Between March 23 and June 21 of this year, a Mexican affiliate of
the American-based Kirkwood Corporation, which produces electrical
components for appliancemakers such as Philips, Sunbeam, and Braun,
fired roughly three-fifths of its workers at a component plant in
Mexico City. The reason? Like more than 100 workers fired last year
at G.E. and Honeywell plants in Mexico, and six others discharged
at the Sony Corporation's maquiladora facility in Nuevo Laredo, the
Kirkwood workers were sacked for trying to organize an independent
union - a fundamental right in Mexico's Constitution but routinely
denied in the maquiladoras.
The absence of strong, independent unions - keeping wages low and
workers compliant - is one of the chief attractions for American
multinationals that shift their operations to Mexico. Such moves
have accelerated since the December 1994 devaluation of the Mexican
peso, which slashed labor costs by roughly 50 percent. "The
maquiladora industry," says the Ciemex-WEFA economic forecasting
group, "will experience a boom in 1995-96.... As many as 160
additional plants will set up operations to take advantage of
reduced operating costs."
US-affiliated firms take a lead in keeping wages low and workers
powerless. "US companies that operate in Mexico," says Ed Feigen,
who monitors US multinationals in Mexico for the AFL-CIO, "are on
the cutting edge of driving down wages and undermining unions.
They're cleaner than sweatshops, but these plants do not pay a
livable wage ...."
A case in point is the Kirkwood-affiliated plant in Mexico City.
Most workers there - as at Sony, G.E., and Honeywell - are women.
In late 1994, these women began complaining that the plant's
lunchroom and toilets were filthy and that security guards, who
frisk employees at the plant's gates, engaged in sexual harassment.
The workers hoped to alter these conditions and to stanch the
drastic decline in their wages precipitated by the peso devaluation
by forming an independent union. Virginia Vallegas Chimal, a
Kirkwood worker earning 30 pesos a day - the equivalent of $10
before the devaluation, $5 afterward - explained: "With this
salary, it is impossible to live. You're half-fed ... I have to
stretch what I earn to make miracles."
Ms. Vallegas is no longer getting by. …