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La Linea: Gender, Labor and Environmental Justice on the US-Mexico Border

by Julie LightSpecial to CorpWatch
June 30th, 1999

TECATE, Mexico -- Tecate's coat of arms dubs this Mexican town "Baja California's Industrial Paradise." About 30 miles from Tijuana, the city is home to the Tecate brewery and also houses an industrial park filled with assembly plants, or maquiladoras. This "industrial paradise" is one of several Mexican border boomtowns that is part of a global production system. "People say 'Tecate, that's where they make that beer', but Tecate is fast becoming 'where they make that car, where they make that television'," says Jos Bravo, Coordinator of the Border Justice Project of the bi-national Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.

In Tijuana, residents refer to the border as "la linea," the line. La linea has come to demarcate more than a political boundary. It locates both Mexico and the United States on opposite sides of the coin in a global system of trade and production.

On a recent visit to California, Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo told corporate executives that Southern California and Baja California are rapidly becoming a single economy, which Zedillo optimistically promises will be "the most dynamic economic growth area of the world for the next century." California Governor Gray Davis told a town meeting in Los Angeles that "when Mexico's economy thrives, California benefits. And, when California thrives, Mexico benefits."

Official optimism aside, it is the maquiladora industry that has turned Mexico into California's number one trading partner. Corporate headquarters remain north of la linea, while assembly plants are mushrooming south of the border. Corporations reap record profits, while poor and working communities on both sides of la linea are consigned to low-wage jobs and environmental health hazards. The US-Mexico border is a microcosm of North-South relations in a global economy where corporations call the shots, and poor nations sell off labor rights and the environment to the highest bidder.

The term maquiladora comes from the Spanish word "maquila," used to describe the payment millers historically received from peasants for grinding corn. The analogy refers to the "value added" to the materials that are assembled on the border. Foreign companies import machinery and materials duty free and export finished products to the US. Top management is usually foreign, while Mexican subcontractors often supply the labor force and even the plant. Shiny, modern industrial parks, known as export processing zones in pre-NAFTA days, house scores of factories from Mattel toys to Sony electronics to General Motors auto parts.

In the 30 years since the first export processing zones opened, nearly a million Mexicans have migrated to the border to work in the maquiladoras for as little as 50 cents an hour. Government agricultural policies have made it almost impossible to eke out a living in rural communities and unemployment in the interior is rampant. In the 1960's and 70's the first industrial parks attracted textile companies that employed an almost entirely female workforce. Now some 4,500 foreign companies operate plants that assemble electronics, cars, toys, furniture and medical equipment, and men account for more than 40% of the labor force.

The export-processing sector is the only part of Mexico's economy that's booming. More than a million maquiladora workers generate about ten billion dollars a year in foreign exchange. But the export boom comes at a price: the global race to the bottom of the wage scale, tens of thousands of workers made ill by inadequate occupational health protections, rampant sex discrimination, and industrial pollution that threatens communities on both sides of the border. "I've had contact with more than one hundred companies (operating on the border) and I haven't found one that respects Mexican labor rights," explains economist Jaime Cota who counsels maquiladora workers on their rights.

The debate around the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement five and a half years ago shone a spotlight on these issues. Despite environmental and labor side agreements signed after protests by activists from Mexico, Canada and the US, these problems have not gone away. In fact, they've gotten worse. We traveled to Tijuana and San Diego and spoke with activists on both sides of the border. This Feature looks at how labor and gender rights, occupational and community health and the environment are all casualties of so called free trade. We argue that just as the problems along the border are bi-national, so too must be the solutions. And we look to the grassroots -- part of what Mexicans call civil society -- not governments or corporations, to take the lead in forging those solutions. Activists told us that their struggles for environmental and economic justice can indeed fundamentally challenge the status quo.

