On Dec. 5 at La Fe’s Culture and Technology Center, panelists at the Social Justice Education Forum made compelling remarks about the near two month-old strike at four maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez.
Few El Pasoans know about the paltry wages and substandard working conditions of their neighbors, despite buying products produced there by major global corporations with distant CEO annual earnings in the multi-million-dollar range and US-based managers in the six-digit range.
We heard testimonies from Elizabeth Flores, lawyer at the Centro Pastoral Laboral, and a mother and daughter who worked at one of the large plants and were dismissed for complaining about work speed-ups, low salaries, and disrespect on the job. These workers want an independent union.
The women revealed that their typical take-home pay was $38-$45 per week. That is per week, not per day, so at most, before dismissal they were earning $9 per day. Obviously, families cannot live on such wages.
Mexico’s Border Industrialization Program started in 1965, and after the peso devaluations of the 1980s and the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, factory employment skyrocketed. Although trade is bustling between the U.S. and Mexico, workers hardly benefit except for having a job and access to Mexico’s Social Security and Health System.
Stagnant assembly line workers’ wages have lost considerable value. In real terms, today’s line workers make about half of what they made in 1975.
Among the hundreds of land borders globally, the U.S.-Mexico border is the 17th most unequal border in the entire world.
We all have friends and relatives on the both sides of the border. Juarenses shop in El Paso, adding value to our own economy. Fair wages are important in their own right, but how much more prosperous would our region be if maquiladoras paid a decent wage?
Even The Economist, a conservative weekly news magazine, has taken Mexico to task for the slow growth in its minimum wages.
Mexico lags behind many developing countries around the world regarding wages. Corporations, whether foreign, U.S., or Mexico owned, could do a better job of fostering social responsibility by paying fair wages to their employees.
Who speaks for the workers in Ciudad Juárez? The workers do, of course, but the state and the PRI-connected unions rarely exercise stewardship.
While the Borderplex Alliance speaks for binational business interests in its hopes to entice more distant corporations, they advertise our region’s “global competitiveness.” To us, these seem like code words for low-cost labor.
To be sure, Borderplex Alliance seeks industries that draw on skilled and specialized labor, but it does little to nothing for assembly-line workers, the backbone of several hundred factories and bulk of the maquiladora labor force.
Where is the organized voice for working people in our region? Paso del Norte residents need a binational institutional voice for workers and residents to move our region toward shared prosperity.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column first appeared in the El Paso Times.