Upheaval in the Factories of Juarez

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Women and men, more than 70 of them, were fired on December 9th from the factory on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Texas border where they made printers for the American company Lexmark. They say they were terminated was because they were trying to form an independent union. The company says they were fired because they caused a “workplace disruption.”

Now, the workers protest by occupying a makeshift shack outside the factory, still advocating for a raise and for a union, even though they no longer have jobs. Outside, a spray-painted banner reads “Justicia A La Clase Obrera” meaning “Justice for the Working Class.” Inside, a wood stove burns as they make coffee and cook tortillas and wait for someone to hear what they have to say.

“We are hungry. Our children are hungry,” Blanca Estella Moya, one of the fired workers, tells me. “You cannot live on these wages in Juarez.”

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In the Lexmark maquiladora, or factory, Moya made 112 pesos, or roughly six U.S. dollars, a day. Her shifts were nine-and-a-half hours long, her lawyer, Susana Prieto Terrazas, says. That’s about 39 cents an hour. That wage is a legal one in Mexico, but Terrazas argues it shouldn’t be.

“It’s not possible to live on these wages. It’s not human,” said Terrazas, who has dark, curly, dyed-red hair, and was wearing a plaid checkered blouse and jeans. “They are creating generations of slaves.”

It’s not just Lexmark: Workers at Mexican subsidiaries of FoxConn, Eaton, and CommScope in Juarez have all protested working conditions and compensation in recent months. Women tell of sexual harassment at the factories and of working multiple shifts to make ends meet. The devaluation of the peso has meant their money buys less than it once did. The protests come at an inopportune moment for Mexico. Many companies, especially automakers, are moving production to Mexico after deciding that the costs and logistical headaches of manufacturing in Asia are too great to bear. Mexico is trying to welcome them with open arms.

But workers, especially those on the border, aren’t making that easy.

“This is a historic thing that’s happening here. In 50 years, there hasn’t been this level of labor discontent,” says Oscar Martinez, a professor at the University of Arizona who spends time in Juarez and has written numerous books on the border, including Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. “We could be seeing the beginning of a larger movement that spreads to other parts of Mexico and challenges the whole system that has been created for these multinationals.”

Susana Prieto Terrazas, in front of the Lexmark factory in Juarez (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

The protests come at an inopportune moment for the U.S. as well. When Congress gets around to debating the Trans Pacific Partnership, it will surely look at NAFTA and the promises that treaty made for American and Mexican workers. The situation of the workers in Juarez makes it clear that NAFTA didn’t improve conditions as promised, and implies that TPP won’t work, either, said Cathy Feingold, the director of the International Department at the AFL-CIO. In addition, with little hope for U.S. immigration reform, the U.S. will have to recognize that it creates its own migration problems by allowing companies to treat workers so poorly just across the border, she said. When workers can’t make a decent wage in their own country, they’ll try to cross the border, she said.

“You can’t have an economy that’s this out of whack. It’s just not good for business,” she said. “If you have a global economy that’s this unequal, you have insecurity, and you have people moving for better opportunities.”

Other factors may continue to draw attention to the issue in upcoming months. The pope is visiting Juarez on February 17th, and many hope he will speak there about economic inequality, and perhaps specifically about the factory workers. There are elections in Juarez and the state it sits in, Chihuahua, later this year, putting additional pressure on politicians to address the concerns of the 250,000 factory workers of Juarez.

“It’s this perfect moment for really highlighting the intersection of failed trade policies, increased poverty, and then migration on the border,” Feingold said.

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The maquiladoras, or border factories, have been around for more than 50 years. In 1965, after the U.S. ended the Bracero program, which had allowed Mexican laborers to work seasonally in the U.S., the Mexican government created the Border Industrialization Program. It essentially allowed foreign-owned (typically this meant American) companies to set up factories on the Mexican side of the border, import tariff-free raw goods for manufacturing and then export the finished products, employing low-cost Mexican workers along the way. The number of factories in border areas such as Juarez and Tijuana boomed in the 1980s, as U.S. companies facing wage competition from China saw Mexico as an easy option. There are now about 330 maquiladoras in Juarez alone, according to the Borderplex Alliance.

