Report on the NIU Delegation to Mexico

by Yvonne Lapp Cryns (2005)

Have you ever given any thought to who sews the pants and shirts you wear? Who makes your Nike shoes? Who put the electrical system together for your car? Five NIU College of Law students had the opportunity to travel to Mexico and meet some of the people who work in factories that make those consumer goods and learn about the effects of globalization on these people who live so close to our U.S. border.

The Delegation Organizers

The trip was organized by law professor Elvia Arriola, whose home is in Austin, Texas. A few years ago, Prof. Arriola, became aware of the horrific labor situation of those toiling in the maquiladoras (big factories primarily owned and operated by non-Mexicans). In 1999, organizers of the grass-roots Mexican workers’ organization, Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s, CFO, (Border Committee of Women Workers) www.cfommaquiladoras.org, visited receptive organizations in Austin. Following this visit, the Austin Peace and Justice Coalition along with the American Friends Service Committee, AFSC, www.afsc.org/austin, a branch of the Quaker church that works toward social justice issues, founded Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border). Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera promotes solidarity between people in the States and those defending the rights of maquiladora workers in Mexico.

In 2000, Professor Arriola founded the non-profit organization, Women on the Border, www.womenontheborder.org, to call attention to the appalling conditions that exist for those so close to the United States. About this same time, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera and the American Friends Service Committee, AFSC initiated meetings between Americans and some of the Maquiladora workers. The meetings proved successful and were continued because they increase awareness of the problems the Mexican workers face. Prof. Arriola participated in a few of these delegations.

Our group was the 34th such group to meet with the Mexican workers. Nikki Cain, Yvonne Lapp Cryns, Kate Horozny, Sara Phalen, and Heather Vaughn and Prof. Arriola represented NIU on this trip. The trip was available to any NIU COL student and our group included three students from Prof. Arriola’s seminar class and two from the student body at large. (It is hoped that this opportunity will be available again in the future for NIU COL students). A presentation of our delegation trip is planned for early November.

Joining us as part of the delegation, once we were assembled in Austin, was a writer for a Quaker magazine, a psychiatrist from Austin, Texas, a graduate student in Latin American studies, a bilingual fellow with 10 years experience with worker solidarity in Chiapas, Mexico, and Judith Rosenberg, the AFSC representative. It was a delightful blending of people, which was good because we spent a lot of time in close quarters with each other. Were fortunate to have four people on the trip with excellent abilities to translate the fast Spanish of the people we met.

Meeting Maquiladora Worker-Organizers

Our first day in Mexico we went to the new office of the CFO, in Piedras Negras in Coahuila. CFO is a Mexican organization that was formed by and is led by workers and focuses on grass-roots organizing to promote independent labor unions. Although factories have unions, most are not separate from the management. This leads to workers having no real advocate for their labor problems.

With the CFO in place, they have been able to get independent unions started. The Mexican government, however, does not necessarily support this kind of independence by workers. In 2004, CFO’s complaint to the International Labour Organization, ILO was accepted. This complaint states that the Mexican government fails to guarantee the right of association of the workers.

We heard of workers who were fired by factories because they became friendly with another worker or were seen talking to a couple of other workers. The factory management, paranoid of union organizers, simply fire those they speculate might be soliciting for independent unions. Because many workers do not know their rights, the factories were able to maintain control over the workers with occasional firings. The CFO tries to keep under the radar by meeting with workers one-on-one in their homes to educate them about their rights.

Viewing the Maquiladoras

We hustled from the office to the industrial area where numerous maquiladoras are located so we could see them when the shifts changed at 5 pm. The factories are large. Except for the front offices, there are no windows in the factory areas for the workers. Guards stood at the entrances to all the plants. We saw the Malcomex plant and others. Malcomex (ALCOA) makes parts for Ford, Subaru, Harley Davidson, GM and others.

Meeting Maquiladora Workers Where They Live

We went to the homes of a number of maquiladora workers during our visit. The paved roads end far from some of their homes. Although it hadn’t rained recently, when we visited, our van got stuck on a mud road and needed to be pushed out. The poorest workers live as squatters in shelters made of whatever materials they can find: old blankets, tarps, tin, wood slats from platforms. We visited with one such worker whose house is in the shadow of a huge maquiladora plant in Piedras Niegras.

Leticia

Leticia lives in a humble squatter’s home cobbled together from wood platforms and lined with cardboard. A couple of years ago she was able to get a cement floor poured. Although the outside is dusty and barren, the inside is clean. She has adorned the walls with a few decorations.

Initially the squatters at this area “borrowed” electricity from the maquiladora, but now pay a fee for it. Like every home we visited, Leticia has a television and it is turned on. The very rustic toilet, a one-seat outhouse, is a couple of steps from the back room. She has running water, although it comes from a two-foot high faucet that resembles one we’d use for a hose. The home has two rooms—a dining room/kitchen and a bedroom/living room.

Leticia has three children: an 18-year old daughter who lives with her, a 16 year-old who is married and a 3 year old, “Chewey.” She tells us her oldest child cannot work at the plant next door because they fear independent unions, and prohibit more than one person from a family working there. There is nowhere else nearby the daughter can work. So, the daughter stays home with Chewey while her mother toils at the factory.

A neighbor boy of about 9 arrives. He is fascinated by my digital camera and grabs my arm and drags me outside to the home next door. An elderly woman is sewing. He wants me to take a photo of her. I do, and then let him take one of me with her. I learn later she is his grandmother. She was a very good sport and seemed to like the photo I took. I will send them copies.

Dinner arrives, made by some other maquiladora workers: tamales, rice and beans. It is delicious. We eat and then must leave.

We go back to our tourist-grade hotel. The court yard must be beautiful in summer, but now the pool is drained leaving a huge dangerous hole 12-feet deep. In the morning we will eat in the restaurant, most of us bravely ordering a Mexican version of breakfast.

Ángela

The next morning, we travel to visit with Ángela in Acuña. There are 40 maquiladoras in Acuña. Enroute we pass signs on the side of the road warning in Spanish, “Danger!” with pictures of snakes and bugs. Ángela lives in a remote area called Colonia Morenes. We ditch the van and walk the last couple of blocks.

Her house is in a little valley. She works in the Alcoa plant making electrical harnesses for cars. Her home is one room, made of scavenged wood. The television is on. There are lots of cracks where daylight shines through. She points to the electric heater she’ll use in winter. She feels lucky that she now has water – along with seven neighbors, they hooked up PVC pipe and brought water to their homes. It is very basic.

Her grandson is with her today because her daughter works 6 days a week from 7 am to 7 pm at the ALCOA plant in order to make $950 pesos – about $95 per week. We learn that the average worker at these plants makes about $500 pesos ($50 per week). It is not enough money to cover the basic necessities of life.

What the workers want

In our conversations with the CFO, we are told that the workers only want humane work conditions and a living wage. It is not uncommon for workers to put in 72 hours in a week every week. Workers who sew experience some of the most awful abuses because frequently they are paid per item they sew. We heard of women who forego bathroom breaks out of fear of losing their pay for falling behind in production. Their diligence on the job, however results in serious health consequences.

The CFO teaches workers about their rights. However if a worker decides to stand up for their rights and must go to court, they frequently discover that it is difficult to find honest lawyers to take their kinds of cases.