May 12, 2020- No. 33

Defend Food Workers' Rights to Safe Working Conditions

Cargill to Shut Down Meat-Processing Plant in Chambly, Quebec

Help Protect Food Processing Workers! ACT NOW! - United Food and Commercial Workers

United States
The Coronavirus Pandemic in U.S. Meatpacking Plants
Conditions in the U.S. Meatpacking Industry
Keeping America's Food Supply Strong Starts with Worker Safety - Marc Perrone, President, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union

Workers Strike Against COVID Deaths in Border Factories

Defend Food Workers' Rights to Safe Working Conditions

Cargill to Shut Down Meat-Processing
Plant in Chambly, Quebec

Cargill's meat-processing plant in Chambly, located in the Montérégie region, some 35 kilometres south of Montreal, is shutting down its operations, after 64 employees contracted COVID-19, which represents 13 per cent of the local workforce, the company confirmed in an email to the Canadian Press. The company said it would "temporarily idle" its facility. Everyone at the plant is now going to be tested, and the operations are presently winding down, with all work set to stop as of Wednesday, May 13. It is expected that the facility could resume operations as soon as next week, should enough employees test negative. Cargill employs 500 unionized workers at the plant.

According to Local 500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents these workers, the first case of COVID-19 surfaced around the end of April. On Wednesday, May 6, 171 employees were away from work, either because they had the virus or had been in contact with someone with symptoms.

The company said it's providing 80 hours of paid leave for any employee who requires time off because of COVID-19 and that employees will be paid for up to 36 hours during the shutdown.

The company is suggesting that because of the presence of members of the same families employed by the factory or because some employees live with people working in the health sector, that this is how the virus could have been transmitted. However facts are very stubborn things, such as that measures were not taken seriously by the company to protect the workers. In fact, as of March 23, Cargill topped up the hourly wage of 400 of its unionized meat-processing plant workers in Chambly and offered them a lump sum of $500 after eight straight weeks of consecutive work, based on a regular shift. The incentive was therefore definitely there, not for workers to look after their health, but instead to continue working despite having possible symptoms of COVID-19, thereby facilitating its spread.

The Olymel pork slaughtering and cutting plant in Yamachiche, Quebec, 150 kilometres northeast of Montreal, also had to close its doors on March 29 after detecting at least nine cases of the virus among its employees. It reopened on April 14.

Quebec pork-processing plant.

(Photos: CSN)

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Help Protect Food Processing Workers! ACT NOW!

Food processing workers at meat plants across Canada are working hard on the front lines to make protein products for families and neighbourhoods across the country.

There have been more than 1,400 confirmed COVID-19 cases of food processing workers, so far. Some of these workers battling COVID-19 are in critical condition and some have died.

The federal government recently announced $77 million for food processing companies -- in response to the pandemic -- but the details of how the money will be distributed are still uncertain.

Food workers must have a central role in determining the conditions and criteria for the "Emergency Processing Fund."

Tell the Government of Canada that taxpayer money to corporations must first guarantee the health and safety of workers -- and food workers must have a say in determining the conditions of their own health and safety!

Show your support for food workers by sending a letter NOW!

For weeks, Canada's food processing workers have been calling for the following measures -- recommended by food worker advocates around the world -- and have received no commitments from the federal government on these basic provisions:

- Ensuring that workers are able to work two meters (6.5 feet) apart from each other throughout their working day. This is possible through modification to work organization, work scheduling and rest breaks. There may need to be changes to the design of the workstations such as the installation of Perspex, Plexiglas or similar material to shield workers from potentially infecting each other;

- Reducing the speed and amount of product on the line to help ensure two-meter spacing between workers. This must be achieved without eliminating any positions; and decisions regarding shifts, work sharing arrangements, and overtime must involve the union;

- Provision of adequate hand washing and sanitizer stations and increasing the number of breaks so handwashing may become a routine part of the work;

- Ensuring regular, thorough cleaning and sanitation of the workplace, including restrooms and lunchrooms. All shared surfaces (e.g. workbenches, door handles, handrails, and keyboards) must be cleaned regularly;

- Provision of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) -- although this cannot be a substitute for appropriate spacing between workers;

- Making arrangements for safe travel to and from the workplace to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19; and

- Posting the agreed workplace protocols on noticeboards in languages that all workers can understand and maintaining regular communication.