Maria Margarita Morta Dias and Georgina Cinta in Juarez (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

When NAFTA was ratified 1995, it opened the potential for companies to open factories anywhere in Mexico and still avoid tariffs, said Tony Payan, the director of the Mexico Center at Rice University. Regions across Mexico built up their roads, their airports, and their railways, and foreign companies began to realize that they could locate their factories throughout much of Mexico just as easily as they could on the border.  

That’s led to downward pressure on wages. Indeed, while workers in countries such as China, Brazil, and Russia have seen wage increases in recent years, Mexican workers have seen almost no change. In 2011, hourly wages in China surpassed those in Mexico; now they’re 40 percent higher, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

The Juarez workers have suffered the most as factories there competed with others throughout Mexico for business. The average monthly wage for production workers in Juarez was $422 a month in December of 2014, compared to $582 a month for all Mexican workers, according to a report from the Hunt Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Texas at El Paso. But, while the wage for Juarez production workers was the lowest out of all the regions surveyed, the wage for managers was the highest, at $2,238 a month, compared to $2,045 for all Mexico, the Hunt Institute found.


Average Monthly Wages at Export-Oriented Manufacturing Firms in Juarez by Region, in U.S. Dollars


The wage disparity is likely because many managers in the Juarez maquiladoras live in El Paso, and thus require higher salaries, and also because factories needed to pay a premium to attract managers during a violent period between 2008 and 2011, when tens of thousands of people in the region were killed, said Patrick Schaefer, the director of the Hunt Institute. In addition, the Juarez/El Paso region, called Paseo del Norte, is traditionally a magnet for migrants from Mexico and Central America who are heading north for a better life, creating a pool of low-skilled workers who compete for manufacturing jobs.

“These are products produced by people who are a couple steps above wage slavery,” said Kathy Staudt, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has worked with a binational workers group, the Social Justice Education Forum, which is advocating for the striking workers. “It should bother people who have a conscience, but I think too many people don’t care.”

The Lexmark workers decided to try and form a union because they wanted better working conditions. Blanca Estella Moya, for example, was responsible for putting metal parts in a plastic cartridge, a job that made her wrists sore and caused tendonitis, according to Terrazas. The machine she worked with constantly broke, she says, and supervisors were unsympathetic, expecting her to continue to produce 1,700 parts a day, even with a broken machine. The workers called one manager “The Dog” because of his record of sexual harassment, according to Terrazas.

Blanca Estella Moya (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

When coworkers asked Moya if she wanted to join a group advocating for better working conditions, she said she was interested. Her husband works in construction, and together they make about 28,000 pesos a month—about $1,500 dollars. Families in Juarez need about 58,000 a month in order to buy the basics to survive, Terrazas, the lawyer, says. Moya has five children, three of whom live with her, and she also provides for her grandson. Her family often needs to get loans just to pay the rent, and, like many other families working at the maquiladoras, they steal electricity and water because they can’t afford to pay for it.

At first, the company said orally that they would give workers the 35-cent raise they’d been asking for, Moya said. Then, they reneged on that, Terrazas, the lawyer said. When the workers came to her asking what they could do, she explained there was very little recourse. All they could do, she said, was join an independent union and try to advocate for better pay.

When I asked Lexmark about this version of events and other questions about wages and working conditions in Juarez, they insisted on getting written questions rather than talking on the phone. They then declined to answer most of the questions I sent.

“We meet or exceed the standards of all laws for manufacturing facilities in Juarez, Mexico,” Jerry Grasso, the vice president of corporate communications at Lexmark International wrote, in response to one question, the only of six that he agreed to answer. (He later followed up to answer another question about why the workers were fired by specifying that they were “let go for workplace disruption in our Juarez plant.”)

