The NI Interview
Mexican activist Martha Ojeda talks with Wayne Ellwood
about labour rights in Mexico’s maquiladoras.
You can tell straight away that Martha Ojeda is a force to be reckoned with. The passion in her ringing, rapid-fire Spanish is infectious as she describes the lives of the half-million maquiladora (a literal translation means ‘assembled by machine’) workers who labour in the low-wage assembly plants tucked inside the Mexican border. She has been an activist, organizer and worker in the maquiladoras herself for nearly20 years.
Recently she became Director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), a network of church, labour, environmental and women’s groups from Canada, the US and Mexico that advocates workers’ rights and improved environmental conditions in the region.
Martha’s first maquiladora job was with the American pharmaceutical company, Johnson and Johnson, in her home town of Nuevo Laredo in 1975.
‘When I first started I felt lucky to get that job,’ she laughs. ‘I can tell you I know how to use a sewing machine. But I have seen our life along the border change a lot in the last ten years, each day gets much worse than the last.’
NAFTA, the free-trade deal between the US, Mexico and Canada sparked a maquiladora building boom but little has been done to prepare the communities for the surge in growth. ‘Thousands of families live in houses made of cardboard packing cases and wooden shipping pallets,’ she says bitterly. ‘Most have no water or electricity or toilets. The companies even charge for the old shipping crates. It can cost 10,000 pesos ($150) to get enough to build a house.’ It’s ironic, she says, that the Government provides roads, sewage, electricity and water to the factories while the workers ‘right next door’ are given nothing.
Living conditions for most Mexicans have plunged since the 1994 devaluation of the peso. Maquiladora workers, who were earning an average $30-$50 for a 48-hour week, have seen wages fall by half in the last three years. One study commissioned by the CJM found that the average wage of $20-$30 a week allowed for ‘marginal survival’ only.
What makes the situation doubly difficult is that they must fight both the companies and Mexico’s corrupt trade-union movement. The state-sanctioned Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) invariably weighs in on the side of the employer when workers press grievances. Now, though, there are signs of change. A grassroots movement has been growing throughout the maquiladoras to create independent unions to challenge the ‘business unionism’ of the CTM. And Martha has been one of the movement’s main activists.
She helped organize the battle to form a new union at the Sony plant in Nuevo Laredo. ‘When I started with Sony in 1979 there were 25 employees. By 1982 there were 2,000 of us assembling audio and video cassettes. We wanted a union that was independent and represented our views, with leaders elected democratically. In April 1994 we had a peaceful demonstration outside the factory to protest against fraudulent elections for CTM union delegates. The company brought in fire trucks with water cannons and police with clubs. They beat us badly and there were many injuries. After that we decided to go on strike.’
Four days later the Governor sent in 150 police cars. Workers were attacked and the strike was broken. Eventually, with the co-operation of CTM informants, the rank-and-file activists were fired and blacklisted. Afterwards, Sony even lodged a suit against 40 leaders of the independent union movement to recover the costs of lost production. Now, says Martha, ‘ if those workers, or even their children, try and earn a few pesos selling on the streets they are harassed by police’.
Part of the CTM deal with the Government includes what Martha calls ‘a national accord’ between the state, the business sector and the CTM. In practice this means that while salaries are controlled prices are not. ‘Why is it,’ asks Martha, ‘that Mexican law says workers are entitled to share the profits but we almost never see this money?’
The US giant ALCOA provides one example. The company employs about 13,000 workers in the border region who assemble electrical components for car makers like Toyota and Ford. Each employee makes around $30 a week. In 1994, when the company made a profit of $443 million, each of its Mexican employees was handed a profit-sharing cheque for $12.
‘We took some workers to the ALCOA meeting in Pittsburgh last year,’ Martha explains, warming to the recollection. ‘The workers told the meeting how they can no longer afford meat, fruit, milk or vegetables and tried to explain that with inflation it now takes almost a day’s wages to buy one bottle of milk. Do you know what the ALCOA executives said? That inflation is not their responsibility.’
It’s statements like this that provide fuel for the independent union movement in the maquiladoras. And, even though the victories have been few so far, Martha Ojeda’s enthusiasm has not been dampened. ‘When I see the solidarity from groups in Canada and the US, the faxes that come into our office, that gives me courage and hope that we can create decent lives and working conditions in the maquiladoras. I used to think I lived in a little town lost on a map, alone in the world. Now I know that workers everywhere are struggling for the same thing.’
Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras,
USA: 310 W Ashby, San Antonio, TX USA 78228.
Tel 210 732-8957; Fax 210 732-8324;
Canada: c/o Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice, 947 Queen St E., Toronto, ON M4M 1J0.
Tel: 416 469-1123, Fax: 416 469 3579.
Issue 288 Contents