Understanding NAFTA from the Bottom Up


By Julia Quiñonez, Coordinator for the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), 2000

While most of the recent news coverage about Mexico has focused on the issue of narcotrafficking and related violence "spilling over the border into the U.S.", the Border Workers' Committee (CFO - Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s) believes that solidarity tours to the border are an effective counterweight to the hysteria they generate.  They open up a possibility for our compañer@s and for workers to let others know about what is happening on the border with thousands of workers.  Participants get a more global vision of what is happening, not just in Mexico and the United States, but in the world.  With sister grassroots organizations and other activists we have strengthened our ties of solidarity, and on many occasions the relations of solidarity continue.

A great variety of groups and people are involved, from international unions to undocumented day laborers, as well as NGOs, churches, academics, and volunteers.  Over the years we've included Mexican participants as well, like the Center for Worker Support (CAT -Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador), from Puebla; the Authentic Labor Front (FAT -Frente Auténtico del Trabajo); Innovation and Intervention in the Social Sciences (IICSA -Innovación e Intervención en las Ciencias Sociales); the Project for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ProDESC -Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales); and Development and Peace Service (SEDEPAC - Servicio Desarrollo y Paz), from Coahuila.

By seeing the actual situation of maquiladora workers on the ground, we create the opportunity to address the current impacts of the global economic crisis and to seek out common points for the defense of labor rights.  A constant theme has been the negative impact of the global economic crisis on employment, wages, unionization, and grassroots organizing in both countries, and in the situation of immigrants in the United States.  Some union activists feel that within the unions themselves there is not yet a consensus about how to organize undocumented workers.  While in the past, especially during the Cold War, unions were not interested in including those immigrants, today the importance of this group for the future of the union movement in the United States is clear.

When Mexican visitors have a chance to see and interact with the alliances which have been formed of unions and the AFL-CIO with community organizations and worker centers, they can see that the communities have achieved an understanding of the importance of unionization. This can inspire visitors to think about the how Mexican unions should do their job, and also about the need to pressure governments in both countries to avoid the exploitation of Mexican workers everywhere.

We need to have more direct conversations between organizations across the U.S. and Mexico borders. The right to form unions and collectively bargain are under attack in both countries, albeit, in different forms. However, the same economic forces that drive down wages in one country are also driving down wages in the other. The more workers speak to each other about what they are facing and how they organize to defend their rights, the closer working people will become.

Among the most important discussions that take place on delegations are those about trade agreements, especially NAFTA.  Because it's become such a hotly debated subject in all three countries, it's important for us to develop our own independent understanding.  Seeing the situation of maquiladora workers on the border is an instant education in who is paying the price of globalization and these agreements.

According to one worker, Teresa Hernández, a worker in Matamoros, "NAFTA was a swindle.  It didn't keep its promise of more and better jobs, but rather the contrary. Now everything is more expensive: food, school supplies, transportation, everything."  In her 50s, Teresa has worked most of her life in a maquiladora factory.

Teresa's quote was included in an open letter sent to Mexico's president by several maquiladora workers, the outcome of a discussion on NAFTA held by forty Mexican workers from five border cities at a meeting of the CFO in Nuevo Laredo.

Workers addressed the current economic crisis, focusing on its impacts on U.S. automakers and their auto parts manufacturers in Mexico.  Maquiladora workers know how the globalization of the economy actually operates, since they produce auto parts a year before they are needed.  The maquiladora industry is heavily dependent on auto production, and workers know what it is coming before the Wall Street Journal gets the news.

Workers shared reflections and agreed on recommendations for action. They have seen that most border towns have had a big influx of migrants in the last few decades from central and southern Mexico. In the last 20 years more than half of the border's workforce moved from the interior of the country to Northern Mexico looking for a maquiladora job. Obviously NAFTA failed to create employment in their original communities.  But only a minority thought their economic situation today was better today as a result.

In their letter to the president, one worker said:  "In 1993, even with a single salary and two children in school, I could buy more.  It used to provide enough to send your children to school and eat better.  Now I have to take in other people's washing, and I am still only half way to meeting expenses."  Other workers sell lunches at the factory, or tacos or cosmetics on the weekends.  Many cross over every week to U.S. border towns to sell their blood plasma.

