This past November, along with six other members of the US Congress, I visited Mexico on a Teamsters-sponsored trip in order to assess what NAFTA has done to Mexico. What we saw and heard was not pretty. We encountered horrendous poverty, environmental degradation and a lawless and corrupt environment. We talked with mothers who couldn’t afford to send their kids to school, workers who were fired for the crime of trying to organize a union and religious workers who were trying to protect young women from the murders and rapes that were taking place in Ciudad Juárez, right across the border from El Paso. We also met people who displayed enormous courage and tenacity.
In the Anapra colonia of Juárez we visited the dilapidated shack of a young mother: one light bulb, a dirt floor and no healthcare available for her sick child. Not an uncommon situation for that community, where tens of thousands of Mexicans had migrated from the southern and even poorer part of the country in search of a better life. As these people flooded into the Juárez area in search of maquiladora jobs, the infrastructure crumbled and the already low quality of life deteriorated. At a health clinic in the area we were told that many of the illnesses they dealt with resulted from malnutrition and other dietary problems.
In a nearby home another mother feared for the well-being of her older daughter, who traveled an hour and a half to work in a maquiladora factory–where she earned $35 a week. (Maquiladoras mostly hire women because they think they will be less likely to fight back against poor wages and working conditions.) Would she make it home safely or become another “disappeared” woman whose body would be found in the desert? In talking to law enforcement officials in Texas we were told that police and governmental corruption were rampant in Juárez. At least one high-ranking US law enforcement official told us that he would not go south of the border for fear that he might be killed.
In the city of Puebla we met with textile workers at one maquila who made blue jeans for export to the United States. They had the radical idea that they should have minimal rights on the job and be compensated when they worked overtime. They also wanted protection against chemicals that colored their hands and hair. When they attempted to form an independent union to negotiate for them, they were fired. (In Mexico, almost all union workers are represented by “official” unions, which are authorized by the government and sponsored by the companies. They do nothing to represent the interests of workers.) In Puebla we also met with the leader of one of the few independent unions in the country, José Luis Rodríguez Salazar, secretary general of the Independent Union of Volkswagen Workers. His union, under very difficult circumstances, has managed to negotiate a contract with VW that pays most workers there $25 a day–a very good wage in Mexico. They are currently struggling against downsizing and fear that in years to come, globalization could mean a reduction of auto manufacturing in Mexico as companies move to countries with even cheaper labor.