Beginning in the summer and fall of 2015, a wave of worker protests over low wages, sexual harassment, and other adverse working conditions broke out in four foreign-owned factories, or maquiladoras, in the northern Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez. In a city where genuine union representation in the export plants is practically unknown, the workers’ demands for independent unions stood out.
As the days turned into weeks and months, speculation buzzed in the Juárez press about whether the companies, which labor activists accuse of firing workers involved in protests and union organizing, would simply wait out the movement until hunger and cold set in.
In early 2016 not only have the protests defied the winter weather and persisted against at least three of the companies — Lexmark, Eaton and Foxconn’s Scientific Atlanta division — but actions in support of former and current workers are growing both nationally and internationally.
Last week, in solidarity with Lexmark workers, demonstrations were staged in Mexico City; El Paso, Texas; and Lexington, Kentucky, according to the Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly, a grouping of human rights and pro-labor organizations and individuals in Juárez, El Paso and Chihuahua.
“There is a lot of sexual harassment in the industry. The most common one is that the assembly line chiefs and supervisors demand sexual favors for such basic things as overtime hours,” a Lexmark worker told a reporter in Mexico City. “The base salary never makes ends meet, and (supervisors) condition overtime to what the women workers agree to give them.”
In Juárez, meanwhile, scores of former Lexmark workers burned their old work uniforms outside the U.S.-based company’s factory. “(Lexmark) has not approached us to offer a solution. We are going to continue until there is a positive solution,” Miguel Angel Sedano, Lexmark workers’ spokesman, was quoted in El Diario de Juárez. “We are starting a boycott, and asking the public in general to not buy (Lexmark) products since this company is violating a lot of the human and labor rights of the workers.”
Other complaints of the Lexmark workers include unauthorized deductions to their paychecks and exposures to dangerous chemicals in the workplace. Headquarted in Lexington, Lexmark manufactures computer printer cartridges and associated products.
There was no immediate response posted on Lexmark’s website to January’s protests in Lexington and other cities, but the company’s website proclaims an adherence to “social responsibility, ” with goals of sustainability and “balancing economic, environmental and social concerns” in mind.
In December, hundreds of Lexmark workers in Juárez conducted work stoppages to press forward their demands. The Lexington Herald Leader attributed a company statement made after the December protests to Leea Haarz, general manager of the Juárez plant, which pledged to listen to employees and to maintain a commitment to “open and honest conversations with our employees to ensure Lexmark remains a rewarding place to work.”
According to Lexmark’s website, the company brought in $3.7 billion in revenue in 2014, with about 57 percent of that amount derived from international sales.
Support in Mexico
In an El Paso press conference transmitted on the Internet prior to Christmas, Susana Prieto, lawyer for Lexmark and other maquiladora workers, charged that the company had fired some workers after they demanded pay hikes of less than fifty cents a day to augment weekly salaries which hover around $40.00. She accused the company of calling in the Juárez police to intimidate workers, who then became afraid that the local cops were going to detain them.
During the months of the protest movement labor costs for U.S. companies operating factories in Juárez and Mexico have become even cheaper, lowered by the tumbling value of the peso. On Jan. 16, some money exchange outlets in Mexico were once again posting an exchange rate of 19 pesos to the dollar.
On the eve of the new year, when Mexico was immersed in holiday festivities, the Juárez office of the Labor Conciliation and Arbitration Board rejected petitions from Lexmark and Foxconn workers seeking official certification of independent unions. In its decision, the federal labor board cited confusion over the proposed name of a new union and an inadequate financial management plan. The workers vowed they would appeal the denials of their petitions.
On the legal front, labor lawyer Juan Pablo Delgado filed a complaint Jan. 14 with the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission against the director of the Labor Secretariat’s Chihuahua office on behalf of maquiladora workers who accused the official of promoting a black list of activist workers.
On Jan. 16, the maquiladora workers’ movement linked up with another important Mexican social struggle when three parents of the 43 Ayotzinapa college students forcibly disappeared in the state of Guerrero in September 2014 visited the Lexmark workers’ protest camp outside the company’s plant.
Together with Juárez mothers of young women disappeared in the border city, the Ayotzinapa parents held an outdoor forum on repression and disappearance at the gates of Lexmark.
Support in the United States
In another significant development, the largest labor organization in the United States is expressing support for the Juarez workers’ struggle.
Writing on an AFL-CIO blog January 11, Kathy Feingold called for the reinstatement of fired workers, union recognition, the intervention of the Mexican federal government and a supplier review by U.S. federal, state and local government agencies to determine if any of their products purchased come from maquiladoras in Juárez “that may be using U.S. taxpayer dollars to subsidize violations of labor rights.”
Feingold also singled out a contradiction between workplace conditions in Juárez and new labor reforms advocated by the Peña Nieto administration so Mexico can gain access to the proposed Trans-Pacific Parternship, including the ratification of International Labor Organization Convention 98 (an agreement upholding the right to organize and collective bargaining) changes to Mexican labor boards and new labor inspection protocols.
“If put into practice, these changes could begin to allow workers in Ciudad Juárez and other manufacturing centers to actually exercise their rights,” Feingold wrote. “Unfortunately, these announcements have had no impact on the labor authorities and the company managers in Ciudad Juárez.”
As labor activism simmered in Juárez and support for the movement grew abroad, a new case of suspected mass food poisoning, which has been a periodic problem in the border maquiladoras, was reported on Jan. 14 at a Lear Corporation factory. More than 160 Lear workers became ill with vomiting and other symptoms after eating at a company cafeteria. Eloy Coral Banda, head of the Chihuahua state health and sanitary risks commission, said food samples were collected at the plant to help determine the cause of the workers’ illnesses.
As the workers’ movement digs in and reaches out, all eyes in Juarez are on next month’s visit to the city by Pope Francis, who is widely anticipated to speak out about poverty and labor conditions. Meanwhile, residents of the Paso del Norte borderland of Juárez, El Paso and Southern New Mexico will have an upcoming opportunity to hear first-hand about the maquiladora workers’ movement.
On Jan. 23, El Paso’s Social Justice Education Project will sponsor a 10 a.m. forum featuring Lexmark workers’ attorney Susana Prieto and Juárez maquiladora worker activist Miriam Delgado. Dr. Kathy Staudt and Dr. Oscar Martinez, Social Justice Education Project co-founders and veteran border academics and authors, are also scheduled to provide commentaries. The Saturday morning event is planned for the auditorium of the El Paso Public Library, which is located at 501 N. Oregon in the downtown of Juárez’s sister city.
Additional sources: Arrobajuarez.com, January 16, 2016. El Mexicano, January 16, 2016. Article by Juan Ramon Rosas. El Diario de Juarez, January 14, 2016. Article by Francisco Chavez. Nortedigital.mx, January 14, 2016. Article by Carlos Omar Barranco. El Diario de El Paso, January 14, 2016. Article by Juliana Henao. Lapolaka.com, January 14 and 16, 2016. Elpasoheraldpost.com, January 11, 2016. Article by Chris Babcock. La Jornada, December 31, 2015; January 13, 15, 16 and 17, 2016. Articles by Ruben Villalpando, Patricia Munoz Rios, Gloria Munoz Ramirez and Elio Henriquez. Lexington Herald Leader (kentucky.com), December 16, 2015.