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How We Export Jobs and Disease

A Rolling Stone report on the dangerous U.S. factories operating just over the border

Matamoros, work, factories, squalor, Mexico

Many in Matamoros work in shiny factories and live in squalor in Mexico on March 11th, 1993.

Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty

DOMINGO GONZALES, A BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS, environmental activist, struggled for years to alert residents to the dangerous toxic stew U.S. corporations were creating just across the border at the unregulated maquiladoras — foreign-owned factories — in Matamoros, Mexico. “A few years ago, we were voices screaming in the desert,” Gonzalez says. “But now people are aware.”

Popular outrage finally ignited when a teacher in Matamoros discovered a disturbing pattern of retardation and deformities among her students. “They range from mild to severe retardation,” says Gonzalez. “We have twenty-year-olds who have two-year-old brains. Some have other deformities. The children all have the same look, the same features and facial structure.”

The damaged children share one other thing: Their mothers all worked in a factory owned by a U.S. corporation – Mallory Capacitors – at the time they became pregnant. Grass-roots investigators have now located sixty-seven afflicted children whose mothers were exposed to the same toxic chemicals, though Gonzalez assumes there may well be others. A lawsuit was filed last spring, but the victims are really on their own. Neither government — U.S. or Mexican — does anything to enforce health and safety laws in the vast industrial zone that stretches from Matamoros west to Tijuana.

Around the same time, the border was jarred by another case: A nurse identified three encephalitic babies — suffering brain inflammation — born at the same Texas hospital in a single week. The cause is yet unknown, but popular suspicions are obvious: Multinationals, having moved to the maquiladoras zone to exploit dirt-cheap labor, are creating new toxic hazards for the people who live and work there. According to the National Toxics Campaign, the U.S.-Mexican border has become “a two-thousand-mile Love Canal.” The American Medical Association calls it “a virtual cesspool and breeding ground for infectious disease.”

Gonzalez and other activists are taking advantage of the breakthrough in public awareness to do what they were never able to do before — organizing citizens on both sides of the border and forming alliances for a new kind of cross-border politics. The Southwestern Network for Environmental and Economic Justice is now active along the border from Texas to California.

“People are coming to understand the dynamics of the border region,” says Gonzalez. “There has been quite a splintering. It was very, very hard for people to accept their kinship to the other side. But the fast pace of development and economic integration has swept over us while we were sleeping. The public has to set the terms for that economic integration, and the only way to do that is for people to join forces across the border.”

THIRTEEN HUNDRED MILES AWAY in Minnesota, labor activist Larry Weiss is preaching the same sermon. Weiss has so far pulled together forty-three grass-roots organizations, including twenty-eight union locals, to create a Minnesota branch of the nationwide Fair Trade Campaign, which is mobilizing opposition to George Bush’s proposed free-trade agreement with Mexico. Under Bush’s laissez-faire approach, free trade with Mexico will mean grossly multiplying the destructive qualities of the maquiladoras zone.

“The kind of responses I get on this stuff just couldn’t have happened five years ago,” says Weiss. “You would have had a hard time even getting in the door. But people have just been kicked around so much, they’re really open to new solutions.” A former machinist and United Auto Workers shop steward, Weiss has spoken at several dozen union meetings, not just about the prospective job losses for Americans when factories move to Mexico but about the exploitation of Mexicans on the other end.

“I expected that someplace along the line in these meetings I was going to get some sort of racist reaction about ‘these damn Mexicans taking our jobs,'” says Weiss. “But I’ve never heard any of that. Instead, there was this astounding, immediate affinity — a recognition that the material conditions of these people in other countries are directly related to our own condition and that unless theirs is brought up, ours will continue to decline.”

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the AFL-CIO has joined with the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, church activists and human-rights groups to work against Bush’s free-trade agreement. Labor’s self-interest in the Fair Trade Campaign is obvious: According to the Economic Policy Institute, the United States will lose 550,000 high-wage industrial jobs — nearly three percent of manufacturing — if the relaxed trading rules of the maquiladoras zone are expanded to cover all of Mexico. Canadian labor unions are active in the campaign, too, because they have experienced horrendous losses — an estimated 460,000 jobs — since signing a free-trade agreement with the United States in 1989.

George Bush has thus inadvertently provoked what years of activism failed to accomplish — a new, broad-gauge citizen politics that is genuinely trinational. The trade issue is so enormous and threatening that it is unifying the various energies fractured by single-issue politics: Unions and environmentalists and social-justice advocates and consumer groups are making common cause against the formidable power of multinationals. Even more important, workers in the global village are beginning to recognize that unless they unite with one another, they will all become losers.

Though this new politics is still embryonic, my sense is that it will prove as significant as any other political trend of 1992 and perhaps, in the long run, even more significant. The new alliances forming against the North American Free Trade Agreement provide a model for the new internationalism that is required for post-Cold War politics: Americans must confront the destructive forces of the global economy head-on — not from a narrow protectionist perspective but as large-minded citizens of the world.

MEXICO IS A TIME BOMB FOR THE U.S. POLITICIANS blithely advocating free trade: If the public ever comes to understand the shocking reality of that nation, it will blow up in their faces.

