December 29, 2000


Junked Workers Give NAFTA Its Final Test

By David Bacon

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - Plant managers called them the "jonkeados" — the junked ones. They were workers who got so sick, so chronically disabled, that they were given special jobs. But they weren't put on "light duty," to tide them over until they could go back to the line. Instead, these workers were put under even greater pressure, harassed and assigned tasks so unpleasant "that we knew they were just waiting for us to quit and leave," according to Joaquin Gonzalez.

In mid-December, Gonzales and some of his fellow "jonkeados" went to San Antonio, Texas. There they testified that the Mexican government had allowed their employer, Florida's Breed Technology, to systematically violate the country's health and safety laws, casting workers aside like tissue paper in two border plants - Auto Trim in Matamoros, and Custom Trim in Valle Hermosa.

That San Antonio hearing may be the final test for NAFTA's labor side agreement. After a history of dismal failure in protecting workers' rights and decent factory conditions, the hearing's results (or lack of them) may consign the agreement, not the workers, to the "jonkeado" scrapheap.

Bruno Noe Mantañez Lopez worked in the Matamoros plant for five years, until he was fired in 1998. During that time he spent gluing leather covers to steering wheels, his son was born with spina bifida, a spinal tumor, an enlarged heart, and no kneecaps. Montañez struggled to keep his baby alive. And in the ultimate humiliation, when he tried to donate blood for him in the hospital, the doctor turned him away. "He told me I couldn't give it since my blood was contaminated with drugs," Mon-tañez testified at the hearing. "I have never taken drugs. The only things I inhaled were the glues and solvents I worked with." After six months, his baby died.

Montañez explained that at work, fumes were everywhere - so strong that when he opened one glue container, they overwhelmed him and made him so dizzy he almost collapsed. Glue got on his hands — his supervisor told him to wash them down with solvents.

Ezekiel Tinajero Martinez went to San Antonio to explain that he, too, had a child that died - a daughter born without a brain, a condition called anencephaly, in 1995. Tinajero documented a series of similar infant deaths and miscarriages among the plant's workers. When he went to Auto Trim's personnel director, asserting the rights of the workers to healthier conditions under Mexican law, a security guard instead marched him out of the factory. He was fired.

Another Auto Trim worker submitted heart-wrenching testimony, describing the birth of a daughter with no urethral opening in her vagina to urinate. She recalled large open containers of glue, and fumes so strong she frequently complained of headaches and dizzy spells, even while pregnant. The only protective equipment the company gave her, she says, was an apron.

Some workers even felt they became addicted to the glue, suffering withdrawal symptoms at home on the weekends so bad they longed to go back to the lines, where they would sometimes then suffer hallucinations.

In Valle Hermosa, things were no better at the Custom Trim plant. Heriberto Ramos Gomez recalled a 1997 factory fire, caused when sparks from a blow drier fell on a pool of solvents on the floor. Despite their legal obligation to do so, managers refused to order even a partial evacuation.

And at that plant, in May of 1997, workers decided to do something about those problems. They struck for five days, demanding better health protections, and an increase in their weekly $35 wage. Their union, a section of the Mexican Confederation of Workers (CTM) affiliated to the state's ruling party, signed an agreement behind their backs with no guarantees of better conditions. Nevertheless, workers extracted a written commitment from the company not to retaliate against anyone.

It was a hollow promise. Days later, 28 workers were terminated.

One of them was Isabel Morales Bocanegra, the plant nurse. She had belonged to the health and safety committee at Custom Trim, which the company was required to form under Mexican law. Morales tried to use the committee to document conditions, noting that in August of 1996 alone, five women in the plant suffered miscarriages. Further, the human resources manager told her not to make any appointments at the government's social security medical clinic for any workers who had more than one accident or injury at work, and to mention only minor problems in reports sent to health inspectors. She never saw a government inspection of health and safety conditions in the two-and-a-half years she worked there.

The fired workers went to the state labor board, which ruled a year later that the terminations had been illegal. It ordered them reinstated, with full back pay. To experienced labor activists assisting the workers, like Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, the decision seemed suspiciously favorable for an agency notorious for bias favoring plant owners and government-affiliated unions. "I suspect a trick," Ojeda said at the time.

She was right.

In March of last year, the first two Custom Trim workers due to return to their jobs showed up at the labor board office. A board agent then accompanied them to the plant, along with one of Breed's local lawyers. But instead of going to Breed's new factory, where the work had been moved since the strike, the workers were taken to the old, closed facility. The government then declared that there were no jobs to return to, and that the company didn't have to pay the $25,000 it owed in back wages either.

That was when the workers and their allies started preparing their case under NAFTA's labor side agreement.

It was not an easy decision for them to make, given the record of previous cases. In the NAFTA process, charges can't be brought against individual companies, and instead must assert that governments aren't enforcing their own laws. Since the treaty went into effect in January, 1995, over 20 complaints have been filed. Almost all have charged that Mexico does not enforce laws guaranteeing workers the right to form unions of their choice, and to strike effectively when they do. A few have been filed against the U.S., charging a similar lack of enthusiasm in enforcing workers' rights.

