By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
March 1999, a labor-board agent brought the first two Custom Trim workers due to return to their jobs out to the plant, along with one of Breed’s local lawyers. But instead of going to Breed‘s new factory, where the work had been moved since the strike, the workers were taken to the old, closed facility. The government then declared that there were no jobs to return to, and that the company need not pay $25,000 in back wages.
That was when the workers and their allies started preparing their case under NAFTA’s labor side agreement. On December 12, workers and occupational safety experts converged on San Antonio, Texas, for their long-awaited hearing. The workers‘ testimony was backed by Mexican health and safety expert Dr. Francisco Mercado Calderon. Mercado condemned Breed for provoking irreversible injuries to workers; however, he declared, “Gross negligence, or possibly wanton negligence by government authorities” had permitted the company’s actions.
U.S. expert Garrett Brown, a a coordinator for the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, who trains workers in health-hazard assessment, went even further, “The Mexican government‘s failure,” he said, “is due to the austerity programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and related institutions.” Mexico’s desperate need for hard currency to pay off loans has undermined its will to enforce the law and risk alienating wealthy foreign investors like Breed, Brown charged.
U.S. unions also offered support. Lida Orta-Anes, a health expert from the United Auto Workers, flew in from Puerto Rico to testify. Breed Technologies, with $1.4 billion in sales in 1998, was represented at the hearing by a vice-president for legal affairs, Stuart Boyd, but he did not present evidence. The company also did not respond to interview requests for this story.
In Washington, AFL-CIO deputy director for international affairs Tim Beaty was more optimistic about NAO complaints. The NAO itself is not very effective, he agreed, “But the process has provided a way in which workers can express their solidarity across borders, since these complaints are filed, not in the country in which the violations occur, but by workers and unions in another one.” The AFL-CIO favors economic growth in Mexico, including on the border, he says, “but only if the rules make that growth equitable. Instead, NAFTA has created a growing pattern of inequality, and the difference between rich and poor is growing, both inside Mexico and between Mexico and the United States.”
Martha Ojeda calls the Breed case a final test for NAFTA‘s labor side agreement. “We already know its protections for labor rights are worthless,” she says. “Now we’ll see if the language on health and safety can be made to work. If there‘s no remedy here, we’ll have to look for some other alternative for protecting workers‘ rights on the border.”
The political terrain looks hostile, however. The party of Mexico’s new president, Vicente Fox, has a long record of using low wages and weak government-affiliated unions as an incentive to attract investment to border states such as Baja California. It seems unlikely that he will launch an effort to protect the rights and health of maquiladora workers if it would discourage companies like Breed from building new plants. And under a new Republican president, it also seems unlikely that the U.S. Department of Labor will be more enthusiastic about imposing sanctions on Mexico over labor and safety problems in those same plants.
The Breed complaint will be a very good test of this new climate. But it has come at a high price. “They can disguise the reality and hide the dangers,” Director of Young Workers Pastorate Manuel Mondragon told the NAO in San Antonio, “but what they can neither disguise nor hide is the blood and bodies of all the children left in the road.”?