Protecting the Rights of Maquiladora Workers
 
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Z Magazine
July 1994

Zenith Electronic's Mexican Maquiladora Factories

By Phoebe McKinney and Leslie Gates

Zenith Electronics Corporation, the Chicago-based multinational electronics giant, promotes itself with the well-known slogan, "the quality goes in before the name goes on." An examination of conditions in Zenith's maquiladora factories on the Mexico-U.S. border however, reveals the grim reality behind Zenith's slick advertising slogan. For decades, the "quality" that Zenith boasts of has been achieved at the cost of the health, dignity and labor rights of its largely female, Mexican workforce.

Zenith is no newcomer to the thirty-year old free trade experiment known as the maquiladora industry. It has been operating maquiladora plants at the Mexico-U.S. border since the late 70's, and is one of the largest maquiladora employers in Mexico. Zenith has placed its hopes for the future on the backs of its Mexican workforce, stating in a recent annual report that "the company's production lines are dependent on continued operations of the company's manufacturing and assembly factories in Mexico," and an anticipated $75 million in savings from consolidating its Mexican plants--no small change for a company that has reported losses for the past several years in a row. As a result of Zenith's "Mexican consolidation," in the past two decades, tens of thousands of U.S.-based jobs have been lost, and about four-fifths of Zenith's workforce is now Mexican. Zenith's Mexican workers are only the newest wave of workers to shoulder the brunt of the company's exploitative practices and apparent lack of commitment or obligation to behave as a responsible corporate citizen.

As of April 1994, thousands of Zenith workers in Reynosa, Mexico subsidize the company with earnings that average 76 cents an hour, or about $34.00 for a 45-hour workweek. Worker activists in Zenith's maquiladoras report that many workers frequently work double shifts merely to survive. In Reynosa, Zenith keeps wages low by taking advantage of a high unemployment rate and the flood of 5,000 people who pour into town each month in search of work. According to Zenith spokesperson John Taylor, "There is a large pool of skilled and semi-skilled labor in the area," which Zenith counts on to replace workers who finally give up in the face of terrible wages, poor treatment and ill health. Union negotiations recently gained a 6 percent wage increase for workers over the 7 percent annual increase mandated by Mexican law, but in a cynical counter response, Zenith halted its program of providing lunch to workers, and began charging each worker two dollars a week for lunch, regardless of whether they eat it. Union fees were also raised, and so in the end, the increase has had little practical effect on their weekly take-home pay.

When confronted with questions about its low wage rates, Zenith shirks responsibility by stating that the company is an "average" payer in the area, and that wages and benefits are negotiated through the union. However, maquiladora workers usually see their unions maintain an attractive investment climate for U.S. multinationals, which includes controlling the workforce by keeping wages low. The unions at Zenith have done a fine job in colluding with Zenith's low-wage strategy: "We have to keep the company alive," maintained Zenith CEO Jerry Pearlman in a Wall Street Journal interview in late 1992, as he explained how Zenith was saving "$20,000 for each worker, or an annual savings of $20 million a year."

According to a recently conducted informal market basket survey, Zenith's "average wages" translate into extreme financial hardship for Zenith's Mexican worker. According to prices found recently at a large discount store in Reynosa, a worker employed in Zenith's Reynosa maquiladora must work for 1.9 hours to buy 5 gallons of potable water; 4.29 hours to buy a gallon of milk, 5.2 hours for a pound of butter; and 8.95 hours to buy a box of disposable diapers. According to worker activists in Zenith's maquiladoras, many workers frequently work double shifts just to survive.

Recently, Zenith has taken an even more aggressive approach to its low-wage strategy. In Matamoros, Mexico, workers earn approximately double that of other workers along the border because of an independent organizing effort in 1983 which led to industry-wide, union-mandated pay raises. In the past several years, Zenith has laid-off close to 1,000 workers in Matamoros. Recently, Zenith began employing workers in Matamoros at a new, non-union annex, where wages are half those of other Matamoros plants, and the work week is a full eight hours longer. This is a tactic long-familiar to workers in the U.S. who have been forced to accept lower wages in the face of threats to permanently move their jobs to lower wage regions.