A 35-cent raise may seem like a pittance for a company with billions in revenue, but Lexmark may feel squeezed by falling profits. In October, the company reported lower-than-expected third-quarter earnings, which have fallen from $350 million in 2010 to $79 million in 2014, according to Lexmark’s annual report.

A representative for Foxconn gave a more detailed response, writing that Foxconn’s Mexican subsidiary pays wages that are “in excess of statutory requirements” and benefits that are competitive with peer businesses. It holds salary reviews and performance reviews frequently, according to a statement sent to me from a PR firm representing Foxconn Technology Group.

“It is unfortunate that a small number of the company’s employees have chosen to try to disrupt its operations to promote their personal agendas outside of the law and the approved and recognized company channels of communication,” the statement said.

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Technically, there are unions in Mexico. But they’re not unions in the American sense of the word, according to Feingold, the AFL-CIO International director. Most so-called unions are what the AFL-CIO calls protection contracts, which are essentially collective-bargaining contracts signed between an employer and an employer-backed union, often without the knowledge of the workers. Only about 1 percent of the workforce in Mexico is organized in independent unions that give more of a voice than protection contracts, she said.

Protection contracts are hard to change because they are created between private companies and unions that purport to represent workers, Feingold said. Mexican labor laws protect the unions that sign the protection contracts, said Staudt, the UTEP professor, even if they don’t protect the workers.

At a meeting of labor ministers of the Americas in Cancun last month, Mexican representatives said they were interested in making sure that workers had better working conditions. But the government has not seemed interested in helping effect change for the Juarez workers, Terrazas said. On December 30, representing the workers, she went to the local labor authority, the Conciliation and Arbitration Board, and filled out the paperwork to form an independent union. The request was denied, she said, because the labor board said the workers did not establish the conditions needed for a union, such as an official union building and fundraising committee. The workers presented their position for a second time on January 2 and are now waiting for a second decision.

“We hope this will be a precedent for the people living in this country, that we will be a leader for wages,” another worker, Maria Margarita Morta Dias, said.

Workers in the makeshift shack outside Lexmark (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Experts on the border region and on labor told me that they had little hope that the workers’ movement would succeed. Workers have had so few rights in Mexico for so long that there’s little reason for anything to change, they said. Especially now that factories in Juarez are facing more, rather than less, competition. After all, little changed in Mexico after a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation unveiled widespread bribery at Walmart there, nor after international groups tried to draw attention to the hundreds of murders of women who had been working in the maquiladoras of Juarez. State and federal police are likely going to start harassing the protesters soon, these observers say, driving them underground.

Terrazas herself says there are signs that the government and the factories are colluding to punish agitators. The names of the workers who asked to form a union were supposed to be secret, she said, but after they submitted the petition, 90 workers were fired, 75 of whom had signed the petition. Lexmark employs between 2,700 and 3,000 workers at its Juarez plant, Terrazas said, a number the company would not confirm.

Still Terrazas and other advocates say there are a few things that are different this time. Some 700 workers in Juarez joined a “slowdown” at the factory, which Terrazas said prompted the firings and signaled widespread sympathy for the protesters. Workers in El Paso and Lexington, Kentucky, the home of Lexmark, have been staging rallies in solidarity with the Mexican maquiladora workers. The group has received donations and help from as far away as Geneva, and dozens of people across the border in El Paso have been listening and donating, she told me. The donations from abroad have made it possible for the workers to continue to stay outside the factory, despite the freezing temperatures and freezing rain. And other factories in Juarez have given workers small raises in the time the Lexmark workers have been protesting, she says. Even a supervisor who harassed workers has been fired since the workers started protesting, Terrazas said.

These workers seem uniquely determined to change something in their lives, she said. I met with four women in the shack outside the factory; when I asked how many of them had parents who worked in the maquiladoras, all four raised their hands. One woman had dropped out of school after second grade when her mother told her the family didn’t have enough money to pay for books and fees.

