Amid the C19 pandemic where the entire world has come to a virtual stop, there is a border city in Mexico where people are lining up in droves and hopping on crowded old buses like a clandestine tribe to go to work. That city is Cd. Juarez, Mexico.
With a population of over 1.3 million, Juarez is home to over 320 maquiladoras (assembly-plants known as Twin Plants) that employ over 300,000. Its geographical location and especially their low wages for employees—typically 215 pesos a day, or approximately US$11—make it a Mecca for hundreds of U.S. companies and many European ones.
According to the National Council of the Manufacturing and Export Maquiladora Industry (INDEX), 70% of the maquilas are closed due to the pandemic. The other 30% still continue their nonstop 24-hour work days divided into 3 shifts of 8 hours each. That means around 125,000 people are still going to work. They have continued the production of products under the guise that they are “essential,” yet in many of the cases, they are not. In Juarez, at least 28 factories remain open even though they do not provide essential services, said Chihuahua state Labor Secretary Ana Luisa Herrera Laso.
Eleven deaths from Covid have been tied to the The Lear Corporation, a Michigan-based plant in Cd. Juarez, which has since closed its 10 sites in Mexico. The Juarez plant linked to the deaths manufactures seating systems for Mercedes, Lincoln and Mustang cars. Some employees from other plants, such as Electrolux, (which recently closed), have also succumbed to the deadly virus.
Susana Prieto, a lawyer and labor rights activist working with maquiladora employees in Juarez, including Lear employees, said she believes the overall number of victims is “much higher…We’re looking at a death train.”
Despite all of this, one must understand the culture of the maquiladora industry and its role in Cd. Juarez. The maquilas are by far the largest employer in Juarez and actually provide higher salaries than other industries and include benefits such as free meals, transportation to and from work, education (elementary, high school and tech school) for those who ask, and coupons for groceries. For some workers, their only meal comes during their shift at the plant. In addition, during the region’s hot summers and cold winters the maquilas may be workers’ only shelter with heat and/or air conditioning.
Positive effects of the twin plants that have trickled into Juarez’s economy over the decades, stemming from a range of industries, including construction, food & beverage, textile, medical, team sport sponsorships, and automotive, to name a few. Maquilas keep the Juarez economy growing. The impact that C19 has made in the manufacturing industry in this city will be crippling to the economy, but it will recover.
No winners in the present situation
The border factories are crucial to the economies of Juarez and neighboring El Paso, Texas, and are a key component of U.S.-Mexico trade. The El Paso port of entry is the 14th busiest port in the U.S. and sees around 2,600 daily truck crossings. El Paso accounted for almost $80 billion in trade during 2019.
Employees are in a Catch-22 because they cannot afford to lose their paycheck, their only means of sustenance, yet they are afraid for their lives. Their workplace requires working in close proximity to one another on the assembly line. In most cases, the twin plants are not providing adequate protection for the workers. Furthermore, most workers don’t know or understand what their rights are, and when they ask the employer to suspend work or request better working conditions they are threatened with signing a “voluntary” termination. The furloughed employees are receiving 50% of their salary, which is not much, but it’s better than nothing.
The medical sector comprises 7% of the overall maquila industry. Other manufacturing maquilas are pivoting to the medical sector, thus making them “essential.” This begs the question: are those maquila owners pivoting for humanitarian efforts or do they just want to remain open and continue lining their pockets?
In a press conference on April 23, 2020, Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), stated that he would abide by the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, aka NAFTA 2.0, which received final ratification on March 13, 2020. In AMLO’s latest press release he stated that the maquiladoras in the automotive industry will reopen in order to not cause any supply chain disruptions in the U.S., Mexico or Canada.
A statement released by the office of the Secretary of the Economy in Mexico states that Mexico is ready to reactivate the automotive maquila industry as long as it complies with the protection standards set forth by the Health Department of Mexico. In the coming days, the three countries will make details available as to how they plan to safeguard the employees against C19, according to the statement.
There is no question that the ripple effect caused by the closure of maquiladoras that manufacture both essential and non-essential products for the U.S. and multiple other countries is astronomical. And, the contribution that Cd. Juarez makes to support the many industries that rely on maquiladoras is huge. Companies are at a standstill and losing money every day they remain idled.
There are no winners in the present situation. But without a doubt, the ones with the highest stakes are the plant workers. They are the ones who will decide the immediate and long-term future of these business and economic giants. For now, they must choose between continuing to work under the present circumstances, or be safe at home wondering where their next meal will come from.