Employees of Foxconn’s Scientific Atlanta plant in Ciudad Juarez escalated a protest this week for better wages and dignified treatment.
Setting up camp underneath a tent, worker Carlos Octavio Serrano initiated a hunger strike in front of the factory located in the Intermex Industrial Park. Twenty one other workers said they would join Serrano in refusing to eat until their grievances were addressed.
Involving more than 300 employees, the Foxconn Scientific Atlanta protest movement became public last August when scores of workers staged a demonstration against low wages, bad company food, sexual harassment and supervisory despotism.
A woman worker at the plant was quoted at the time in El Diario de Juarez: “I had a problem because my supervisor asked me, ‘How much would you charge me to touch your breasts?’ I told him of course not, you’re sick.”
Two months later, hunger striker Serrano contended that management still had not gotten the message. “They aren’t paying attention to us, and not resolving our demands,” Serrano told the Juarez daily Norte.
According to Foxconn Scientific Atlanta workers, one of their principal demands is an increase in food bonuses, on top of the daily base salary of 87 pesos, or less than six dollars.
In an article published earlier this year, University of Padua (Italy) sociologists Devi Sacchetto and Martin Cecchi estimated that Foxconn employs 22,000 workers at several factories in and around Juarez, including the company’s huge, state-of-the-art facility that straddles the Mexico-U.S. border at San Jeronimo just northwest of the city and Santa Teresa, New Mexico.
In Juarez and San Jeronimo, the Taiwan-based electronics giant manufactures products for Dell, Cisco and Hewlett Packard that are shipped to the U.S. market.
Based in part on Cecchi’s field research last year, Sacchetto and Cecchi documented worker complaints that included stagnant wages and productivity bonuses, unpredictable work shifts and transportation problems such as breakdowns of company-contracted buses.
Worker discontent in the Juarez maquiladora industry, or assembly-for-export industry, is not isolated to Foxconn. In late September, about 300 workers at the ADC/CommScope factory in the Bermudez Industrial Park engaged in a protest aimed at preserving benefits and ending arbitrary management policies. Another key demand was free union association.
“Respect our right to vacations” and “NO discrimination in bonuses” were among the messages on placards displayed by demonstrating workers outside the ADN plant.
Elizabeth Flores, director of the labor ministry for the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese, said she wasn’t surprised by the maquiladora protests. Flores characterized the Juarez maquiladora industry as a “time bomb” fused with very low wages and exploitation.
“The industry started as a panacea for Juarez, that there was finally work since up until then there was only tourism or so,” Flores told FNS. “The salary has always been low and Juarez has always been an expensive place.”
The labor advocate said the current peso devaluation is adding pressure to the prevailing wage schema and already precarious living standards, especially since food and other necessities are not produced locally and have to be imported, ironically, to a city which specializes in manufacturing and exporting products to the United States.
Flores said the low pay and high cost-of living over time forced virtually every able member of many households to seek work in the maquiladora industry in order to survive, yet even this solution is becoming unsustainable in light of the deteriorating wage situation.
Although Juarez’s maquiladora industry has rebounded since the Great Recession, the low pay and other working conditions have made it difficult to lure local residents back onto the shop floor.
Foxconn and other companies are reportedly recruiting and transporting workers from other places in Mexico to meet a labor shortage, a practice that was also common in the post-NAFTA boom years of the 1990s.
Coupled with plans to build new housing subdivisions for workers, even as previously constructed ones rot in abandonment and decay, the maquiladora industry labor conditions are sparking renewed local polemics about wages, urban development patterns, mass transportation, and the breakdown of the social fabric.
In an opinion published this year the local Semanario magazine editorialized:
“The problem is not the lack of existence of people of working age in Juarez. The problem is that wages are low and (people) prefer informal work, washing cars and even the daily sight of young people juggling (for spare change) in the many intersections of the city….as we have said at the beginning, there are a lot of jobs. But these are rejected not only because of the miserably low pay, but also due to the commutes to and from work that reach up to four hours daily, resulting in social stress and family disintegration.”
In a fissure of sorts in elite local opinion, prominent Juarez businessman Federico de la Vega criticized some of the policies of the local maquiladora industry and called for minimum wage hikes on the order of 50 percent during an interview with Norte last summer.
“There is hunger, the minimum salary of 2,000 pesos (less than $150 per month) is not sufficient to eat,” de la Vega told Norte.
Foxconn Scientific Atlanta hunger striker Carlos Serrano suspended his fast on Thursday, October 15, as legal wrangling between the company and workers intensified. On Friday, October 16, Norte reported a tense scene outside the Intermex Industrial Park factory, where apparently fruitless negotiations had occurred early in the day between workers and management. Juarez municipal police were on the scene.
Antonio Vazquez Rodriguez, attorney for Foxconn Scientific Atlanta, informed the Juarez newspaper that the company had filed legal charges against the workers because of an October 12 blockade of the plant entrance that resulted in $100,000 in losses due to logistics and shipping delays.
A lawyer for the workers, Rodrigo Stanley, said the protesting employees would attempt to reach a solution through the federal Labor Arbitration and Conciliation Board. Stanley added that 200 workers from the ADC and AMEX factories had joined the Foxconn Scientific Atlanta workers’ movement with the common goal of gaining an independent union.
Pastoral Obrera’s Elizabeth Flores said it was “very probable” that more worker protests in the maquiladora industry would break out in the near future.
Additional sources: El Mexicano, October 15, 2015. Lapolaka.com, October 14, 2015. Norte, June 28, 2015; October 14 and 16, 2015. Articles by Miroslava Breach, Salvador Esparza and Carlos Omar Barranco. Arrobajuarez.com, August 12, 2015; September 30, 2015; October 14, 2015. El Diario de Juarez, August 12 and October 12, 2015. Articles by Araly Castanon and editorial staff. La Jornada, August 13, 2015. Article by Ruben Villalpando. Semanario, June 17, 2015. Opendemocracy.net, January 16, 2015. Article by Devi Sacchetto and Martin Cecchi.