environmental degradation that has been accompanying the growth of industrial facilities on the border.

On the positive side, NAFTA has greatly accelerated the amount of cross-border solidarity among workers' organizations, women's organizations, environmental organizations and religious organizations in Canada, the United States and Mexico. It is naturally something of a David and Goliath battle, because the community groups on the border have tremendously fewer resources, both financial and political, than the maquiladora associations, which run the Mexican cities on the border, or the companies operating the maquilas.
MM:Are OSHA-type regulations and rules covered in the NAFTA side agreements?
Brown: The labor side agreement allows organizations in North America to file complaints that one of the three governments is persistently failing to enforce its own regulations related to labor practices. It was tacked on to NAFTA as a kind of window dressing by the Clinton administration. It spells out eight or nine specific types of practices about which people can file complaints. Only three of the categories go all the way through the NAFTA process and could theoretically end up with monetary sanctions against one of the governments involved. Those three issues are wages, child labor and health and safety. So, for example, a complaint can be filed against the U.S. government on child labor in U.S. agriculture by somebody in Canada or Mexico. Then, theoretically, if there were no changes made by the U.S. government on the issue over the very extended, lengthy resolution process - there are about 10 or 12 different steps - monetary sanctions could be levied against the United States.

In the real world, however, there have been some 25 complaints filed under the NAFTA side agreement, about 18 against Mexico, five against the United States and two against Canada. The ones that have gone the furthest are the ones relating to maquiladora operations on the U.S.-Mexico border. A couple of famous cases, including the Han Young case in Tijuana, involved both freedom of association and health and safety issues.

Out of all the NAFTA complaints that have been filed, not a single worker has been reinstated following firing, not a single union has been recognized by the government involved, not a single contract has been signed by an employer after a legal union has been recognized by the governments. It is a process that has not demonstrated any tangible results for workers on the border.

The case of Han Young is illustrative. There were two complaints, one on health and safety which I helped write, and the second on freedom of association. These complaints were filed three years ago.

Out of all the NAFTA complaints that have been filed, not a single worker has been reinstated following firing, not a single union has been recognized by the government involved, not a single contract has been signed by an employer after a legal union has been recognized by the governments.

In June, the United States and Mexico held a one-day conference to "resolve" the freedom of association complaint by talking about what freedom of association means under Mexican law. In the midst of these government speeches, just protocol speeches, some of the workers from Han Young unfurled a banner calling for recognition of their independent union. They were literally physically driven from the room. Members of the goon squads of the government-controlled union, the CROC, got to their feet, physically attacked the people holding the banner, drove them from this meeting hall where there were about 300 people, drove them through the hotel lobby and into the hotel parking lot. This is what freedom of association means in Mexico, even when the eyes of the U.S. and Mexican governments are focused on it. And that, according to the Mexican government, is the end of the matter. That fulfills their obligation in terms of the complaint that was filed on freedom of association. We are still waiting to hear how the health and safety complaint is going to be resolved. What is being proposed is another one of these conferences with experts from the U.S. and Mexican governments to explain how occupational safety and health laws work in the United States and Mexico. That will be the end of that, even though it is very clear in the Han Young case that the Mexican government persistently failed over a period of years to implement the health and safety laws, which some of their own inspectors pointed out in their inspection reports were being violated by the company.

Many times, before a plant is built, U.S. corporate management will sign an agreement with one of these unions, known as a protection contract.
MM:How aggressive are Mexican unions in advancing worker health and safety issues in the maquilas and elsewhere?
Brown: There are no independent unions in any of the plants on the U.S.-Mexican border except in three cases, and it is really unclear whether these unions are going to be allowed to exist.

The unions that do exist on the U.S.-Mexican border are government-controlled unions. They are unions that were controlled by the PRI, the long-time ruling party, which just lost a presidential election in July, and it will be interesting to see what happens to these unions. These are CTM unions or CROM unions or CROC unions. They don't defend workers in the plants on any issues.

Many times, before a plant is built, U.S. corporate management will sign an agreement with one of these unions, known as a protection contract. Under Mexican law, if there is a union existing in the plant, you can't organize a second union. So even before the plant is built in one of these Mexican government-subsidized industrial parks for a Fortune 500 company, the union "contract" will have already been signed.

The plant management gives "dues money" to the union officials - envelopes full of money - and the union officials under Mexican law represent the workers in the plant.

Most times, the workers have no idea a union is there, they have no idea that a contract has been signed on their behalf, they have no idea what the contents of the contract are. For these protection contracts, there are no activities taken on behalf of the workers on wages or hours, or health and safety or anything else.

The unions on the border which are actually member-controlled - Han Young is one of them, and there are a couple on the Texas end - have tried to use the existing government structures to request and demand inspections by the equivalent of OSHA, the STPS. The workers in these unions have unsuccessfully requested that the STPS send inspectors to do health and safety inspections in the plants. The two plants are run by Breed Technologies in Matamoros and a place called Valle Hermoso. The plants are called Custom Trim and Auto Trim. They are auto parts plants producing steering wheels and also gear shift knobs for the Big Three auto makers in Detroit. On two occasions, once in 1998 and once in 1999, the workers have filed very detailed letters with the STPS, pleading with the agency to come do an inspection of their facilities. The letters provided exact information on what the conditions were, on the violations of Mexican law that were occurring in the plant. The STPS refused to conduct inspections in those two plants. This case has now led to another NAFTA side agreement complaint.
MM:What kinds of cross-border solidarity, among unions and others, is taking place in the health and safety areas?
Brown: There are two big coalitions on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), based in San Antonio, is a trinational organization that has over 120 labor, environmental, religious and community-based organizations all working to support community organizations and maquiladora workers on the U.S.-Mexico border. The other major coalition is the Southwest Network for Economic and Environmental Justice (SNEEJ). Both CJM and SNEEJ have created links between Mexican community and worker-based organizations, and organizations in Canada and the United States.

CJM has been very successful in mobilizing some of the resources of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) to conduct a series of health and safety trainings on the border, in Spanish, with personnel from the UAW and CAW health and safety departments, to provide workers and community organizers with information about such things as chemical hazards, ergonomic hazards, noise and reproductive health. The Steelworkers and what used to be the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers and is now the PACE union have also provided financial and other support for community-based organizing.

During the Cold War, the role of the AFL-CIO was to impose U.S. policy on the labor movements of Latin America as well as elsewhere, so there has been a natural skepticism or fear that the activity of the U.S. unions on the U.S.-Mexico border has not been necessarily in the best interest of Mexican workers. But in the activities I've seen through the CJM, the UAW, CAW and PACE are acting in the best tradition of international solidarity. They are providing significant financial and human resources to their Mexican brothers and sisters so that they can better protect their health, and better organize themselves in the face of U.S.-based corporations which are infinitely more powerful than they are.

That kind of cross-border solidarity is not restricted to the union movement by any means. There are lots of environmental organizations, women's groups and religious groups that have formed sister organization relationships with community-based organizations and workers on the border. I think that is all great and hopefully we'll see more of it in the future.