S P R I N G 2017
May Delegation Reflection Essay
“Delegation to Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña:
NAFTA and maquiladora workers”
by Lissette Almanza
I left Austin on May 26, 2017, with empty hands (manos vacias) to go on my first delegation trip to the border produced by Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera. Our group traveled as the 65th delegation to Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña where many foreign companies have moved their factories for cheaper labor, primarily American-owned corporations. We gathered the night before at an orientation meeting and dinner hosted by Women on the Border, Inc.
This delegation took place at a very pressing and historical time in the United States. On May 18, 2017, just a few days before our trip, the Trump administration formally announced plans to fast track the renegotiations on NAFTA, triggering a 90-day consultation period. Thus, bilateral negotiations with Mexico and Canada could potentially begin as soon as August 16 rolls around. Trump called NAFTA the “worst trade deal” during his campaign and promised to withdraw or renegotiate the trade deal, which unsettled many American multinational corporations. Now, his promise seems to be on the path to fulfillment. This is a thought that incites fear of the unknown among many who for the past quarter of a century have lived under the mechanisms of free trade in North America.
With all of this in mind, my desire to learn about the working conditions of maquiladora workers grew. I wanted to see first-hand the effects of free trade on Mexican citizens. I knew there was a side to the story that has been left out from the debate surrounding NAFTA – a story that the media, economists, and political leaders don’t tell.
When we arrived on that humid Friday afternoon, we sat in a circle surrounded by delegation participants, maquiladora workers, and labor rights activists. I listened carefully to their stories. Their cruel reality did not match the economic and political rhetoric of those in support of NAFTA. The working conditions inside the assembly-line factories are inhumane. They work in unsafe temperatures during their 10-hour work shift, they barely get a short break for lunch, and workers are treated like machines. The extreme low wages that they are paid are also a form of exploitation. Unfortunately, everyone of working age in a household must toil to bring food to the table. Otherwise, their maquiladora wages are insufficient for survival.
There were other moments during the trip that left me with a mixture of feelings – feelings that I still can’t fully wrap my head around. The house visits to the workers’ homes were a clear illustration of the damages that NAFTA has done to working families. Their livelihoods reflect economic oppression. Their small decaying homes and the poor living conditions of the colonias where most maquila workers live indicate the exploitation of the most vulnerable populations across the border. How could I not feel anger and sadness at what I was seeing? The violation of workers’ rights is a violation of human rights, and Mexican maquiladora workers have had to struggle with this for the past 23 years. Those in the fight for their labor rights have had to suffer threats and intimidation because of their efforts to earn a living wage. How terrible.
The zenith of the trip came on Sunday morning as we sat and reflected on all that we had learned that weekend. Questions from delegation members kept arising and the desire to know more about the struggle of our Mexican counterparts was still there. There was so much more to learn and many more stories to hear, but our time in Ciudad Acuña was coming to an end. I sat there listening as delegation members, maquiladora workers, and labor rights leaders shared their thoughts and their feelings. Yet, I still could not process exactly what words I wanted to say.
I felt thankful for such a unique opportunity to learn directly from maquiladora workers about their working conditions under free trade and their struggle in the fight for their labor rights. Despite endless labor violations and threats, Mexican workers have found the courage to fight for their rights for many years. I find that admirable and inspiring, which is why I committed myself on Sunday morning to their cause. Their stories were so impactful that I realized that uniting with the maquiladora workers’ fight is the only way to help bring about change. I will start by helping to raise awareness about the damages of free trade through sharing their stories with others. Given the pressing times for NAFTA renegotiations that we are seeing, it is important now more than ever that people know about the real effects of trade policies. As a student in the Global Policy Studies Program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, this experience will also serve me to challenge the free trade economic theories we are taught in class. It’s not just about the statistics of trade gains and losses that economists teach us, it’s about the people who suffer through it too.
In the words of Nelson Mandela: we need to know with a fresh conviction that we all share a common humanity and that our diversity in the world is the strength for our future together. I will take action against free trade agreements that take advantage of vulnerable populations, promote fair trade, and do my part to ensure everyone enjoys the right to live a dignified life.
Austin, TX (2017)