Wildcat strikes involving hundreds if not thousands of workers erupted in the mainly foreign owned factories (maquiladoras) of northern Mexico in recent days.
Alarmed by sick co-workers, including some of whom had reportedly succumbed to the health effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus, workers demanded that, in accordance with a federal decree ordering the closure of non-essential industries, companies send their workers home with 100 percent salary compensation.
A survey of Mexican media outlets and social media postings report work stoppages have occurred at plants belonging to at least 31 different companies in the cities of Mexicali, Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros, Nogales, and Gomez Palacio, Durango.
Concentrated in the strategic electronics, telecommunications and automotive sectors, the companies experiencing job actions include Honeywell, Lear Corporation, Electrical Components International and Tridonex, among others.
Together with their demands for fully paid home leave, workers voiced complaints about crowded shop-floor work environment coupled with the lack of protective gear.
“We are risking the life of our family,” maquiladora worker Antonio Gutierrez was quoted in El Diario de Juarez. “…And if you show up to work people are crowded together; obviously we are exposed to (the virus) and transmitting the disease to our families.”
As of April 19, at least 13 workers from the Lear Corporation in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, had reportedly perished due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, while four deaths of workers from two other companies were classified as “probable COVID,” according to El Diario.
Citing Chihuahua state health official Arturo Valenzuela, El Diario and Nortedigital.mx reported a total of 119 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 29 related deaths, in Ciudad Juarez as of April 19. If accurate, that would mean the reported deaths of maquiladora workers make up more than half the total. However, there is questioning of the official numbers. Writing at El Paso News, labor attorney and activist Susana Prieto put the number of Juarez maquiladora worker deaths alone at 29.
In Baja California, the press quoted Baja California Health Secretary Oscar Perez as saying 40 maquiladora workers were sick and three dead from the pandemic, mainly in Tijuana.
Interviewed on Mexican journalist Julio Astillero’s YouTube channel, Prieto said, “The poor are going to die, Julio. The rich and the bureaucrats are at home.”
Part of the labor conflict in the northern Mexican borderlands and proximate cities is over the definitions of what’s essential and what’s not.
Victor Hugo Delgado, president of the Mexicali branch of the INDEX maquiladora employers’ association told the Baja California edition of La Jornada daily that about 15 “non-essential” maquiladoras within his organization had not stopped production, even though they had been instructed to do so.
Of the 126 enterprises affiliated with INDEX-Mexicali, 15 percent of them are considered “essential,” principally those factories that form part of the medical cluster.
According to Delgado, Mexicali maquiladoras employ more than 67,000 workers, or 6.7 percent of the population of Baja California’s capital city.
As of the weekend, 180,000 maquiladora workers in Juarez were idled while 120,000 were still working, Ana Luisa Herrera, Chihuahua state labor department chief, was quoted in El Diario. Of the workers who’ve been sent home, it is unclear how many are getting paid 100 percent of their salary as opposed to a percentage of their pay.
Statistics compiled by INDEX-Juarez report that 327 maquiladoras employed 301,444 workers in the Mexican border city in January of this year. For the state of Chihuahua, INDEX-Juarez pegged the number at 459,215. By far, the maquiladora sector is the main driver of the legal economy in Juarez, a city of nearly 1.5 million people.
Although the goods produced at factories in Juarez and other Mexican border cities are almost entirely shipped to the U.S. and other foreign markets, maquiladora workers are paid a fraction of the amount received by U.S. workers, a disparity which has widened in recent weeks as the Mexican peso took a steep dive amid the health and economic crisis.
The COVID-19 coronavirus-related work stoppages mark the third big wildcat strike wave in the northern Mexican maquiladora industry during the last four-and-a half years, preceded by protests at several big Ciudad Juarez plants in 2015-16 and the 20/32 movement centered in Matamoros in early 2019. In the earlier protests, workers demanded higher pay, improved working conditions and independent unions.