Double Standards: U.S. Manufacturers Exploit Lax Occupational Safety and Health Enforcement in Mexico's Maquiladoras
An interview with Garrett Brown
Garrett Brown is coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, a volunteer network of over 400 occupational health and safety professionals who provide information, technical assistance and on-site instruction regarding workplace hazards in the maquiladora (foreign-owned assembly) plants along the U.S.-Mexico border. Network members, including industrial hygienists, occupational physicians and nurses, and health educators, donate their time and expertise to create safer and healthier working conditions for the over 950,000 maquiladora workers employed by primarily U.S.-owned multinational corporations along Mexico's northern border.
Multinational Monitor: What are some of the leading occupational safety and health issues in the Mexican maquiladoras?
Garrett Brown: There are quite a range of production facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border that are known as maquilas. The number has about doubled since the NAFTA treaty went into effect in 1994. There are around 3,200 maquilas along the U.S.-Mexico border, and perhaps another 1,000 maquiladora plants spread throughout Mexico. They undertake a wide range of activities. In Tijuana, 14 million television sets are produced every year for export to the United States. Ciudad Juarez has become "Little Detroit" in the sense that a growing percentage of key auto parts, such as headlights, windshield wipers, steering wheel columns, electrical harnesses and the like, are now produced not in the United States, but in Ciudad Juarez. At the Texas end, by Matamoros and Reynosa, you also have electronics, medical supplies and garment shops. The hazards will vary from plant to plant according to the production processes used in each.
In the case of electronics, for example, there is a tremendous amount of chemical solvent exposures during cleaning operations, and other types of exposures during soldering operations. In the Matamoros-Reynosa areas, there are exposures from actual chemical facilities.
There are ergonomic problems throughout all of these industries, since most of them are predominantly assembly-type operations with a lot repetitive motion, a lot of forceful activity in awkward or uncomfortable positions.
MM: How do legal protections for worker health and safety compare to those in the United States?
Brown: On a formal level, the occupational health and safety regulations are roughly equivalent to those in the United States. But in the real world, there is, in fact, no meaningful enforcement of any occupational and environmental health regulation in Mexico.
That is for a number of reasons. First, it is related to the big picture problem that Mexico is a heavily indebted country which is completely dependent on foreign investment to pay the interest, let alone the principle, on the debts that are owed primarily to U.S. banks and international financial institutions. The Mexican government cannot afford to "discourage" foreign investment by actively enforcing existing regulations or adopting new regulations that impact on occupational and environmental health.
A second aspect of the international picture is that Mexico, like many other Third World countries, is under very strict financial plan requirements from the International Monetary Fund. These requirements have greatly reduced public expenditures, so the amount of money available to the Mexican government, should it actually want to enforce its regulations, hire inspectors and support those inspectors with technical and human resources, is extremely limited.
MM: How do standards in the maquilas compare to those in the United States?
Brown: It is important to remember that these Mexican plants, unlike garment or sports shoe sweatshops in Asia, are facilities that are directly run by Fortune 500 companies. It is corporate management that is responsible for the health and safety conditions in these plants. …