Ciudad Juárez—After more than a decade of silence, maquiladora workers in Ciudad Juárez have found their voice. The city, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, is now the center of a growing rebellion of laborers in the border factories. At the gates to four plants, including a huge 5,000-worker Foxconn complex, they have set up encampments, or plantons, demanding recognition of independent unions, and protesting firings and reprisals.
“We just got so tired of the insults, the bad treatment, and low wages that we woke up,” explains Carlos Serrano, a leader of the revolt at Foxconn’s Scientific Atlanta facility. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen now, and we’re facing companies that are very powerful and have a lot of money. But what’s clear is that we are going to continue. We’re not going to stop.”
About 255,000 people work directly in Juárez’s 330 maquiladoras, about 13 percent of the total nationally, making Juárez one of the largest concentrations of manufacturing on the US/Mexico border. Almost all the plants are foreign-owned. Eight of Juárez’s 17 largest factories belong to US corporations, three to Taiwanese owners, two to Europeans, and two to Mexicans. Together, they employ over 69,000 people—more than a quarter of the city’s total.
Five (two of the US and all of the Taiwanese companies) are contract manufacturers of electronics equipment. They assemble, and even design, laptops, cellphones, and other electronic devices that are later sold under the famous brand names of huge corporations. One contract manufacurer, Foxconn, is the world’s largest. The Taiwanese giant became notorious several years ago when workers in a huge plant in China committed suicide over stressful and abusive conditions.
Three Juárez plants produce auto parts and electronics, including the city’s largest factories—Delphi, with over 16,000 workers, and Lear, with 24,000. Eleven of the top 17 maquiladoras are electronics manufacturers, whether for autos or consumers.
In most other maquiladora cities like Tijuana or Matamoros, workers are rigidly controlled, and independent organizing suppressed, by a political partnership between the companies, government authorities, and unions tied to Mexico’s old ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Often when workers file papers to gain legal status for an independent union, they discover that the company has a longstanding agreement with one of the charro unions. The local labor board then places obstacles to prevent any independent organizing. This arrangement is used as a selling point, to convince foreign corporations to invest in building factories.
Juárez has been an exception, however. Its selling point has simply been that it has some of the lowest wages on the border. Manufacturing consultant Chet Frame told the El Paso Inc. website that while company-friendly unions have agreements in other border cities, “they have not been able to get a toehold in Juárez.” As a result, a survey by the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness found that the average pay of Juárez maquiladora workers was 18 percent less than the average for manufacturing workers in Mexico’s border cities.