Industry executives, like Dale Robinson, former president of the Western Maquiladora Trade Association, assert that Mexicans benefit from jobs and government mandated training and education. "People in the plants have jobs that are helping provide a living for their families," says Robinson. But wages on the border have remained stagnant, ranging between fifty cents and a dollar an hour, since the first export processing zones were opened in 1965. The average cost of living for a family of four is estimated at three to four times that amount.

"Of course it's not enough to feed a family," comments Cipriana Jurado, Coordinator of the Worker Research and Solidarity Center (CISO) in Ciudad Jurez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. Jurado worked in maquiladoras for ten years, from the age of 13, before becoming a full-time organizer. Meanwhile, attempts to organize independent labor unions have met with repression, including efforts at Tijuana's Han Young auto parts plant featured in our action alert.

Sex discrimination in the maquilas is notorious. Human Rights Watch has documented the widespread practice of testing women for pregnancy as a condition of employment. Workers who become pregnant are sometimes fired. Women also face sexual harassment, unequal pay for the same work as men and a glass ceiling that prevents their promotion to middle management.

Some women even pay with their lives when they move to the border to find work. There have been 180 murders of young women in Ciudad Jurez over the last six years, most of them maquila workers. As articles in this Feature point out, these murders are a grisly reminder of the social costs of free trade.

However, conditions on the border have also spawned a unique approach to gender and worker organizing, as the piece "Engendering Change" in this Feature points out. "I've opened my eyes and realized that I have rights and that I have to make them worth something at work and at home," one Tijuana worker told us.

Although Mexico has tough environmental laws, enforcement is lax. There is no "right to know" law in Mexico, so both workers and communities are denied information about the toxins to which they are exposed. Companies pollute freely, degrading the border environment. Toxic waste, which should be returned to the US or other countries by law, is often stored on site, posing a health risk to both workers and surrounding communities. Border communities report a deterioration of public health ranging from respiratory problems to skin irritations and neurological disorders believed to be caused by industrial pollution.

Occupational health and safety laws also go unenforced in Mexico, where workers are routinely exposed to a range of solvents, glues and other toxic chemicals, often without adequate protection. Warning labels are frequently in English, making them of little use to a Spanish-speaking workforce. Workers often leave their jobs rather than endure the harassment that demanding enforcement of occupational safety codes would bring. We profile two courageous workers at the Alaris Medical company who sued their employer after they faced serious health problems following a workplace accident.

Despite the high price being paid by Mexico for the presence of the maquila industry, neither labor nor environmental justice groups are calling for corporations to pull up stakes. Instead, activists are demanding tough environmental and labor standards to be imposed by the government, and for foreign companies to pay a living wage. "Mexico needs jobs, but not at the price of health, not just of those working in the maquiladoras, but also of communities that they pollute." says organizer Cipriana Jurado. "The companies should pay a fair wage that allows a family to live with dignity and not just subsist," she adds.

While political leaders celebrate the economic integration of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, they fail to acknowledge that the benefits of free trade are not equal. The true winners are not citizens on either side of the frontier, but transnational corporations. If corporations operate beyond borders, so too must the movement that seeks to combat the environmental and human rights violations committed by those companies. Cross border organizing strengthens links between labor, women's and environmental justice movements internationally. As the victory over the proposed Sierra Blanca nuclear waste dump in Texas shows, the power of bi-national coalitions can be formidable.

But if the obstacles to organizing on either side of la linea are enormous, the obstacles to cross-border organizing are greater still. Activists must bridge the gap in unequal resources, cultural and linguistic differences and face the slow pace of change. Yet grassroots activists are increasingly recognizing their common interests. The activists we spoke with are not looking to either the Mexican or US governments to provide the answers. Instead, they say the solutions will come from the bottom up in communities along both sides of the border.

Sleepy-little-towns-turned-boomtowns may find that their days are numbered as a paradise for industry. In Tecate, community activists are fighting contamination of the local river by the brewery, the privatization of a public park and the destruction of ancient petroglyphs by a developer. They say their fight has only just begun.