Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
CIUDAD JUÃREZ, Mexico – Miriam Delgado worked at a Lexmark printer cartridge factory for nearly six years before she was fired last month, along with dozens of other workers, after asking for a raise of 35 cents a day and the chance to join a union.
Some 320 maquiladora assembly plants in this border city produce goods destined for the U.S. market, including auto parts, refrigerators, computers and Christmas lights. Few of the industry’s 251,000 workers in Ciudad Juárez have ever successfully unionized – a factor that keeps labor costs low, and offers a lure for U.S. and foreign manufacturers looking for cheap labor close to home, economists say.
The fired Lexmark workers have set up a protest encampment outside the factory while they take their claims to court in Mexico. And three other companies operating in Ciudad Juárez have been hit with protests and similar legal claims.
The health of the maquiladora industry is critical for New Mexico and other U.S. suppliers, said Jerry Pacheco, president of the Border Industrial Association in Santa Teresa.
Forty-one percent of New Mexico exports go to Mexico, business worth $1.55 billion in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Many of those exports, such as computer parts, fabricated steel and packaging materials, head to maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez.
Pacheco said higher wages at the maquiladoras could be a deterrent to growth if they make Ciudad Juárez less competitive compared with other regions in Mexico or other countries.
Six dollars a day
Labor attorney and activist Susana Prieto Terrazas, in a cherry-red coat and patent-leather high heels, sat inside a makeshift tent outside the Lexmark plant in December. Someone lit a fire in a wood-burning stove.
Prieto Terrazas made the red T-shirts emblazoned with a fist and the phrase “Workers up in arms!” that Delgado and two other former Lexmark workers were wearing to speak with the press. They and two current Foxconn workers alleged a range of abuses to the Journal, including wages that barely budged over 15 years, exposure to harmful chemicals and powders, inadequate safety conditions, and sexual harassment and maltreatment by supervisors.
Delgado, a single mother of two, said she couldn’t make ends meet working six days a week at Lexmark for $6 a day. She picked up an additional night shift four days a week that earned her $9.80. On those days, she worked nearly 16 hours overnight, from 3:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.
In December, she and hundreds of fellow workers protested inside the plant. Lexmark International spokesman Jerry Grasso told the Journal that 75 people lost their jobs for “workplace disruption.”
“It was so little, what we were asking for,” Delgado said. “They raised the wages of some workers, but not the operators.”
In Mexico, the mandatory minimum wage is 73 pesos per day, or about $4.
The rumblings of a labor rebellion began last summer when 37 workers were fired at a plant that makes transformers for electricity systems after they demanded higher wages, Prieto Terrazas said.
In August, hundreds of workers protested outside a Scientific-Atlanta plant that makes satellite parts and is owned by Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn. About 125 lost their jobs, Prieto Terrazas said. Other workers still on the job continue to push for a union, higher pay and better working conditions, she said.
In emailed responses to Journal questions, Lexmark and Foxconn defended their response to the protests.
Grasso, who serves as vice president of corporate communications, said the company is still “evaluating the situation” and “will come to an appropriate solution so the employees and management in the plant can ensure a positive working environment.”
Workers at Scientific-Atlanta earn more than minimum wage, are eligible for raises and have internal paths to register complaints, Foxconn Technology Group said.
Foxconn said its Scientific-Atlanta plant – one of three the company runs in Ciudad Juárez, including a major computer manufacturing operation south of Santa Teresa – will increase starting wages next month, bringing the rate 44 percent above the minimum to about $6 a day.
“It is unfortunate that a small number of the company’s employees have chosen to try to disrupt its operations to promote their personal agendas outside of the law and the approved and recognized company channels of communication,” Foxconn said.
Job vacancy signs
For much of its 50-year history, the maquiladora industry in Ciudad Juárez has enjoyed an abundance of labor.
The city was long a beacon for emigrants from Mexico’s impoverished south. But, today, job vacancy signs can be seen at maquiladoras all over town. Companies are scrambling to fill some 17,000 positions. Maquiladora workers today bounce between jobs, taking advantage of lucrative signing bonuses and other perks.
That doesn’t help longtime Foxconn workers like Luz Elena Palacios or Juana Falcon, who have been with the company or its predecessors 16 years and 14 years, respectively. Palacios earns less than $8 a day; Falcon earns just over $6, about 11 cents more than new hires are offered.
“It’s not worth it for us to leave,” Palacios said. “We want them to pay our seniority.”
Tom Fullerton, an economics professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and chair for the study of trade in the Americas, said the export manufacturing sector competition for workers first shows up as bonuses that become more generous.
“Increased wages tend to be one of the last things to occur,” Fullerton said. “By February, if the banners are still flying advertising positions, the worker organizational efforts will be in a strong negotiating position.”
“This is a movement that is just getting started,” Prieto Terrazas said. “Little by little, the workers are waking up.”
On average, goods imported to the U.S. from Mexico contain 40 percent American-made content, according to Luis Torres, a research economist at Texas A&M University who previously worked at Mexico’s central bank. Products crisscross the border multiple times as U.S. and Mexican suppliers and factories alternately add parts and value.
“The big story is that, if the maquila industry continues to grow, where are they going to get workers?” Pacheco asks. “If the labor market continues to tighten, I can see that would necessitate the market to raise wages to keep a steady flow of labor.”
The industry is growing again in Ciudad Juárez after taking twin hits from the recession and drug violence between 2008 and 2010, Torres said. A recovering U.S. economy and weak Mexican peso are stoking growth, he added.
The peso has plunged along with world oil prices since Mexico’s federal budget is heavily dependent on its oil industry for revenue. That has made manufacturing in Mexico even cheaper for U.S. companies.
“Whenever the real exchange rate fluctuates, within a 60-day window, you will see a similar fluctuation in terms of exports,” Fullerton said. “The cost of doing business in Mexico improves every time the peso weakens.”
A labor movement could check that growth, he said, if wages rise enough to make Ciudad Juárez less competitive.
“It would probably cause investment in export manufacturing activities to decelerate,” he said.
‘We’re not moving’
Torres defends the maquila industry and extols the benefits of a job in the formal economy.
A 2013 report by the International Labour Organization estimates that 60 percent of Mexicans hold “informal” jobs, such as running small businesses from their homes or selling food from street stalls, that offer no social security.
The maquiladoras offer programs, Torres said.
“Some have education programs, productivity bonuses,” he said. “Wages are higher in the U.S. than in Mexico, but it’s a way for this labor force to develop a skill.”
Prieto Terrazas puts it another way: “They look to lower costs to the detriment of workers.”
She describes the maquiladoras as “monsters” and vilifies the Mexican managers who run the plants for foreign owners.
A judge in December denied the Lexmark workers’ petition to form a union.
But, in the tradition of Mexican protest camps that can last years, the Lexmark workers say they are in for the long haul. Delgado is among several dozen who are staffing the makeshift camp in three eight-hour shifts a day.
“We’re going to make them understand that we’re not moving,” Delgado said.
Lexmark’s Grasso said of the camp: “Obviously, this cannot remain the case for an extended period of time. Lexmark is researching and evaluating the situation and has safety top of mind for all involved.”
“We used to keep our heads down,” Delgado said. “Everything they told us was fine. But we’ve reached our limit.”