"Wages have lost half their value since 30 years ago," the letter said. "We are making half what our parents made.  It is an established fact that more than two full-time salaries are needed for one household's minimal expenses.  That's why most maquiladora workers have two jobs, or send the entire family out to work."

NAFTA worsened the wages and living conditions of maquiladora workers, leading a race to the bottom throughout the manufacturing sector in Mexico.  The agreement proved even more devastating for Mexico's small farmers. The combined failure in both rural and urban areas forced the migration of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans across all economic sectors to the U.S. 

It is estimated that 2 million small farmers in Mexico were displaced from their land as a result of NAFTA. To make matters worse, thousands of the approximately half a million manufacturing jobs created in Mexico since 1994 are now vanishing, mainly as a consequence of the U.S. recession. Even before the economic downturn, the meager job creation attributed to NAFTA failed to keep pace with the 1.2 million young people entering the workforce every year.

The maquiladora workers said, "One cannot speak of the success of NAFTA when its so-called success only exists on charts and graphs showing the increase of trade between the United States and Mexico. Contrary to what the government has said, free trade does not create benefits for all. The growth of Mexico's international trade has not been reflected in the economy of those of us who make this commercial activity possible."

In an interview, David Bacon asked me, "If that's the case, do you think that there is any form of labor protection that can be incorporated into agreements like NAFTA that would guarantee workers rights, or do you think that workers have to guarantee their labor rights in some other way?

I think both possibilities can be if there is a renegotiation of the NAFTA agreement. The possibility of an obligatory means of enforcing workers' rights, holding transnational corporations accountable to complying with the law, would be helpful for workers.  At the same time, even if you have such trade agreements, organizing workers at the grassroots level is vital.  Otherwise, we can't enforce any rights recognized by trade agreements." Read the complete interview.

Free trade was supposed to benefit everybody, but the reality is that we are poorer than we were before.  We used to earn good wages, but now they're falling. Working conditions are not like they were before. You used to become permanent after working for a month. Now companies give us month-to-month contracts, so that we can never earn seniority or health benefits. Our other benefits are disappearing.  In the cities our jobs are disappearing, and there's no work in the countryside, either.  None of the benefits of free trade have materialized for us - in jobs, in wages, or anywhere else."

 During another CFO meeting to share experiences about NAFTA, workers had the following comments:

 * Before the pay was fairer, at Carrizo's three plants as well as at TennMex and Dimmit. All those plants closed, and now we can't get by on what we earn.

 * What happened to the 10 percent raise we used to get? We're worse off now.

* Ten years ago I could save a little. Now I have to spend every dime I make. Even so, I can't buy fruit or vegetables.

* We're not living from month to month, or from week to week. We're living from day to day.

* Before stores would give you the price for a kilo of ham or a kilo of beef. Now they give their prices in a half-kilo or a quarter-kilo.

* It seems like a kilo now weighs less than 1000 grams. Staple goods come in smaller packages. They cost the same or even more, but there's less in the package. There are fewer cookies now in a bag of cookies.

We've seen that NAFTA is a failed model, a model that just doesn't work. After ten years, you can look at workers' pay stubs and see that they were earning more before than they are now.  Maquiladora workers who make electronic products or auto parts don't earn enough to buy what they make. Communities that house global companies like Alcoa, Delphi, or GE should be enjoying good economic conditions. Instead, they don't even have basic services like running water, sewage, electricity, or paved roads. Squatters keep opening up new land because there isn't enough housing.

NAFTA is a story of extremes: benefits and progress for the few, and poverty and decline for the many.  NAFTA should be renegotiated to promote fair trade relations among Mexico, the United States, and Canada. A new treaty should assure just treatment for workers and full enforcement of the labor laws of each country.  Mexico's labor code should be fully enforced, and the government's labor authorities as well as unions should defend the authentic interests of workers.

For a comprehensive report on the effects of NAFTA on the maquiladora workers on the U.S.-Mexico border, click here.

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