America’s move to ship production overseas exists to maximize corporate profits by exploiting cheap labor. When that labor stands up to their exploitation, they are simply eliminated, either through violence or through firing. In Juarez, an independent union movement is trying to organize the maquiladoras. The American companies they work for are throwing them on the streets.
Women and men, more than 70 of them, were fired on December 9th from the factory on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Texas border where they made printers for the American company Lexmark. They say they were terminated because they were trying to form an independent union. The company says they were fired because they caused a “workplace disruption.”
Now, the workers protest by occupying a makeshift shack outside the factory, still advocating for a raise and for a union, even though they no longer have jobs. Outside, a spray-painted banner reads “Justicia A La Clase Obrera” meaning “Justice for the Working Class.” Inside, a wood stove burns as they make coffee and cook tortillas and wait for someone to hear what they have to say.
“We are hungry. Our children are hungry,” Blanca Estella Moya, one of the fired workers, tells me. “You cannot live on these wages in Juarez.”
In the Lexmark maquiladora, or factory, Moya made 112 pesos, or roughly six U.S. dollars, a day. Her shifts were nine-and-a-half hours long, her lawyer, Susana Prieto Terrazas, says. That’s about 39 cents an hour. That wage is a legal one in Mexico, but Terrazas argues it shouldn’t be.
“It’s not possible to live on these wages. It’s not human,” said Terrazas, who has dark, curly, dyed-red hair, and was wearing a plaid checkered blouse and jeans. “They are creating generations of slaves.”
It’s not just Lexmark: Workers at Mexican subsidiaries of FoxConn, Eaton, and CommScope in Juarez have all protested working conditions and compensation in recent months. Women tell of sexual harassment at the factories and of working multiple shifts to make ends meet. The devaluation of the peso has meant their money buys less than it once did. The protests come at an inopportune moment for Mexico. Many companies, especially automakers, are moving production to Mexico after deciding that the costs and logistical headaches of manufacturing in Asia are too great to bear. Mexico is trying to welcome them with open arms.
But workers, especially those on the border, aren’t making that easy.
“This is a historic thing that’s happening here. In 50 years, there hasn’t been this level of labor discontent,” says Oscar Martinez, a professor at the University of Arizona who spends time in Juarez and has written numerous books on the border, including Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. “We could be seeing the beginning of a larger movement that spreads to other parts of Mexico and challenges the whole system that has been created for these multinationals.”
I want to give due credit to Lexmark’s American employees as well for showing international solidarity:
Still Terrazas and other advocates say there are a few things that are different this time. Some 700 workers in Juarez joined a “slowdown” at the factory, which Terrazas said prompted the firings and signaled widespread sympathy for the protesters. Workers in El Paso and Lexington, Kentucky, the home of Lexmark, have been staging rallies in solidarity with the Mexican maquiladora workers. The group has received donations and help from as far away as Geneva, and dozens of people across the border in El Paso have been listening and donating, she told me. The donations from abroad have made it possible for the workers to continue to stay outside the factory, despite the freezing temperatures and freezing rain. And other factories in Juarez have given workers small raises in the time the Lexmark workers have been protesting, she says. Even a supervisor who harassed workers has been fired since the workers started protesting, Terrazas said.
That solidarity is helping. And the workers’ actions are making small but real difference, albeit at real personal sacrifice.
But I ask once again why the United States should allow its employers to treat workers this way, no matter where they locate production. Allowing them to fire workers for organizing, pay them extremely low wages, countenance sexual harassment and assault of women on the job, etc, just makes U.S. workplaces move toward the same levels of exploitation, as has slowly been happening since the 1970s. These Mexican workers need basic human rights on the job–the right to not be sexually harassed, the right to a living wage, the right to organize. Labor rights are human rights. But American companies have no interest in either. The question is whether we the public does. Why aren’t we are asking our politicians what they will do to crack down on the exploitation of workers around the world. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership coming up for a vote and with Bernie Sanders in the race, this is a prime time to do this. Yet it is not part of our political conversation at all.
And I once again ask those who defend the shipping of jobs to the lowest wage workers around the world what they would say to these Mexican workers if they were standing in front of them? What is your obligation to support these workers in their fight for justice and living wages? Because you have one.