Protecting food workers and stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Canada's food manufacturing facilities requires a consistent approach guided by stakeholders -- unions and employers -- and enforced by government.

Food workers need action NOW!

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United States

The Coronavirus Pandemic in U.S.
Meatpacking Plants

In the U.S., by May 8 more than five thousand COVID-19 cases had been confirmed with ties to the U.S. meatpacking industry. This number is likely vastly under-reported, given the lack of testing. At least forty-nine meatpacking workers had died of COVID-19 in 27 different plants across 18 states. Forty plants were forced to close temporarily, either because of public health orders or because so many workers were sick that production was impossible.

The Trump administration and the four oligopolies that control meat and poultry processing in the U.S. -- Cargill, JBS, Smithfield and Tyson Foods -- have been determined to keep meat packing plants open. On April 28, Trump issued an executive order declaring that meat packing plants were "critical infrastructure" allowing federal agencies to now interfere and possibly overrule decisions made by local authorities. As the outbreak grew across the U.S., the meatpacking giants tried to hide the extent of the crisis in their plants. In some states governors over-ruled the local health authorities in a bid to keep the plants open.

Nebraska is one state where JBS got its way and the Governor acted to block closure of a plant recommended by local health officials. JBS has beef, pork, and poultry plants in 27 states. A significant outbreak was identified by doctors at the JBS plant in Grand Island, Nebraska as early as March 31, and the regional health director asked the governor to take action. The governor said no, citing Trump's order that meat packing was "critical infrastructure."[1] Emails obtained by the advocacy group ProPublica show that JBS was intent on covering up the spread of COVID-19 within its plants. "We want to make sure that testing is conducted in a way that does not foment fear or panic among our employees or the community," JBS chief ethics and compliance officer Nicholas White wrote to the local health officials on April 15.

The virus quickly spread beyond the plant and through the community, with more than 1,200 cases in the city of 50,000, and 32 deaths, including one JBS worker. Limited testing, restricted only to those with symptoms, identified 260 cases at the plant. There are now outbreaks across Nebraska in meatpacking towns where Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and Costco have plants. As the cases grew to staggering levels, and hospitals were overwhelmed, the plants were finally closed for deep cleaning. The Governor has announced that local health officials will no longer be able to report COVID-19 data from meat processing plant, calling it a "privacy" issue.

In plant after plant workers reported that they were sent back to work after informing supervisors and plant nurses that they were sick. At the Cargill plant in Pennsylvania, a worker who died of coronavirus told his children that a supervisor had instructed him to take off a face mask at work because it was causing unnecessary anxiety among other employees. Other workers said they were told by supervisors not to wear masks because only sick people should have masks, that health professionals need them more, and that wearing them provokes fear at the workplace.

UFCW Local 7 at JBS meat plant in  Greeley held May Day online discussion.

In Greely, Colorado, the JBS plant was finally closed, long after public health officials reported by April 1 that emergency departments were seeing large numbers of worker from JBS. Local health officials urged JBS to do screening and social distancing or the plant, and said otherwise the plant would be closed. JBS pushed back, claiming the governor was not in favour of closure. The plant was finally closed, too late to stop the spread. Again with limited testing, 280 workers tested positive, and seven of them have died.

At plant after plant workers told similar stories about being told to come to work after testing positive and to "keep it on the DL" (down low) or be fired; workers were told to return to work before the 14-day quarantine ended even if they felt sick; workers clearly sick at work were refused authorization to go home. Workers at the JBS and Cargill plants in Alberta have given similar evidence.

Just as similar were the claims by the owners that the problem was not the plants themselves but the "cultural practices" of the workers. The workers are blamed for living in over-crowded conditions, conditions imposed by the industry's low wages, and in multi-generational households.