Mexico, as Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa observed, is the “perfect dictatorship.” Its brutal authoritarian regime is skillfully camouflaged by the democratic formalities of elections and constitutional rights. National elections are held regularly, but since 1929 one party — the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — has never lost power. President Carlos Salinas’s 1988 election was authoritatively attributed to wholesale fraud (vote-counting computers mysteriously broke down on the eve of the election).

Competing parties have elected some state and local officials, but regional elections are also routinely stolen. During the 1991 midterm elections, outside observers found 123 precincts in Monterey where the vote total exceeded the registration. An opposition party counted 597 precincts in the state of Guanajuato where PRI got 100 percent of the votes.

The police powers of the state — including the army and assorted thugs in plain clothes — are regularly used to suppress dissent. Late last year, Andrew Reding of the World Policy Institute and Christopher Whalen, editor of the Mexico Report, a business newsletter, grimly summarized the evidence: “Despite the creation of a government human rights commission more than a year ago, a strong pattern of rights abuses and state-sponsored violence persists. Torture is universal; and dozens of journalists, more than 100 members of political opposition parties, and a prominent human rights advocate have been murdered since Salinas took office.”

Last year, Amnesty International reported: “Torture remains endemic in Mexico…. The principal reason for this is the almost total impunity extended to law enforcement officers who routinely act beyond the law without fear of punishment.”

PRI is a centralized monopoly not only in politics but also in business, because more than half of the country’s commercial assets are owned and operated by the government. Mexican presidents have used state enterprises to build private fortunes for family and friends and to create an awesome network of allies in private business. PRI also controls workers through the Mexican Workers Confederation, the main union, which actively helps suppress any independent demands for free unions and better wages.

In February, the police arrested Agapito Gonzales Cavazos, an independent labor leader who organized a successful industry-wide strike for higher wages against the U.S. companies operating in Matamoros. In addition to suffering dangerous working conditions, the Mexican peasants drawn to the maquiladoras are paid as little as fifty-five cents an hour. Contrary to free-trade propaganda, industrial development has not spawned a new middle class of Mexican consumers for U.S. products. In fact, real wages in Mexico have fallen by fifty percent during the last decade.

Given the lousy wages, most maquila workers are very young, and some are mere children, no more than thirteen or fourteen. Some of the proudest names of U.S. business are riding on the backs of Mexican children. But so are those who buy the products — everything from electronics from General Electric and Westinghouse to auto components from Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

Agapito Gonzales was arrested “at the behest of U.S. employers operating maquiladora factories,” according to Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. “The real crime of Gonzales and his members was to win improved wages and working conditions…. U.S. employers from the Maquiladora Association met with President Salinas immediately after members of Gonzales’s union conducted a series of strikes with which they won a twenty-five-percent increase at a number of plants.”

Kidnapping, torture, murder: Amid such brutal rule, free trade can be nothing more than a hollow phrase. Bush’s proposed treaty with Mexico is like signing a free-trade agreement with South Africa and pretending not to notice that black citizens have no rights.

Despite the bloodshed, Mexican citizens are mobilizing to change that – to follow the U.S. example and demand a genuine democracy. “The U.S. ruling elites are not really ready for democracy in Mexico,” says Whalen, “but they better get ready, because people in Mexico are on the move. They are tired of one-party rule. They’ve got satellite dishes, and they can see American television. They are determined to get beyond this kind of Mafia-style command capitalism.”

THE MOST PAINFUL EDUCATION FOR U.S. TAXPAYERS lies in the embarrassing fact that they are paying for this “perfect dictatorship” with their own tax dollars. As U.S. banks and corporations have pushed to acquire a larger share of Mexico’s debt-ridden economy, the Reagan-Bush administration has greased the deals with billions in loans and hidden subsidies to prop up the authoritarian regime (just as it provided generous credit assistance to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, only on a much larger scale). Whalen estimates that one way or another, the United States provides $10 billion a year in economic subsidies to Mexico.

Bush’s free-trade agreement is supposed to be the final keystone in the new economic relationship: Mexico will serve as a cheap-labor platform for manufacturing the goods that can be exported back into the United States and to other prosperous countries. This will benefit not only American companies but European and Asian multinationals as well. The companies will escape unions and higher wages, as well as taxes and strict enforcement of environmental laws.

It looks like a good deal for everyone — except the workers and communities ruined by the relocations and exploitation. But ultimately, nations will be losers, too. Global competition undermines every nation’s ability to uphold its own laws as each is compelled to relax standards to the lowest common denominator — even the sovereign nation known as the United States. A leaked draft of Bush’s treaty calls for state and local governments in the United States to be prohibited from enforcing their own health and safety laws if their standards are judged too harmful to developing North American trade.

As the Fair Trade Campaign activists understand, the only answer to the destructive forces of the global economy is to impose a social contract on all new trade agreements — the same kind of standards that individual nations impose on domestic producers. Products made with child labor or poverty wages or environmental destruction should be banned or penalty taxes levied until the offending corporations obey the laws. The idea is to create a trading system that pulls the bottom up instead of tearing the top down.

No single nation can hope to achieve this by itself; the campaign will require a united front across many boundaries. But first the citizens must mobilize themselves to force their own governments to change. That daunting task will not be accomplished in a single season of politics, but the good news is that at least some forward-looking citizens have begun it.

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