Torn posters in the workers’ protest shack (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

With Terrazas’s help, though, the workers seem aware that this kind of generational poverty does not have to continue. One of the earliest deciding battles of the Mexican Revolution began in Ciudad Juarez, Terrazas said. This could be the beginning of another radical campaign of change.

If globalization has made it possible for factories to locate across borders, after all, it has also made it possible for workers to unite across borders. The workers in Mexico join those in the U.S. in contesting the status quo, in which those at the bottom have so much less than those at the top.

“The main cause of all the revolutions in the world, historically, is when the people are hungry,” Terrazas said. “And the people are hungry now.”

Orbital View: ‘The Jewel of the Pacific’

Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.

And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.

— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15

Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.

What Led American Ships Into Iranian Waters?

The U.S. military has released its first official account of Iran’s capture and release of 10 American sailors whose vessels entered Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf last week.

U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, on Monday provided a timeline of the events, but did not say how the two U.S. Navy boats ended up in foreign waters on their journey from Kuwait to Bahrain in a routine exercise. The sailors are currently in “good health,” CENTCOM said.

CENTCOM said the small boats stopped in the Gulf because of a “mechanical issue in a diesel engine” in one of the vessels. “This stop occurred in Iranian territorial waters, although it’s not clear the crew was aware of their exact location,” the statement said.

The two riverine command boats departed Kuwait at 9:23 a.m. GMT on January 12, the statement said. They were scheduled to stop and refuel alongside the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy at about 2 p.m. But at approximately 2:10 p.m., Navy command received a report that the sailors were being questioned by Iranians. By 2:45 p.m., the military lost all communication with the boats.  

Navy command launched search-and-rescue operations soon after, deploying aircraft from USS Harry S. Truman and nearby Navy vessels. The Navy tried to contact Iranian military units operating near the Gulf’s Farsi Island over marine radio and telephoned Iranian coast guard units. At 6:15 p.m., U.S. Navy cruiser USS Anzio got word from the Iranians that the sailors were in Iranian custody and were “safe and healthy.”

CENTCOM said armed Iranian personnel boarded the U.S. boats and led the sailors at gunpoint to a port facility on Farsi Island. The Americans were held for about 15 hours and were not physically harmed. They were released at 8:43 a.m. GMT the next day to the Navy, and another group of U.S. sailors took over their vessels.

All weapons, ammunition, and communication gear on the boats were untouched, but two SIM cards appeared to have been removed from two handheld satellite phones, CENTCOM said.

The Navy has launched an investigation into the incident, which was seen as a test case for newly improved U.S.-Iranian relations. U.S. and Iranian officials were quick to hail the diplomacy that resulted in the release of the sailors. President Obama said Sunday that increased cooperation between the two nations prevented the capture from escalating into “a major international incident.”

“Some folks here in Washington rushed to declare that it was the start of another hostage crisis,” Obama said. “Instead we worked directly with the Iranian government and secured the release of our sailors in less than 24 hours.”

The incident preceded a couple of breakthroughs in U.S.-Iran relations. Days later, international inspectors formally certified that Tehran had dismantled most of its nuclear program in accordance with the historic deal brokered last year between Iran and six world powers. In exchange, the Obama administration lifted a swatch of economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy for years. The two nations also agreed to a prisoner swap that would release four Americans, including a Washington Post reporter, held prisoner in Iran for months or years. A fifth American was also released, but not as part of the exchange.

The Search for Missing Americans in Iraq

The U.S. State Department is investigating reports by Middle Eastern media that American citizens are missing in Iraq, officials said Sunday.

Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned Arab news outlet, reported Sunday that three Americans have been kidnapped by “militias” in Baghdad, citing its own sources.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the agency is aware of the reports.

“The safety and security of American citizens overseas is our highest priority,” Kirby said in a statement.‎ “We are working with the full cooperation of the Iraqi authorities to locate and recover the individuals.”

The State Department would not say how many Americans are reported missing. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told the Associated Press that “several” Americans were kidnapped.