Workers have been speaking out to smash the silence on their living and working conditions, including non-unionized workers who are finding ways to defend their rights. In Milan, Missouri a worker, together with the Rural Workers Community Alliance, filed a lawsuit that Smithfield was creating a public nuisance through its failure to protect workers from coronavirus infection. The complaint said that workers are typically required to stand almost shoulder to shoulder, most often for hours without being able to clean or sanitize their hands, and have difficulty taking sick leave. The lawsuit also pointed out that workers at the plant are given a disciplinary point if they take a day off, which can eventually lead to dismissal. A federal judge dismissed the suit on May 5, stating that Smithfield had taken "significant steps to reduce the risk of an outbreak at the plant." In fact the plant had taken a number of steps to provide protective equipment and increase social distancing, but only after the lawsuit was filed.

Another measure used by the companies was to offer temporary wage increases and bonuses to those workers who came to work for every shift. This was also the case in Canada, although the companies later claimed those quarantining would also get the bonus. JBS USA offered a $600 bonus and $4 per hour wage increase to its workers who worked every shift. Those who were required to quarantine or self-isolate were paid either regular wages or short-term disability, according to the company. This was clearly an incentive to come to work no matter what, an unconscionable act to pressure workers to come to work even if they had symptoms of COVID-19.

Evidence from workers across the U.S. leaves no doubt that the pressure on workers to remain at work when sick or after exposure to COVID-19 was deliberate, widespread and industry-wide, and carried out with the support and collusion of governments at both the state and federal level. In the face of this absolute contempt towards their well-being, the workers, who are drawn from the most marginalized and vulnerable sections of the U.S. working class, have shown their courage and determination to defend their rights, and that the status quo is not an option.


1. That same day, March 31, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he had spoken to the Governor of Nebraska about the start of construction on the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Governor had assured him that all measures would be in place to carry out construction safely during the pandemic. Did they also speak about keeping the packing plants open?

(With files from ProPublica, New York Times, Bloomberg News, Photos: UFCW Local 7, Food Chain Workers)

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Conditions in the U.S. Meatpacking Industry

Food Chain Workers Alliance May Day 2020 facebook photo demands protection for all
food workers.

COVID-19 has put the spotlight on the brutal, dangerous and back-breaking conditions of the workers in the meat and poultry processing industry in the U.S. It has also shone the light on the control by the meat packing oligopolies over the entire sector, with all its negative consequences. The massive size and productivity of these plants make the owners all the more determined to keep them open at any cost, and the federal and state authorities have been their willing servants. Workers and their unions are speaking out about the conditions which gave rise to large outbreaks in the meat and poultry plants.

In addition to being dangerous, back-breaking, meat processing is an underpaid job carried out by workers who are in many cases extremely vulnerable, including undocumented workers, refugees, and other recent immigrants. In the early 1980's, and before, the industry moved from major cities to rural areas. With the help of the Reagan administration, the meat oligarchs set out to destroy the unions.

Meat packing is concentrated in the Great Plains states including South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, as well as in Colorado, and Texas. The southern U.S. states also have significant poultry production. There were not enough workers in the rural areas for these massive plants, especially given the high turnover rate because of the terrible conditions of work. The companies instead functioned by recruiting the most vulnerable and marginalized workers, including refugees from southeast Asia and from Africa, and more recently from Central and South America. About a third of the workforce is now estimated to be made up of recent immigrants, and one in four workers are undocumented. Periodic raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are used to enforce this vulnerability and to serve as a warning that attempts to defend their rights can have dire consequences.

The brutality of the employers and the state in their service has no bounds. The Atlantic reported on a raid in August 2019 on seven poultry plants in Mississippi. Six hundred ICE agents, armed with guns and body armour, seized 680 mainly Latino workers. The Atlantic reported that their children gathered outside the plant, watching as their parents were taken away. The raid exemplified state-organized racism, taking place three weeks after a terrorist killing of 22 people in El Paso, Texas where the gunman had targeted Mexican customers at a Walmart out of a desire to halt "the Hispanic invasion of Texas."

