May 12, 2020- No. 33
Food Workers' Rights to Safe Working Conditions
to Shut Down Meat-Processing Plant in Chambly, Quebec
• Help Protect Food Processing Workers!
ACT NOW! - United Food and Commercial Workers
• The Coronavirus
Pandemic in U.S. Meatpacking Plants
• Conditions in the U.S.
• Keeping America's Food
Supply Strong Starts with Worker Safety - Marc
Perrone, President, United Food and Commercial Workers International
• Workers Strike Against
COVID Deaths in Border Factories
Defend Food Workers' Rights
to Safe Working Conditions
Cargill's meat-processing plant in Chambly,
the Montérégie region, some 35 kilometres south
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
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
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
of members of the same families employed by the factory or because some
employees live with people working in the health sector, that
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.
Food processing workers at meat plants across
are working hard on the front lines to make protein products for
families and neighbourhoods across the country.
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
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
Tell the Government of Canada that taxpayer money
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
For weeks, Canada's food processing workers have
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
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
shield workers from potentially infecting each other;
- Reducing the speed and amount of product on the
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
the workplace, including restrooms and lunchrooms. All shared surfaces
(e.g. workbenches, door handles, handrails, and keyboards) must be
- Provision of appropriate personal protective
(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
in languages that all workers can understand and maintaining regular
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!
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.
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
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
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." 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
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
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
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
UFCW Local 7 at JBS meat plant in Greeley held May Day online
In Greely, Colorado, the JBS plant was finally
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
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"
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
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
Workers have been speaking out to smash the
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
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.
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.
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
Food Chain Workers Alliance May Day 2020 facebook photo demands
protection for all
COVID-19 has put the spotlight on the brutal,
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
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
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
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
are undocumented. Periodic raids conducted by Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE) are used to enforce this vulnerability and to serve
warning that attempts to defend their rights can have dire
The brutality of the employers and the state in
service has no bounds. The
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
birds per minute. The statistics on the rate of injuries, which are
likely greatly under-reported, were compiled before speed restrictions
Some parts of a meatpacking plant, like the kill
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
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
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.
Our country's food supply is facing an
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
no mistake, the threat to these workers and our food supply is real,
and without prioritizing worker safety, this collective threat will
To date, we have already documented the tragic
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 --
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
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
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
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
provide constant monitoring of these plants to ensure safety measures
are put into place immediately.
In the face of this unprecedented public health
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
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.
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
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
on the coattails of Mexican President Andrés Manuel
Obrador. And at first, as a leading member of López
MORENA Party, he was a strong voice calling for the factories on the
border to suspend production.
López Obrador himself was criticized
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
and failing to provide masks to workers. The factories were forced to
close by the state government.
Work then stopped at three more factories --
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
"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
The Organization of the Workers and Peoples, a
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
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
organized by the Mexican Electrical Workers Union.
The Factories Don't Actually Close
Companies that said they were closing never really
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
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
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
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,
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,
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.
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
cent, even if we're risking our lives, than to be at home with 50 per
Meanwhile, work stoppages spread to other border
as the death toll rose. Lear Corporation, which employs 24,000 people
making car seats in Ciudad Juárez, closed its 12 plants
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Mexico's defense industry the "essential" status it enjoys in the U.S.
Pentagon Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition
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,
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 =
Finally, on April 28, Baja Governor Bonilla bowed
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
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
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
among them, and if all factories resume production while it still
rages, the death toll will surely rise.
Luis Hernández Navarro, editor at
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
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
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