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Workers at Commscope, one of the four U.S.-based factories in Juarez at the center of the growing labor rights movement, set up a protest camp. (Photo: Cuauhtemoc Estrada)

Does Lexmark Strike Signal New Labor Rights Movement in Mexico?

Workers are mobilizing as observers warn exploitative labor system in Juarez began with NAFTA—and will grow with TPP

Nadia Prupis

Support is growing for over a hundred workers who were fired en masse after asking for pay raises and organizing rights at a Juarez plant operated by U.S.-based Fortune 500 company Lexmark International.

Some 700 workers launched a strike last week at their Juarez plant calling for the company to increase pay for long-term employees from 114 to 120 pesos a day—a raise of roughly 35 cents—while others attempted to unionize. Days later, Lexmark fired 120 of the striking workers, and is reportedly still withholding their year-end bonuses. In response, workers set up encampments outside the factory, protesting and recording videos of what they say are unsafe conditions and a hostile environment.

But the strike in Juarez is now just the latest action in a recent resurgence of the labor rights movement in Mexico, where factories for American-based companies litter the landscape and employ upwards of 200,000 people in low-wage positions. Lexmark and other global corporations are drawn to the tax benefits available in Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trilateral partnership between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that has created a $19 trillion regional market—and which critics say paved the way for the exploitative system that functions on low wages, labor violations, and other workplace abuses.

Factory work in sweatshop-like maquiladoras skyrocketed after NAFTA's passage in 1994. According to University of Texas professor Kathy Staudt and University of Arizona professor Oscar Martínez, who wrote an op-ed Saturday calling for higher wages for factory laborers, "Stagnant assembly line workers' wages have lost considerable value. In real terms, today's line workers make about half of what they made in 1975."

Some now see the conflict as both a burgeoning grassroots movement and a warning against expanding NAFTA-esque pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

According to Frontera NutraSur (FNP), a news outlet covering the U.S.-Mexico border:

While worker dissatisfaction or protest is nothing new in the foreign-owned border factories that produce goods for export to the United States, previous manifestations of discontent in the generally union-free industry have usually been confined to one company at a time.

But recently, movements for better pay and working conditions—and union representation—have emerged at four different companies—Foxconn, Lexmark, ADC/Commscope and Eaton. Hundreds of workers have participated in street protests, hunger strikes and leafleting.

Miriam Delgado, a Lexmark striker, outlined a handful of the hazards workers face on a daily basis, telling the Guardian on Tuesday, "They didn't provide face masks or gloves to protect us, many people have injured hands. They cut our salaries for being even slightly late, even if our children were sick and we had to take them to hospital, and we had to put up with harassment from supervisors."

Elizabeth Flores, director of Pastoral Obrera, the Ciudad Juarez Catholic Archdiocese's labor justice and human rights arm, told FNP, "This is the time bomb going off. It's interesting to see how all the people are demonstrating."

The protesters have growing support from grassroots organizations in the U.S. as well. The El Paso Social Justice Education Project released a statement late last month that read:

In recent months, labor demonstrations have been held by maquiladora workers in Juárez. They are demanding better working conditions, a living wage, recognition of their right to form independent unions, a halt to sexual harassment, and legal protection from handling hazardous chemicals among other things. The maquila scene has not changed that much for workers since the city established manufacturing facilities fifty years ago.

Most of the demonstrators are laborers who are not paid sufficient wages to provide their families with enough food, clothing, and schooling, much less giving the families the opportunity to move out of poverty. Both the government and employers consider low wages as a “competitive advantage” that is used to attract foreign business interests. The laborers are caught in an impossible situation.

Despite this, the movement seems to have breathed new life into Mexico's workforce. Carlos Serrano, who helped organize the nearby Foxconn revolt, told the Nation in November, "We just got so tired of the insults, the bad treatment, and low wages that we woke up."

"We don't really know what’s going to happen now, and we're facing companies that are very powerful and have a lot of money," Serrano said. "But what's clear is that we are going to continue. We're not going to stop."

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