This vulnerable work force experiences danger all round, working at breakneck speed with knives and saws, with thousands of workers in a plant working elbow to elbow. The floors are slippery with water and blood. According to reported injuries, U.S. meat workers are three times as likely to be injured as the average worker in the U.S. and seven times as likely to suffer a repetitive strain injury. Every week there are amputations, fractures, serious burns, head trauma, and other serious injuries. In the poultry plants the use of chemicals causes respiratory disease and other illnesses.

Line speeds in the U.S. are double those in Europe, and the speed is dizzying. Industry averages in the U.S. range from 1,000 hogs per hour to more than 8,000 chickens per hour. There is no way that workers can follow guidelines such as covering their mouth while sneezing. Workers in many plants face disciplinary action if they miss even one piece of meat or poultry as it comes down the line at lightning speed. In October 2019 the Trump administration eliminated limits on production line speed in pork processing plants. Even as the pandemic was raging, the Department of Agriculture issued waivers allowing 15 poultry plants to increase their line speeds to as fast as 175 birds per minute. The statistics on the rate of injuries, which are likely greatly under-reported, were compiled before speed restrictions were removed.

Some parts of a meatpacking plant, like the kill floor, are very hot, while others are like working in a refrigerator. The cold is considered a factor in extending how long a virus can survive outside a host, increasing the danger of coronavirus transmission. It also contributes to the high incidence of arthritis among packinghouse workers.

The outbreaks which have taken a heavy toll on packinghouse workers, their families and communities are a direct result of the greed and drive for maximum profit of the oligarchs and the fact that the public authority which could restrain them is no more. It shows the need for a new direction in which the rights of the workers are upheld, and for a modern, sustainable agriculture and food industry with the aim of providing safe and healthy food for all. The workers who are speaking in their own name and exposing the criminal negligence of the oligarchs are defending their own rights, but also the rights of all to food security and safety.

(With files from The Atlantic, Human Rights Watch, the New York Times)

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Keeping America's Food Supply Strong
Starts with Worker Safety

Our country's food supply is facing an unprecedented threat from the coronavirus outbreak and hundreds of thousands of American workers in meatpacking and food processing plants are seeing new cases each week. As America's largest food and retail union, we are hearing from our 250,000 workers in meatpacking plants every day about how concerned they are for their safety and the danger facing our food supply chain.

Make no mistake, the threat to these workers and our food supply is real, and without prioritizing worker safety, this collective threat will only worsen.

To date, we have already documented the tragic deaths of 21 of our meatpacking members and seen 5,000 workers infected or exposed. As we have all seen, more than 20 plants have shut down to slow the spread of the virus in South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Indiana and Minnesota.

Elected leaders in states across the country -- both Republicans and Democrats -- have failed to act quickly enough to address the urgent safety issues plaguing these plants and putting these workers and our food supply at risk.

President Trump's new executive order invokes the Defense Production Act to keep all meatpacking plants open and prevent any further food supply shortages. But the new White House policy does not mandate any of the strong worker safety standards needed to protect these plants and employees from additional outbreaks of the virus.

What the president and far too many of our elected leaders fail to recognize is that the way these meatpacking plants are set up requires hundreds of workers to stand in close proximity to one another for hours on end -- making physical distancing nearly impossible. Without strong and enforceable safety measures and protections, these plants are essentially stationary cruise ships, facing the exact same safety issues and just as likely to become coronavirus hot spots.

To be clear, shutting plants down is not something anyone wants. U.S. meatpacking plant closures have already led to a 25 per cent reduction in pork slaughter capacity and a 10 per cent reduction in beef slaughter capacity. Our meatpacking workers want to work, but we cannot ignore the dangerous safety issues that exist.

The most critical step to protecting America's food supply is to put safety first for these workers and plants.

State governors claim to share our concern for our country's food supply and worker safety. Every state must put their commitment to safety into action by passing executive orders that define clear and enforceable worker safety standards in every meatpacking plant in the nation.

Strong state action to increase safety at meatpacking plants must include the enforcement of six-foot social and physical distancing to the greatest extent possible and worker access to the highest level of personal protective equipment (PPE) for when physical distancing is not possible.

States must also ensure that daily testing is available for workers and their families, and employers must provide full paid sick leave so that sick workers are able to stay home and never have to choose between their health and a paycheck. States must fully enforce recent CDC [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines on meatpacking and work with federal inspectors to provide constant monitoring of these plants to ensure safety measures are put into place immediately.

