Junked Workers Test NAFTA
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 in two border plants:
Auto Trim in Matamoros and Custom Trim in Valle Hermoso.
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 the 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.
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,” Montañez 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. When 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 marched him out of the factory. He
Another Auto Trim worker submitted 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 suffer hallucinations.
In Valle Hermoso, 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.
At that plant, in May 1997, workers decided to do something about those
problems. They struck for 5 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 1996, 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. Hearings were held. Workers testified,
sometimes at considerable risk. The National Administrative Office (NAO)
of the U.S. Department of Labor, which hears the complaints against Mexico,
concluded in almost every case that serious violations of the law have
And then—nothing. No remedies have ever been imposed that 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’s 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
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.
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 government’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
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. The company did not present
evidence or respond to interview requests.
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. But the AFL-CIO deputy director for international affairs,
Tim Beaty, says 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
Ojeda 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 will launch an effort to protect the rights and health of maquiladora
workers if it promised to discourage companies like Breed from building
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 be a very good test of this new climate.
David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer based in California.