Mexico’s border states are home to more than 6,000 maquiladoras – largely foreign-owned factories that manufacture products for export – and the plants, which employ hundreds of thousands of people, have been the focus of several coronavirus outbreaks. Cramped conditions make some maquiladoras prime areas for contagion.
When the coronavirus pandemic reached the Mexican border city of Mexicali, operations at first continued as normal at the US-owned factory where Sergio Ayala has worked for the past three years.
Eventually, workers went on strike at the Autolite plant, which makes spark plugs for export, in protest at the management’s alleged failure to introduce sanitary measures, and the state labor secretary to shut it down.
A few days after the stoppage, Ayala got a text message inviting him back to work – on condition he did not drive to work: the factory parking lot had to stay empty. “They offered us a bonus of 250 pesos and a vacation day,” he said.
Ayala decided it wasn’t worth the risk but dozens of workers accepted the terms – and the factory kept operating.
Companies and US government officials have urged the Mexican government to keep maquiladoras running at any cost.
Baja California, the Mexican state with the largest number of maquiladoras, is the now the state with the second-greatest number of Covid-19 deaths. All along the 2,000-mile border maquila workers have died of Covid-19: in Ciudad Juárez, 18 workers at a textile factory owned by the US-owned Lear Corp have reportedly died of coronavirus.
“There are maquiladoras that say it’s cheaper to pay a fine for noncompliance than to lose million-dollar contracts,” said Mago Avalos, director of the Tijuana-based labor rights organization Ollin Calli. “It’s better to have workers working – even if they get sick – than to have them resting and getting paid.”
Twenty-four cases have been confirmed among maquila workers in Tijuana and 17 in Mexicali, said Avalos, but the real number is probably far more, as testing is severely limited and the health system is chronically overloaded.
“There are workers who have gone to be tested and seen that the lines are 12, 15, 20 hours long,” Avalos said. “They won’t wait for over 10 hours in line if they feel sick.”
Nanci Ramos used to work at Terminados Rogers in Mexicali, making paper products such as notebooks and calendars.
When the pandemic was declared, she and her coworkers received a pamphlet advising them to wash their hands and maintain a safe distance – but no measures were taken to keep workers apart. A report from the Border Committee of Women Workers noted that some maquiladoras lack soap in bathrooms and eating areas. Many lack windows and proper ventilation.
“The problem is, workers need to eat both now and in 2021,” Avalos said. “The economic and health crisis is not coming after Covid. The working class is living it right now.”