In the face of this unprecedented public health crisis, business and elected leaders must step up and work together with United Food and Commercial Workers and our local unions across the country to ensure that these essential workers have the essential protections they need. Presidential executive orders that fail to prioritize worker safety will do nothing to protect our nation's food supply at a time when we need it most.

We are already seeing beef shortages in fast food restaurants and limits on meat purchases at grocery stores. Forcing meatpacking plants to reopen without strong safeguards in place will backfire and only further worsen the crisis our country is facing.

Americans need strong and swift action from our country's leaders to put safety first at these meatpacking plants. Truly protecting our food supply begins and ends with protecting our nation's workers. This is the only way we can weather this storm and ensure all Americans have the food they need during this deadly crisis.

(, May 10, 2020)

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Workers Strike Against COVID Deaths
in Border Factories

Living quarters of Maquiladora workers in Mexican barrio.

Workers' Forum is publishing below an article by David Bacon originally published by TruthOut on May 5.


In Washington, DC, President Trump is trying his best to reopen closed meatpacking plants, as packinghouse workers catch the COVID-19 virus and die. In Tijuana, Mexico, where workers are dying in mostly U.S.-owned factories (known as maquiladoras) that produce and export goods to the U.S., the Baja California state governor, a former California Republican Party stalwart, is doing the same thing.

Jaime Bonilla Valdez rode into the governorship in 2018 on the coattails of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And at first, as a leading member of López Obrador's MORENA Party, he was a strong voice calling for the factories on the border to suspend production.

López Obrador himself was criticized for not acting rapidly enough against the pandemic. But in late March, in the face of Mexico's rising COVID-19 death toll, he finally declared a State of Health Emergency. Nonessential businesses were ordered to shut their doors, and to continue paying workers' wages until April 30.

Bonilla's Labor Secretary Sergio Martinez applied the federal government's rule to the foreign-owned factories on the border, producing goods for the U.S. market. Again, only essential businesses would be excepted.

When news spread that many factories were defying the order to close, Bonilla condemned them. "The employers don't want to stop earning money," he said at a news conference in mid-April. "They are basically looking to sacrifice their employees." But now, a month later, he is allowing many non-essential factories to reopen.

Explaining the about-face are two competing pressures. At first, workers in the factories took action to shut them down, a move widely supported in border cities. But as the owners themselves resisted, they got the help of the U.S. government. The Trump administration put enormous pressure on the Mexican government and economy, vulnerable because of its dependence on the U.S. market.

Now as the factories are opening again, the deaths are still rising.

Strikes Start in Mexicali

Although Baja California is much less densely populated than other Mexican states, it's now third in the number of COVID-19 cases, with 1,660 people infected. Some 261 have died statewide, and 164 in Tijuana alone. That's more deaths than 131 in neighboring San Diego, a much larger metropolis. Fifteen per cent of those with COVID-19 in Tijuana die, while only 3.5 per cent die in San Diego. As is true everywhere, with the absence of extensive testing, no one really knows how many are sick.

"You can imagine how desperate we are, since we're so poor, and without a law to protect us. Here, if you have no money, the government won't enforce the law. We really have very good laws in Mexico, but a very bad government." Veronica Vasquez spoke these words in the middle of a dusty street in Tijuana. "Companies come to Mexico to make money. They think they can do anything they want with us because we're Mexicans. Well, it's our country, even if we're poor. Not theirs."

In Tijuana, most who die are working-age. Since one-tenth of the city's 2.1 million residents work in over 900 maquiladoras, and even more are dependent on those factory jobs, the spread of the virus among maquiladora workers is very threatening.

Alarm grew when two workers died in early April at Plantronics, where 3,300 employees make phone headsets. Schneider Electric closed when one worker died and 11 more got sick. Skyworks, a manufacturer of parts for communications equipment with 5,500 workers, admitted that some had been infected.

