The southern side of the U.S.-Mexico border is dotted with maquilas – companies contracted with U.S. corporations to run factories employing workers at poverty wages in abysmal conditions, to produce exports to the U.S. with special tax exemptions. 2.6 million people work there – about five percent of Mexico’s entire workforce. The majority of maquila workers are women, who experience especially intense exploitation at these facilities.
As the coronavirus pandemic spiraled out of control in March and April, Mexican federal and state governments began ordering the maquilas to close, determining that they were “non-essential” businesses. But many of the bosses defied the order. A coalition of multi-billion-dollar U.S. corporations came together, including 3M Corporation, Arcelor/Mittal, and Caterpillar, to pressure the Mexican federal government to keep the plants open.
By mid-April, the U.S. government was weighing in. COVID was already claiming the lives of maquila workers, including at least 16 workers at a single car seat plant in Ciudad Juárez. But the U.S. embassy and the Department of Defense came in on the side of the bosses, increasing the pressure on Mexico to reopen the maquilas, out of concern for the profits of U.S. corporations, as well as the production line for U.S. military equipment manufactured in Mexico.
On May 12, Mexico’s President López Obrador caved to the pressure and declared many of the maquilas “essential,” supposedly offering a plan to keep the factories safe. This, despite the fact that COVID had already killed over 100 maquila workers in Juárez and over 400 in Tijuana. With the maquilas officially allowed to stay open, the numbers kept climbing, rising to 200 in Juárez and over 600 in Tijuana by June. The maquila capital of Mexico, Juárez has the highest rate of COVID deaths in Mexico, 2.5 times the national average.
Workers are being forced back into the maquilas without sanitary protections. Those who refuse are fired on the spot, in blatant violation of local labor laws. But unlike their president, Mexican workers are not taking this lying down. Under slogans like “Stop Maquilas” and “The Virus is the Maquila,” maquila workers have been leading protests to raise awareness around the dangers of the plants, resist these terminations, and demand paid leave.
Workers and activists are risking their lives, and face serious oppression. On June 8, Tamaulipas state police arrested Susana Prieto, a labor attorney, for defending maquila workers and speaking out against the government’s policy. She was charged with “inciting violence”! Meanwhile, the bosses and police were forcing workers to die in the name of profit! Prieto spent 23 days in prison and must now spend the next 30 months under house arrest.
As of July 12, COVID-19 had claimed the lives of over 35,000 people in Mexico, and a disproportionate number of these have been maquila workers. These workers are fighting for their lives, against their bosses, local governments, the Mexican government, as well as the U.S. government and the U.S. corporations who profit off their labor—the same ones that oppress and exploit us here in the U.S. The Mexican workers should not have to do it alone. The fight will always have to continue until the working class of all countries rises in solidarity to overthrow the capitalist system once and for all. The future is not certain, but one thing that is certain is that as the working class we can only count on ourselves to defend our lives. It’s up to workers here and everywhere to stand in solidarity with Maquila workers.