"Social Dumping" in Mexico under NAFTA

By Shields, James | Multinational Monitor, April 1995 | Go to article overview

"Social Dumping" in Mexico under NAFTA


Shields, James, Multinational Monitor


TIJUANA, MEXICO - one month after the U.S. Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico held its first independent union election in 10 years. Unfortunately, neither NAFTA nor this vote ushered in a new era in Mexican labor relations or brought significant improvements to Mexican maquiladoras (foreign-owned factories). Intimidation, corruption and employer interference continue to mar union representation, and working conditions in border plants remain dismal, notwithstanding the much-touted promises of the labor side agreement to NAFTA.

Conditions along the U.S.-Mexican border a year after NAFTA confirm concerns of NAFTA critics, who warned that the lax NAFTA accord would encourage corporations to profit from so-called "social dumping." Multinationals pursuing this practice shift. their production facilities from industrialized countries with relatively strict labor and environmental standards to countries such as Mexico, where standards are weak or rarely enforced.

Company unions

"From the time the maquiladoras started to grow here [in Tijuana], unions were set up by the companies rather than the workers, with 'protection contracts' signed before even a single worker was hired," says Mary Tong of the San Diego-based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers. "Workers don't even know about [the union] unless and until they try to organize or have complaints on the job. Then, the union, which is paid to make sure that there is no labor unrest, tries to keep them from organizing. The so-called union representative is more often a greater threat to organizing than even the company. The company usually doesn't even have to bother dealing with labor problems because they're squelched by the union representative."

Workers at Plasticos Bajacal, a subsidiary of Phoenix-based Carlisle Plastics Inc., participated in the historic vote on whether to replace the official Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers (CROM) with independent union representation. Voting took place on the sidewalk in front of the plant on December 15, 1993. A CROM representative escorted workers, who make hangers, outside the factory gates, where they voted aloud. International observers say 30 CROM thugs with cellular phones filmed each worker's vote. The Conciliation and Arbitration Board, the government agency which oversees union elections, raised no objection to this process.

Representatives of the proposed independent union requested that the election be called off when they became concerned that supporters would face reprisals from the company and the CROM. Ultimately, the two unions negotiated a settlement in which the independent union got little more than an agreement that workers who had been fired for organizing activity would receive the severance pay legally owed to them.

Carlisle President Clifford Deupree recalls the vote differently. The vote occurred openly according to Mexican custom and the only filming he noticed was done by the media. Votes ran 10 to one against the union challengers, who capitulated, he says. "We are there as guests of the Mexican government. We follow their laws very rigorously. It is not my place to comment on comparative

[Incomplete Text from Original Publication]

Despite this setback, the mere fact that an election occurred is "a tribute to the great effort by organizers on both sides of the border," says Tong. The fact that independent union elections are so rare in Mexico illustrates "the failure of NAFTA proponents' promises for a new era of labor rights," she says.

Another group of maquiladora workers sought independent representation in January 1994. One hundred eighty-seven General Motors (GM) workers tried to register as an independent union at the labor board in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, south of El Paso, Texas. After the labor board failed to respond to this request, workers wearing red bandanas popularized by the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas took over the board's offices on February 7. …

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