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“We Want to Live!” The Battle Cry of Mexico’s Maquila Workers

Maquilas are being open due to pressure from the Trump administration. But it is still extremely unsafe and hundreds of workers are dying of the coronavirus.

Eli Kawy

May 26, 2020
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Photo: L. Gonzalez Reuters

Ramón García González left his home state of Oaxaca for Ciudad Juárez over 15 years ago with a dream that one day his children would have the opportunities he was denied. He began working in the booming maquiladora industry in the border city. In mid-April González began to feel ill and had a high fever. When González informed his supervisor at Lear, a U.S.-based Fortune 500 company, he was taken to the infirmary. González was then given some pills and sent back to work. González continued to work at the factory for two or three days with visible symptoms of illness, until he collapsed. On April , González died at age 48 at the IMSS Regional 66 General Hospital in Ciudad Juárez after spending a week hooked up to a ventilator. His death certificate indicated acute respiratory failure, viral pneumonia, and Covid-19 as the causes of death. González is just one among 104 other maquiladora workers who have died in Ciudad Juárez because they lack PPE and are working in unsafe conditions. Additionally, public and private hospitals in parts of Mexico are already nearing capacity, and some patients are being turned away as the number of new infections continues to rise.

On May 20, an Associated Press investigation in Mexico City found that more than 4,500 people have died of Covid-19, according to death certificates. This is three times higher than the official government numbers. Meanwhile, over 104 maquiladora workers died of Covid-19 at a factory owned by Wistron, a U.S.-based manufacturing company that made about $28 billion in 2019. Mexico’s border states are home to more than 6,000 maquiladoras — largely foreign-owned factories that manufacture products for export. These maquiladoras employ hundreds of thousands of people, and they have now become the focus of several coronavirus outbreaks. Today, maquiladora workers at several U.S.-owned factories in Ciudad Juárez continue to resist orders to return to work, citing shortages of personal protective equipment and unsafe working conditions. Ciudad Juárez is far from the only place witnessing the rapid and uncontained spread of Covid-19 among maquiladora workers.

In border cities like Chihuahua, Matamoros, and Tamaulipas, doctors are reporting an overflow of sick maquiladora workers, some of whom are dying in their work uniforms. In Tijuana, the Covid-19 mortality rate is twice the national average, and medical staff are quickly falling ill as the outbreak overwhelms the hospital wards. On May 16, the health secretary of northern Baja California announced that of the 519 people who have officially died of Covid-19 in the state, 432 were maquiladora workers. Indeed, while maquiladoras owned by several U.S.- and UK-based companies, including Smith Medical, Wistron, Clover Wireless, Lear, and Regal, have been deemed “essential workplaces,” the maquiladora workers and the lives of the maquiladora workers are not essential.

Coronavirus on the Maquila Production-Line

Amid this nightmare, efforts to keep the factories shut and contain the spread of Covid-19 have come under intense pressure from companies and U.S. government officials who have demanded that maquiladoras continue to run at any cost. The Mexican government’s complicity in facilitating the imperial exploitation of Mexican maquiladora workers is not new. Indeed, maquiladoras have been protesting incredibly exploitative conditions for years. In Maquiladoras: The Hidden Cost of Production South of the Border, Leslie Kochan (1989) details how the “the silent compact between many corporations and the Mexican government” around the safe use, transportation, and disposal of toxins in the workplace posed a grave threat to the health of workers in maquiladoras, as well as the ecosystem around them. Although Kochan wrote their book in 1989, the condition is not much improved in 2020. Indeed, while government agencies have all but shut down, maquiladora workers are either working in exposed settings or being laid off with a salary cut. As many comrades writing in Izquierda Diario México have noted, the conditions in these maquiladoras are deplorable and many workers are forced to work without protective gear, water in the bathrooms, soap, and zero distance on the production line. Though many workers were forced to return to work within three days of beginning strike action, in places like Mexicali there were work stoppages at more than 40 companies. But as news of the death of coworkers has spread among maquiladora workers, there has been a new spark of rage, and many have united under the slogan “We Want to Live.”

On May 1, the Trotskyist Faction (FT) — an international revolutionary socialist organization spanning multiple countries and continents — came together for a virtual international rally to celebrate May Day. Left Voice has published transcripts and videos of each speech, and the entire livestream is also available. Flora Aco, a precarious state worker and a representative for the group Pan y Rosas in Mexico, spoke at this rally about the historic moment facing the working class in Mexico today. She decried the government’s false claims to a progressive platform and highlighted that its small social programs are coupled with increased austerity measures taken against workers. For these reasons, Aco announced that the Movement of Socialist Workers (MTS) supports the call for a Latin American Conference led by the Left and Workers’ Front (FIT) in Argentina as an integral step “in building an internationalist, socialist, and revolutionary organization.”

The Pandemic and Imperial Extraction

On May 18, the National Health Council in Mexico released a statement from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador giving the green light for maquiladoras and automotive companies to return to normal production levels. This decision came after the Trump administration mounted a campaign to pressure Mexico into opening maquiladoras against the recommended safety guidelines and very publicly so. Last week, U.S. ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau tweeted, “I’m doing everything I can to save supply chains that were created through the last decades,” and that “protect your health” is only desirable when it is not destroying the “economy.”

Indeed, the shockingly extractive nature of these maquiladoras becomes even more apparent when you take into account the recent events surrounding the maquiladora owned by the Smith Medical group, a UK-based company whose website proudly announces that it made 874 millions euros last year. This May, Smith Group was the source of a lot of outrage in Baja California after it refused to sell ventilators produced in the maquiladoras to the Mexican government. Indeed the global capitalist elites are content to profit off the labor and lives of maquiladora workers, and even the life-saving medicine will be made available, but only to those who can afford it. Carmin Maffea wrote an exceptional piece documenting the U.S. government’s role in perpetuating inequalities in access to health care and lifesaving medicine during the pandemic. Indeed, in the United States, PPE and ventilator manufacturers are increasing their prices to make a greater profit, which they are making off the lives of workers in maquiladoras like the one owned by Smith Medical.

The same disregard for working-class lives in the Trump administration’s foreign policy is reflected in the Trump-administration’s response to the crisis at home. As Daniel Werst points out, “The U.S. does not have paid leave for older workers, hazard pay, free healthcare for all, adequate PPE, sufficient testing, or real prevention. What the U.S. does have is a $738 billion military budget. Including related and classified funding, the U.S. spends close to $1 trillion a year on war.” You can certainly anticipate that the U.S. will spare no costs at ensuring that capitalist world order is maintained both at home and internationally. Indeed, while the American government hasn’t resorted to deploying its military forces onto the streets at home, it certainly has a brutal police force and a violent immigration enforcement policy that has been terrorizing the migrant community in a constant reproduction of “racism, capitalism, colonialism, [and] oppression.”

Though political leaders talk of the coronavirus as the great equalizer, for the working class, capitalism is our collective “preexisting condition,” which exponentially increases the danger posed to our lives. Indeed, the global working class today is facing a very unique challenge. As James Hoff and Jimena Vergara aptly put it, the two main questions that the working class must answer today are the following: How do we connect the struggles of the workers currently in motion (especially precarious frontline workers) to the struggles and interests of the whole class, including those currently without employment? And how do we use this unity to build a class capable of fighting for and winning socialism and building the framework for a communist future? In the United States the answers to these questions would have a ripple effect within the entire capitalist empire. Though there are several uncertainties facing the organization of the working class in the United States, Juan Cruz Ferre was right in pointing out the need for a real U.S. socialist party to defend the interests of the working class.

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