In addition, Zenith follows the common pattern established by multinationals around the world in targeting young women as its primary labor force. Zenith puts a spin on this phenomenon by using tactics which expand upon traditional cultural and biological concepts of gender to control women workers and maintain low wage levels. As one border activist succinctly put it, "Zenith targets women because they are women." Many of the women working for Zenith are from rural areas, where strict concepts of traditional feminine docility or timidity are stressed. This past spring, all of the women workers in Zenith's plant #12 in Reynosa were given pregnancy. exams, and several women workers were fired as a result. Women waiting to apply for work at Zenith are frequently told, "Only single women need apply," and part of the job application includes a pregnancy test. If a woman tests positive, she is not hired.

There are extensive and serious health and safety problems inside Zenith's maquiladora plants. Several years ago, a delegation of activists, workers and health and safety specialists from the tri-national Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras toured Zenith's Reynosa and Matamoros plants. Some of the health and safety problems they found included non-functioning or non-existent fume extractors in areas where lead solder and other chemicals were being used. Most of the chemical warning labels the delegation saw in the plants were in English only--the lead solder labels were in Spanish, but in factories where most of the workers were women, the section warning about the dangers of lead to a woman's reproductive health were mysteriously absent. Zenith workers suffer from cancers, headaches, nausea, asthma, allergies, rashes, pulmonary problems, and anemia as the result of their prolonged and unprotected contact with substances such as naphtha, lead solder, paints, glues, resins and ethers.

Zenith does not provide workers with adequate training or protective equipment, and many of the fume extractors throughout its plants still do not function properly or at all. Workers recently reported that Zenith gives useless dust masks to workers who work with solvents and lead solder. Workers in Reynosa also recently reported that Zenith has taken to charging workers for replacing the small, cotton gloves it provides for "protection." Last year, fire drills were held once in Reynosa and Matamoros. They were the first drills that anyone remembers ever having, and there have been none since.

Long workshifts which violate Mexico's strongly worded federal labor laws regarding the length of the workday contribute significantly to the health problems Zenith's workers are experiencing. The draining and damaging effects of long workshifts are compounded by the high production pace demanded from Zenith's workers. In March of this year, Zenith drastically cut back on the number of workers on one of its Reynosa lines. Those left are now performing several additional operations, and are required to produce the same amount as before the cuts. Recently, a 20-year old man who frequently worked double shifts to try to support a wife and baby, died of leukemia. Friends and coworkers remain convinced that the leukemia stemmed from his overexposure to solvents and other chemicals on long workshifts. Although Zenith denies the existence of the shift, one worker recently reported that she is on a regularly scheduled workshift which runs in part from 12:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, and 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Sunday.

Activist maquiladora workers have long understood the link between and consequences of occupational exposures in the workplace and environmental pollution from the maquiladora industry throughout their communities. Recently, tragically high incidence of anencephaly--a fatal condition in which babies are born without brains--has caused people living on the U.S. side of the border to make the same link, and to wake up to the reality of conditions in the maquiladora industry which operates just across the border. Last year, families in Brownsville, Texas filed a lawsuit against the maquiladora industry which links the extraordinary number of anencephalic births on the Mexico-U.S. border to industrial chemicals used in the maquiladoras. Zenith is one of the multinationals named in the suit.

Zenith's response to concerns about its health and safety practices in Mexico has been a prolonged campaign of blatant denial. In a 1984 letter to the American Friends Service Committee, Zenith claimed that "The working conditions in our Reynosa plant are as good as the best of our U.S. plants<193>our safety record is excellent by any standards." Seven years later, despite repeated and valid descriptions by Zenith's maquiladora workers and U.S. activists documenting serious and continuing health and safety problems, Zenith maintained in a letter to a member of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras that, "Zenith's policy is to provide a clean, healthy and safe working environment for our employees," and that Zenith complied with .".Mexican environmental and safety regulations," and applied "U.S. EPA and OSHA standards" to their plants in Mexico.