The Americans, all contractors, went missing two days ago, reported CNN, citing a senior security official in Baghdad. Their disappearance was reported by the company where they worked, CNN wrote.

The kidnapping report comes amid a worsening security situation in Baghdad and the surrounding area, and nearly one week after armed attackers stormed a mall in the Iraqi capital and detonated suicide and car bombs, killing at least 18 people and injuring 50 more. Following the assault, which lasted about an hour and a half, authorities shut down the city’s Green Zone, a heavily guarded area that is home to several foreign embassies, including that of the United States, and Western private military contractors.

This is a developing story and we’ll update as we learn more.

Iran’s Two-Deal Day


Updated on January 16 at 7:27 p.m. ET

The United States and the European Union lifted a broad swath of economic sanctions against Iran on Saturday as the International Atomic Energy Agency certified it had dismantled most of its nuclear program, opening a new, cautious chapter in relations between Tehran and the West.

“Today marks the first day of a safer world, one we hope will remain safer for many years to come,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at a press conference in Vienna.

Diplomats gathered Saturday in the Austrian capital for the implementation of last year’s historic nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers—the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. IAEA inspectors formally certified that Iran had taken concrete steps to scale back its nuclear infrastructure over the past three months—literally, in one case, when the country poured cement into the nuclear reactor core at Arak.

Iran also shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel to Russia and dismantled two-thirds of the centrifuges it used to enrich uranium. If the Iranian government renounced the deal and reactivated its program, Kerry estimated that it would take more than a year for the country to race towards a nuclear bomb.

After the certification, President Obama issued executive orders lifting international economic sanctions. Their end marks a major victory for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his allies, who swept into power in the 2013 elections on a platform of reinvigorating the country’s ailing economy and thawing its relations with the West. The timing is also politically fortuitous as Iranian voters go to the polls on February 26 for the country’s legislative elections.

In an effort to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program, the United States, the European Union, and other countries constructed the most complex regime of international economic sanctions in modern history, effectively severing Tehran from most of the world’s major financial institutions and isolating its markets from global commerce. Iran’s economy withered, with the Iranian rial losing over two-thirds of its value and the price of basic goods rising precipitously.

A broad array of direct U.S. sanctions on Iran remain in force, so economic ties between the two countries will be minimal for the foreseeable future. But European and Asian businesses are expected to forge trade relationships with the once-isolated country almost immediately. Iranian Transport Minister Abbas Akhoundi said his country planned to purchase 114 aircraft from Airbus as soon as the sanctions lift to replace Iran’s aging civil-aviation fleet.

Hours before the announcement in Vienna, Iranian news outlets reported that Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian had been released from Iranian custody on Saturday morning after 543 days in captivity, along with three other American prisoners as part of a prisoner swap with the United States, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported.

Also freed on Saturday were Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine sentenced to death for espionage in 2012; Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor held by Iran since 2012; and Nosratollah Khosrawi.

As part of the swap, President Obama granted clemency to seven Iranians convicted of or awaiting trial for violating the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran. The U.S. also dropped its cases against 14 other Iranians it sought to extradite from other countries.

Iran also released a fifth American, Matthew Trevithick, on Saturday; CNN reported that U.S. officials claimed his release was not part of the prisoner swap. Trevithick is a student and researcher specializing in the Middle East who was detained while studying at a foreign-language center in Tehran, according to a statement from his family. His 40-day captivity was not publicly known prior to Saturday’s announcement.

Iranian officials arrested Rezaian on July 22, 2014 and charged him with espionage nine months later. An Iranian court found him guilty on October 15 last year and sentenced him to prison for an indeterminate length of time. Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, strongly condemned his sentence and treatment.

“The contemptible end to this ‘judicial process’ leaves Iran’s senior leaders with an obligation to right this grievous wrong,” Baron wrote. “Jason is a victim — arrested without cause, held for months in isolation, without access to a lawyer, subjected to physical mistreatment and psychological abuse, and now convicted without basis.”

This is a developing story and we’ll have more information as it becomes available.