US-Mexico border factories pressured to stay open despite Covid-19 risk


Companies - and US government officials - have urged Mexican government to keep factories running at any cost

A commuter wearing a protective mask walks to the US-Mexico border at San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on 18 April.Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images

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 shut 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. Last week, the Autolite factory - and several dozen other maquilas in Baja California state - officially reopened. But Ayala says that when he returned, he and several dozen other workers who had joined the April strike were fired.

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. But official efforts to keep the factories shut and contain the spread of Covid-19 have come under intense pressure from companies - and US government officials - who 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.

"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." On Wednesday, the Mexican government released a plan to gradually reopen the economy, beginning on 18 May, and starting with construction, mining and transportation manufacturing industries - although many factories never stopped. All along the 2,000-mile border maquila workers have died of Covid-19: in Ciudad Ju?rez, 18 workers at a textile factory owned by the US-owned Lear Corp have reportedly died of coronavirus.

The company has said that it stopped production there on 27 March and that it moved affected employees to a private health care centre for treatment at the company's expense. In a statement on its website, Lear said it is "adhering to the guidelines provided by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as all orders and directives regarding business operations issued by federal, state and local authorities". 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." Cramped conditions make some maquiladoras prime areas for contagion. 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. "You practically have to hug each other to get to the bathroom stalls," she said. 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 Baja California reopenings came after weeks of pressure from US officials. The US ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, has tweeted that "it is possible and essential" to preserve international supply chains while protecting workers' health.

Much of the debate has focussed on defining which factories are engaged in essential work. The complexities of the global supply chain make it hard to determine which maquiladoras play essential roles: some produce minute electronics parts used in transportation or medical equipment, but labor organizers argue that most factories produce goods which have nothing to do with the fight against the pandemic. Many maquiladoras in the border area manufacture parts used in aerospace manufacturing, and the work stoppage has particularly affected supply chains in the defense industry.

The undersecretary of defense for acquisitions and sustainment, Ellen Lord - the former CEO of a defense contractor that owns maquiladoras along the border - said that shutdowns in Mexico were affecting supply chains "especially important for US airframe production". One of those factories is Collins Aerospace in Mexicali. The maquila, owned by a subsidiary of defense contractor Raytheon Technologies, produces equipment for aviation GPS systems.

Sergio Ram?rez, a quality control inspector at Collins Aerospace, said the factory shut down only for a few days after orders from the state labor secretary. "They called to say we should go back, and I asked, 'But what about this thing about essential businesses?'" said Ram?rez, who asked not to be identified by his real name. "'No, well, the secretary said we can go back to work.'" By the end of April, the factory had returned to normal. Ramirez says the factory has taken sanitary measures to implement social distancing and provide protective gear.

But less than two weeks after the opened, a worker was diagnosed with Covid-19.

US-Mexico border factories pressured to stay open despite Covid-19 risk Workers during the construction of a provisional hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, on 25 April. Photograph: Reuters

A spokesperson for Collins Aerospace said that the factory's labors are considered essential because it produces parts for Mexican airline Aerom?xico, whose planes have been used to transport medical personnel. The spokesman declined to say which authorities had deemed its work essential.

In a statement on its website, Collins said it had "ensured our sites have appropriate resources available to support ongoing operations in accordance with local regulatory requirements". The Baja California government has insisted that reopened maquiladoras will observe strict hygiene standards. But the state employs only 15 labor inspectors across all sectors. "Those inspectors can't have hands and eyes everywhere," said Avalos.

Autolite and Terminados Rogers did not respond to requests for comment. The fired Autolite workers say that they now face another obstacle: getting paid. According to the laid-off workers, Autolite has offered them just half of the severance pay they were owed.

The state's labor arbitration boards are closed until June, so workers cannot file complaints for withholding of payment or wrongful termination. For the fired Autolite workers, that means months could pass before their situation is settled. Because of the backup of cases, Avalos said, workers may have to wait until early 2021 for their first hearing before the labor board.

"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."


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