As far back as 1983, workers in Zenith's maquiladora plants in Reynosa, Mexico, were loud, clear and organized around the notorious wages and working conditions in Zenith's factories. In 1983, workers in Zenith's maquiladora factory in Reynosa were making a meager 42 cents an hour. According to an article at the time in the McAllen Monitor, many of the young women employed in Zenith's maquiladoras were the sole providers for their families, and were not able to .".pay for basic necessities such as food, rent, transportation, water, school books and medicine." In protest against their unlivable wages and undemocratic union leadership, workers in Zenith's Reynosa plant organized what to this day remains the largest work protest in the maquiladora industry. However, in response to a strike which involved thousands of workers in Reynosa and demands for a wage increase to 60 cents an hour, ten key worker activists were fired, and the protest was violently repressed and broken up.

Since 1983, there has been no parallel level of organized maquiladora worker resistance. In 1991 however, independent groups of women workers sought the support of the Coalition Justice in the Maquiladoras in advocating for changes in Zenith's maquiladora plants, and several of the Coalition's religious shareholders filed resolutions in support of Zenith workers' concerns. The 1992 religious shareholder resolution received about 11 percent of the total share votes, which is considered a victory for actions of this nature.

Two years ago, several Zenith workers traveled to the United States to open lines of communication and build solidarity with their U.S. counterparts. The Mexican workers met with members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to explain that they, too, were experiencing job loss and betrayal since Zenith had been eliminating jobs in Matamoros where workers earned more than $1 an hour and moving them to Reynosa and Chihuahua where the wages were far lower. In a speech to the Ozarks Jobs Council in Springfield, the Mexican workers stated, "When companies like Zenith move to Mexico, they forcibly sweep Mexican workers back into the 1 9th century, when conditions were dangerous and harsh, before there were workers' rights and benefits. Zenith has been clearly negligent in providing decent wages and working conditions, and has disregarded occupational health and safety laws, and the welfare of communities in Mexico."

In an ironic and unfortunate twist, although Zenith's U.S. workers understood the importance of solidarity across borders and were willing to work with their Mexican counterparts, Zenith has since permanently shut down its Springfield, Missouri plant, moving the last of what were originally 4,000 jobs to Mexico.

After the meeting, workers met with Zenith Treasurer Willard C. McNitt. McNitt dominated the twenty-minute meeting with repeated inquiries about the names of the maquiladora workers attending the annual meeting. Rather than taking advantage of a unique opportunity to hear from Mexican workers about conditions in Zenith's maquiladoras, Zenith's response demonstrated its continuing strategy to cover up rather than investigate the serious, pressing and potentially costly problems in their plants.

In response to heightened international pressure and public scrutiny, many large U.S. multinationals have recently made some significant improvements in conditions in their Mexican factories. Zenith however, Zenith continues to make its Mexican workers pay for its poor financial performance by forcing them to accept low wages and deplorable working conditions.

Zenith remains one of the most stubborn and hostile large U.S. multinationals operating at the Mexican border. In April of this year, several maquiladora workers attended Zenith's annual meeting to discuss with company executives and shareholders the extensive violations of labor laws and health standards in Zenith's maquiladora plants. In a frank exchange with CEO Jerry Pearlman, workers described concrete and ongoing problems in the plants, and asked pointed questions concerning Zenith's plans to remedy them. Pearlman vehemently dismissed the workers claims, stating that the company had recently done an investigation and found them to be baseless. Zenith, according to Pearlman, is a model maquiladora.

Phoebe McKinney is the Director of the Maquiladora Project for the American Friends Service Committee; Leslie Gates works with the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.


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