In the growing climate of fear, workers began to stop work. In Mexicali, Baja California's state capital, workers struck on April 9 at three U.S.-owned factories: Eaton, Spectrum and LG. Protesters said the companies were forcing people to come to work under threat of being permanently fired, refusing to pay the government-mandated wages and failing to provide masks to workers. The factories were forced to close by the state government.

Work then stopped at three more factories -- Jonathan, SL and MTS. There, the companies offered bonuses of 20-40 per cent if workers would stay on the job, but employees rejected the offer. One striker, Daniel, told a reporter for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, "We want health -- we don't want money, or bonuses or even double pay. We just want them to comply with the presidential order that nonessential factories close, and to pay us our full salary." Jonathan makes metal rails for machine guns and tanks for U.S. companies. Workers denied company claims that they made "essential" telecommunications equipment, a common claim by factories that want to stay open.

The Organization of the Workers and Peoples, a radical group among maquiladora workers in Baja California, reported a week of work stoppages at Skyworks, and a strike at Gulfstream on April 10. At Honeywell Aerospace, workers began shutting down production on April 6. "The company then laid off 100 people without pay, and fired four of them," said Mexicali worker/activist Jesus Casillas. Honeywell closed for a week, and then reopened.

As the strikes progressed, workers reported the death of two people in Clover Wireless's two plants that repair cellphones. They were closed for one shift, and then started up again. Finally, on April 14, a general strike was called by Mexicali maquiladora workers, and supported by the state chapter of the New Labor Center, a union federation organized by the Mexican Electrical Workers Union.

The Factories Don't Actually Close

Companies that said they were closing never really did, workers charged. "They'd close the front door and put a chain on," Casillas explained. "Then they bring workers in through the back door. They'd call the workers down to the factory, and would tell them that if they didn't go back to work, they'd lose their jobs permanently."

Elsewhere on the border, workers also complain about being forced to work. Company scofflaws even included breweries. In the rest of Mexico, beer began to disappear from store shelves as a result of López Obrador's order, shuttering breweries because alcohol production was not deemed "essential." Modelo and Heineken, two huge producers, complied. Constellation Brands' two enormous breweries in Coahuila, which make Corona and Modelo for the U.S. market, did not.

On May Day, a Facebook post even showed workers at the Piedras Negras glass plant that makes the bottles for Constellation Brands lined up without masks. A message from a worker, Alejandro Lopez, charges, "We ask for masks and they deny us, like they do with [sanitizing] gel, which they only give us at the [brewery] entrance, and that's it." The response posted by the plant human relations director, Sofia Bucio, says the company does everything required, and then goes on to berate the worker: "We didn't go take you out of your house and force you to work with us, right? If you don't like the measures IVC [the glass company] is taking, the doors were wide open to let you in when you came here, and they're the same to let you out."

In border cities across the Rio Grande from Texas, other factories that wanted to stay open said they'd let workers worried about the virus stay home, but only at 50 per cent of their normal wages. "People can't possibly live on that," charged Julia Quiñones, director of the Border Women Workers Committee. Since López Obrador ordered a raise a year ago, the minimum wage on the border has been 185.56 pesos ($7.63) per day. Fifty percent of that, in Nuevo Laredo, would barely buy a gallon of milk (80 pesos).

"There's no other work the women can do in town," Quiñones explained. "In the past, some workers crossed the border to earn extra money by donating blood. But the border is now closed, even for those that have visas. They can't sell things in the street because of the lockdown. The only option is to work."

One worker told her, "It is better to work at 100 per cent, even if we're risking our lives, than to be at home with 50 per cent."

Meanwhile, work stoppages spread to other border cities, as the death toll rose. Lear Corporation, which employs 24,000 people making car seats in Ciudad Juárez, closed its 12 plants there on April 1. Lear had more COVID-19 fatalities than any company on the border. It won't cite a number, and says it only learned of the first death on April 3. By the end of April, however, 16 Lear workers were dead from the virus, 13 from its Rio Bravo factory alone.

As other plants continued operations despite a death toll, strikes broke out. On April 17, workers struck at six maquiladoras, demanding that the companies stop operations and pay workers the government-mandated wages. Twenty people in the city had died by then, including two workers at Regal Beloit (a coffin manufacturer), and two workers at Syncreon, according to protesters. At Honeywell, 70 strikers said the company hadn't provided masks, and had forced people with hypertension and diabetes to show up for work.

