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Hell is the Tijuana Assembly Line

  • Hell is the Tijuana Assembly Line
    Inside the Maquiladoras
    By Anne Vigna
    Counter Punch, December 11, 2009
    Straight to the Source

"Crisis? What crisis? You're sure there's a new crisis? Here in Tijuana we're always in crisis", says Jaime Cotta with a smile. In spite of all the misery that trudges through his office, Cotta manages to retain his sense of humor. Without a doubt, he's the person who best knows what conditions are really like in the maquiladoras, the assembly-line factories built in Mexico since the 1960s along the 3,000km frontier with the United States.

They came to Mexico because of cheap labor, almost non-existent taxes and very lax authorities, all alongside the world's leading economy. Successive governors of the state of Baja California have been able to repeat over the years that, thanks to the maquiladoras, they enjoy full employment.

Cotta started out as a worker, then became a researcher. Now he's a lawyer. His Information Centre for Working Women and Men (Cittac) is the only organization to support those thrown out of the factories over the past 20 years. Sacked workers, people who've had work accidents, temporary workers without rights or contracts, all bring stories of flagrant abuse. He advises them and sometimes suggests taking legal action. So it's here that you come to take the social temperature of this frontier town with 1.5 million inhabitants.

Today, three workers are waiting to see him. One was suspended for two days because of one badly made component out of the 700 she produced in her 10-hour shift. "They want to sack me. They're always watching me and they make up anything that suits them", she says with lowered eyes. The piece of paper she hands Cotta claims that she "intentionally brought harm to the business". She adds that in this maquiladora "technical shutdowns" happen each week. That means one day without pay, further reducing an already pathetic wage (755 pesos a week, barely $58).

"Technical shutdowns" are one of the latest brainwaves of the factory bosses. Felipe Calderón, the Mexican president, has promoted them to prevent massive redundancies. The federal government pays one third of salaries, the maquiladora another third, and the employee loses the final third through days not worked. In return, factories undertake only to sack the number of employees proportional to - not higher than - the fall in production or in sales. But as Magnolia Pineda, president of the Tijuana Association of Maquiladora Industry (3), explained, "few businesses have agreed to accept this program because it's impossible for them not to have the right to sack workers. It's an unacceptable restriction". So they carry out "technical shutdowns" but without paying the wage, quite illegally. In any case, she added, "employees fully understand the situation. There has never been a strike".

'Don't talk to me'

True, workers' action has not been an issue at these subcontracting factories, which re-export their products to the US as soon as they are assembled. The most complete study of the sector established that 82 per cent of Tijuana factories do not allow trades unions. The remaining 18 per cent are blessed with organizations that the workers call "ghost unions", not the phrase that Pineda would use. She thought hard and said that in 50 years of maquiladoras there hadn't been unrest. However, it's not the workers' "understanding" but their fear of reprisals that keeps the peace in this border city. You only have to visit the industrial estates early in the morning to see why.

For several months now, lines of unemployed people have formed in the hope of finding a day's work. At 5am, though there's no sign of factory recruiters, people are too terrified to speak. "Don't talk to me, don't come near me", one murmured. "I can't say anything to you, I'm not allowed to."

Another told me: "You shouldn't be here, it's forbidden. Yes, we're in the street here, but we're in front of the factory so this street's also 'theirs'." By 7am nobody had been hired. The hopefuls, warming themselves over bad coffee 500m from the factory, were still afraid to talk: "They have cameras and you have a pen. It's too dangerous." Just one woman agreed to tell me how she'd been looking for work for several months and "there is nothing". She wouldn't give me her name, her age or her place of birth.

"I've tried every means possible for several years but they've never let me into their factories, even though they invite us all the time to press conferences in city-centre hotels", explained a local business journalist. (The only film showing the inside of Tijuana factories was shot by female workers there for the documentary Maquilapolis (Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre, 2006). Despite the risks involved, they successfully captured several scenes with small hidden cameras. The documentary (68 minutes, in Spanish with English subtitles) can be bought at California newsreal.

The maquiladoras have always had their ways of gagging information. So one needs to go back to Cittac's premises to learn a bit more about this secret world. Here, those who one day decided to push open the door and discover their rights are no longer afraid to speak.

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