SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — Plant managers called them the jonkeados, the junked ones. They were workers who got so sick, so chronically disabled, that they were given special jobs. But they weren’t put on “light duty,” to tide them over until they could go back to the line. Instead, these workers were put under even greater pressure, harassed and assigned tasks so unpleasant “that we knew they were just waiting for us to quit and leave,” according to Joaquin Gonzalez.

In mid-December, Gonzalez and some of his fellow jonkeados went to San Antonio, Texas. There they testified that the Mexican government had allowed their employer, Florida‘s Breed Technologies, to systematically violate the country’s health and safety laws, casting workers aside like tissue paper in two border plants — Auto Trim in Matamoros, and Custom Trim in Valle Hermoso.

That San Antonio hearing may be the final test for NAFTA‘s labor side agreement. That agreement was negotiated to make the NAFTA treaty itself more palatable to a reluctant U.S. Congress. The Clinton administration promised it would protect workers’ rights and decent factory conditions. Critics charge it has failed, dismally.

NAFTA does not allow complaints to be brought against companies; instead, governments must be charged with failing to enforce laws. Since January 1994, when the trade agreement went into effect, more than 20 complaints have been filed. Almost all have charged that Mexico does not enforce laws guaranteeing workers the right to form unions of their choice or strike effectively when they do. A few have been filed against the U.S., charging a similar lack of will to enforce workers‘ rights.

All of the cases have met a similar fate. Hearings are held. Workers testify, sometimes at considerable risk. The National Administrative Office (NAO) of the U.S. Department of Labor, which hears the complaints against Mexico, concludes in almost every case that serious violations of the law have occurred.

And then . . . nothing. No remedies have ever been imposed that would have required rehiring a single fired worker. Not one independent union has been able to negotiate a contract as a result of any NAO ruling.

The hearing in San Antonio marks one last attempt to get the agreement to work. It raises the stakes even further, by charging that Mexico is not enforcing its health and safety laws. The country could ultimately be fined a percentage of its export earnings as a result, a potentially huge amount of money. It could be months before a ruling is issued; after that, the labor secretaries of both countries must meet to decide whether sanctions will be imposed.

If the complaint results in the same inaction as the rest of the cases, workers and unions on both sides of the border may abandon efforts to use the treaty to address workplace violations. The hearing’s results (or lack of them) may consign the side agreement, not the workers, to the jonkeado scrap heap.

Bruno Noe Montañez Lopez worked in the Matamoros plant for five years, gluing leather covers to steering wheels, until he was fired in 1998. During that time, his son was born with spina bifida, a spinal tumor, an enlarged heart, and no kneecaps. Montañez struggled to keep his baby alive. But when he tried to donate blood in the hospital, the doctor turned him away. “He told me I couldn‘t give it since my blood had been contaminated with drugs,” Montañez testified at the hearing. “I have never taken drugs. The only things I inhaled were the glues and solvents I worked with.”

After six months, his baby died.

Ezekiel Tinajero Martinez went to San Antonio to explain that he, too, had a child that died — a daughter born without a brain, a condition called anencephaly, in 1995. Tinajero documented a series of similar infant deaths and miscarriages among the plant’s workers. When he asserted the rights of the workers to healthier conditions under Mexican law, a security guard instead had marched him out of the factory. He was fired.

Another Auto Trim worker submitted heart-wrenching testimony, describing the birth of a daughter with no urethral opening in her vagina to urinate. Some workers even became addicted to the glue, suffering withdrawal symptoms at home on the weekends so bad they longed to go back to the lines, where they would sometimes then suffer hallucinations.

In Valle Hermoso, things were no better at the Custom Trim plant. Heriberto Ramos Gomez recalled a 1996 factory fire, caused when sparks from a blow-dryer fell on a pool of solvents on the floor. Managers refused to order even a partial evacuation.

And at that plant, in May 1996, workers struck for five days, demanding better health protections and an increase in their weekly $35 wage. Their union, a section of the Mexican Confederation of Workers (CTM) affiliated to the state‘s ruling party, signed an agreement behind their backs with no guarantees of better conditions. Days later, 28 workers were terminated.

The fired workers went to the state labor board, which found the terminations had been illegal and ordered the workers reinstated, with full back pay. To experienced labor activists assisting the workers — like Martha Ojeda, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras — the decision seemed suspiciously favorable for an agency notorious for favoring plant owners and government-affiliated unions. “I suspect a trick,” Ojeda said at the time. She was right.

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.”?

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