The Electrolux plant stopped work on April 24 after two workers, Gregoria González and Sandra Perea, died. Two weeks earlier, workers there had protested the lack of health protection. When workers finally stopped working, the company locked them inside and later fired 20. One told journalist Kau Sirenio, "The company wouldn't tell us anything though we all knew that we were working at the risk of getting infected. They waited until two died before they closed, and fired those who protested the lack of safe conditions. They still say their operation is essential, but you can see how little they care about the lives of the workers."

In Juárez, the mayor closed the city's restaurants but allowed the maquiladoras to keep running. When workers at TPI Composites began their protest, the city police were even called out against them. Nevertheless, in Juárez and other border cities throughout April, the pressure of workers did succeed often in forcing the government to demand compliance from the companies.

The U.S. Intervenes

At the end of April, the U.S. government intervened on behalf of the owners of the stalled plants. The Trump administration is set on protecting the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement set to go into effect on July 1. While the agreement has theoretical protections for worker health and safety, there is no expectation that it would be invoked to ensure that plants remain shut until the COVID-19 danger recedes. Instead, its purpose is to protect the chains of supply and investment between Mexico and the U.S., especially involving factories on the border.

López Obrador's order classified as "essential" only companies directly involved in critical industries such as health care, food production or energy, and excluded companies that supply materials to factories in those industries. But from the beginning, many maquiladoras claimed they were "essential" anyway because they supplied other factories in the U.S. Luis Hernandez, an executive at a Tijuana exporter association, admitted, "Companies have wanted to use the ‘essential' classifications of the U.S."

The military-industrial complex has a growing stake in border factories, which exported $1.3 billion in aerospace and armament products to the U.S. in 2004, climbing to $9.6 billion last year. To defend that huge stake, Luis Lizcano, general director of the Mexican Federation of Aerospace Industries, told the Mexican government it had to give Mexico's defense industry the "essential" status it enjoys in the U.S. and Canada.

Pentagon Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord announced she was meeting Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard to urge him to let U.S. defense corporations restart production in their maquiladoras. "Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for us, but we're working through our embassy," she said. She later announced her visit had been successful.

Using the language of the Trump administration, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau played down the risk to workers. "There is risk everywhere but we don't all stay at home out of fear that we're going to crash our cars," he said in a tweet. "Economic destruction also threatens health.... On both sides of the border, investment = employment = prosperity."

Finally, on April 28, Baja Governor Bonilla bowed to the pressure and ordered the reopening of 40 "closed" maquiladoras. According to Secretary of Economic Development Mario Escobedo Carignan, they are now considered part of the supply chain for essential products. "We're not in the business of trying to suspend your operations," he told owners, "but to work with you to keep creating jobs and generating wealth in this state."

Given that many "closed" factories in fact were operating already, Julia Quiñones said bitterly, "This is what always happens here on the border. The companies break the law, and then the law is changed to make it all legal." And Mexico's federal government itself has begun to back down as well, announcing three days after a U.S. request that it will allow the many enormous auto plants in Mexico to restart their assembly lines once automakers restart them north of the border.

The announcements didn't indicate that Mexico had flattened the coronavirus infection curve or that the factories were now safe. In one 24-hour period, from April 29 to 30, the number of cases per million people went from 138 to 149. A million workers labour in over 3,000 factories on the border. The virus has already led to numerous deaths among them, and if all factories resume production while it still rages, the death toll will surely rise.

Luis Hernández Navarro, editor at Mexico's left-wing daily, La Jornada (no relation to the Tijuana businessman), reminded his readers that the catastrophic spread of the virus in Italy was caused by the continued operation of factories in Lombardy until it was too late.

"The maquiladora industry has never cared about the health of its operators, just its profits," he wrote recently. "Their production lines must not stop, and in the best colonial tradition, Uncle Sam has pressured Mexico to keep the assemblers operating . The obstinacy of the maquiladoras makes it likely that the Italian case will be repeated here."

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