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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Mexican Workers

Eighteen hundred factories right over the border in northern Mexico — many of which are owned by U.S. and Japanese giants such as GM, General Electric, IT & T, Sony and Hitachi — are a preview of the future unless citizens in both countries rise to an agenda for the protection of both Americans and Mexicans from several adverse consequences.

What is the problem, these factory owners, would say with providing jobs for thousands of unemployed Mexican women and men at about twenty seven dollars for a forty five hour week?

First, the companies are operating on a double standard — one for their U.S. plants where they observe levels of occupational and environmental safety that they knowingly reject across the border for their Mexican plants. It isn’t enough that these companies are getting Mexican labor for less than one-twelfth the cost of American labor. They are reducing their costs further by inflicting untold damage on the health and safety of these workers and making this border corridor an environmental death valley.

Not only do these factories produce to sell largely back into U.S. markets, but their pollution does not respect U.S. borders. The possibility of employment in these border towns has led to a quadrupling of their population. Ten million gallons of raw sewage pours into the Tijuana River daily and pollutes San Diego’s beaches. The lush Imperial Valley in California is similarly imperiled by the notoriously contaminated New River that flows north from Baja, California.

Since these factory owners migrate to Mexico to avoid taxes and environmental restrictions, the overburdening border towns cannot afford sewage and wastewater treatment systems. Guess who has agreed to pay most of the $190 million cost for Tijuana’s treatment plant? The US State of California and city of San Diego.

The US taxpayer may have to do this for all the major towns on the Mexican side of the border, thereby subsidizing the migration of US jobs to low cost labor and pollution havens across the Rio Grande. This opinion comes from Dr. Joseph LaDou, a Director of the International Commission on Occupational Health, who has investigated the conditions of these border factories.

Writing in the current (July 1991) issue of MIT’s Technology Review, Dr. LaDou describes the miserable plight of these workers — many of them women who drift north and, separated from their families, fall into the dangers of their workplace and the terrible slums where they live. Exposed to high accident rates, toxic substances and poor sanitation, worker turnover is rapid. Others are trapped with no place to go.

Health specialists point to twenty retarded children born to pregnant women working with toxics in one Matamotos plant. More hard data are needed, especially since many firms openly admit they moved their furniture, metal working, tanning and other plants to Mexico to escape legal controls on hazardous chemicals and waste in the United States.

But how can these data be assembled when, as Dr. LaDou points out, both U.S. and Mexican managers “deny investigators access to their plants and their workers.” He then adds that “the Mexican government discourages inquiries and health studies. What’s more, the US Department of Commerce refuses to share its list of companies participating” in these over-the-border factory migrations.

So solicitous is the Mexican government of these US and Japanese companies that it shields them from any potential liability in the rare instance of any law enforcement action by allowing special “shelter” Mexican corporations to be the buffers.

Under Mexican law, toxic materials brought into these plants from another country (mainly the US) for use in manufacturing must be returned to the originating country. So the U.S. loses the jobs, gets back the pollutants via rivers, air and poorly package drums, loses the tax base to finance control of the damage and watches the output of these border factories come right back into the U.S.

Some people are happy with this structural arrangement. They include President George Bush and the heads of these migrating corporations. Both Bush and many big business executives want more such commerce. What they do not want are enforceable international legal standards for workers and the environment so that our country pull countries like Mexico upward instead of the US being pulled downward.

Next time you read or hear about the negotiations Bush has begun for a Mexico-US Trade agreement, think about these border town factories and what this commerce without law means to millions of individuals and families on both sides of the Rio Grande.