All of the cases have met a similar fate. Hearing are held. Workers testify, sometimes at considerable risk. The National Administrative Office of the U.S. Department of Labor, which hears the complaints against Mexico, concludes in almost every case that serious violations of the law have occurred.

And then - nothing.

No remedies have ever been imposed which would have required rehiring a single fired worker. Not one independent union has been able to negotiate a contract as a result of any NAO ruling. In Tijuana last June, independent unionists in the NAO's most publicized case - the strike at the Han Young factory - were even beaten and expelled when they tried to attend a public meeting called by the Mexican labor sub-secretary.

This forum on the right of workers to form independent unions was the only remedy sought by the NAO for the extensive violations of workers' rights in the three-year struggle at the plant.

U.S. officials present made no public protest over the violence and expulsions. "How one views what happened in Tijuana is in the eye of the beholder," commented Andrew Samet, deputy undersecretary at DoL for international affairs, to Larry Weiss of Minneapolis' Resource Center for the Americas. DoL Secretary Alexis Herman even wrote a letter to John Hovis, president of the U.S-based. United Electrical Workers, suggesting that the strikers had provoked their own beatings.

Despite these odds, however, Custom Trim and Auto Trim workers decided to file a complaint, hoping their case would be different because, instead of focusing on workers' union rights, it dealt only with the issue of health and safety.

At Han Young, and at the Mexico City brake plant ITAPSA, workers also charged that health and safety laws weren't being enforced, but in the context of widespread violations of union rights as well. "A complaint just about health conditions is new, and forces the U.S. and Mexico to take this concern seriously," explains Manuel Mondragon, director of the Young Workers' Pastorate, who helped draft it.

The possible remedy raises the stakes. If Mexico is found not to be enforcing its health and safety laws, it could be fined a percentage of its export earnings, a potentially huge amount of money.

So, on December 12, workers and occupational safety experts converged on San Antonio, Texas, for their long-awaited hearing. Workers' testimony, documenting their personal experience in the Auto Trim and Custom Trim plants, was backed by Mexican health and safety expert Dr. Francisco Mercado Calderon. Mercado condemned Breed for provoking irreversible injuries to workers, but, he declared, "gross negligence, or possibly wanton negligence by government authorities," had permitted the company's actions.

U.S. expert Garrett Brown, a CalOSHA inspector who trains maquiladora workers in health hazard assessment, went even further, "The Mexican govern-ment's failure," he said, "is due to the austerity programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and related institutions." Mexico's desperate need for hard currency to pay off loans has undermined its will to enforce the law, and risk alienating wealthy foreign investors like Breed, Brown charged.

U.S. unions also offered support. Lida Orta, a health expert from the United Auto Workers, flew in from Puerto Rico to testify. Breed Technologies, with $1.4 billion in sales in 1998, was represented at the hearing by a vice-president for legal affairs, Stuart Boyd, but he did not present evidence. The company also did not respond to interview requests for this story.

In Washington, AFL-CIO deputy director for international affairs, Tim Beaty, was more optimistic about the impact of NAO complaints. The NAO itself is not very effective, he agreed, " but the process has provided a way in which workers can express their solidarity across borders, since these complaints are filed, not in the country in which the violations occur, but by workers and unions in another one."

A flurry of accusations have appeared in the Mexican press along the border, accusing workers at Breed of being pawns of U.S. unions, and calling Martha Ojeda a terrorist. Beaty carefully explained that the AFL-CIO favors economic growth in Mexico, including on the border, "but only if the rules make that growth equitable. Instead, NAFTA has created a growing pattern of inequality, and the difference between rich and poor is growing, both inside Mexico, and between Mexico and the United States."

Ojede herself calls the Breed case a final test for NAFTA's labor side agreement. "We already know from the other cases that its protections for labor rights are worthless," she says, noting that Breed workers have been interrogated by supervisors, lost jobs and received death threats as a result of filing the complaint. "Now we'll see if the language on health and safety can be made to work. If there's no remedy here, we'll have to look for some other alternative for protecting workers' rights on the border."

The political terrain for that effort looks very hostile, however. Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, was the candidate of a party with a long record of using low wages and weak government-affiliated unions as an incentive to attract investment to border states like Baja California. It seems unlikely that he would launch an effort to protect the rights and health of maquiladora workers if it promised to discourage companies like Breed from building new plants.

At the same time, under a new, Republican president, it also seems unlikely that the U.S. Department of Labor will be more enthusiastic about imposing sanctions on Mexico over labor and safety problems in those same plants.

The Breed complaint will, in fact, be a very good test of this new climate.

But it has come at a high price. "They can disguise the reality and hide the dangers we are talking about in this hearing," Mondragon told the NAO in San Antonio, "but what they can neither disguise nor hide are the blood and bodies of all the children left in the road."

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