Attorney Susana Prieto-Terrazas, a Champion for Maquiladora Worker’s Rights

Image provided by authors of poster calling for workers to join march.

Image provided by authors. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Marlene Flores and Miguel Juárez

The maquiladora industry has long impacted the border region, especially the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso region. With the passage of NAFTA, neoliberal economic policies that have encouraged the freer movement of goods and services across the border have especially encouraged the explosion of the maquiladora industry. In a maquiladora factory workers assemble part of a product (such as a car door handle) and the product is shipped to the final country destination where multiple parts will be put together for the finished product. Maquiladora factories do not have to reside on the border but many of them do because of their proximity to another country and trade laws. Though promising stable jobs and a healthy economy, this industry has had detrimental effects on the workers themselves. Still recovering from a sluggish economy and heavily hit by the cartel violence from its peak in 2010, the region where maquiladoras flourish provides plenty of employment opportunities. There are over 300 maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez that employ over 250,000 workers at substandard wages.

Maquiladoras (or maquilas, as they are often referred to) are famous for having large populations of women employed, though this has changed somewhat in recent years. [1] While this may provide a steady income, this has also had negative effects on the women and their families. They are not able to spend much time with their children and as a result, their children’s schoolwork and social skills suffer. The wages are low enough to barely survive but not enough for the workers to really climb any sort of reasonable socio-economic status. The obrer@s also suffer bodily injuries because of the intense repetitive motions they enact while working.

The work is typical of assembly factory work, which includes filling, pulling, sealing, and sewing materials together, all while standing for long periods of time. For example, the Johnson Controls obrer@s we talked to sew car seat covers for many car brands around the world. Even though maquiladoras only work in Juarez, their labor is not contained within Mexico. Maquiladora workers assemble products that we buy in the U.S. From car seats to printer ink, maquiladora workers are essential to the production of these everyday items, yet they receive poor wages. The maquilas receive huge profits but the wages do not correspond to the obrer@s prosperity. Without their labor, U.S.-Mexico trade relations would take a substantial hit.

At the center of the struggle for decent wages are the maquiladora workers and their attorney Susana Prieto-Terrazas, who represented the Lexmark workers and now represents the Johnson Controls obrer@s. From her desk at her office in Cd. Juárez or at her house in West El Paso, Prieto-Terrazas records weekly short videos to educate maquiladora workers about their rights or to offer an update for the 800+ workers of Johnson Controls, now absorbed into the spin-off company called Adient Industries. The workers are seeking their Fondo de Ahorros (Savings Fund) that acts as severance pay when workers leave an employer. This has been denied to them to this day.

On December 10, 2015, we first saw Prieto-Terrazas appear in a video she recorded in front of striking Lexmark workers wearing red shirts who had established a plantón (protest camp) outside the Lexmark maquiladora. The video was widely circulated on Facebook and was seen over 100,000 views. We became engaged in the campaign to support the workers. The four-month campaign received substantial international press. We sponsored several press conferences for the maquiladora workers to get exposure for their cause. Countless work and posts on social media, including raising funds for workers, culminated with the maquiladora workers bringing the corporate giant to the negotiating table after a group signed by 32 U.S. Labor organizations and Non-governmental agencies sent a letter to the company.

Prieto-Terrazas was born in El Paso, Texas. She graduated from law school at the Universidad Autónoma de Cd. Juárez (UACJ) and specializes in labor law. She herself had been a maquiladora worker so she knows the environment countless laborers and many women now face. We asked Prieto-Terrazas the following questions (interview translated from Spanish):

Q: How long have you worked with the obrer@s? What is important about the Johnson Controls Wage issue, how does it differ from the Lexmark wage issue?

Attorney Susana Prieto-Terrazas: For 28 years I have been working in the defense of workers. Since June 2015, I have reflected on the condition of maquiladora workers who work for poverty wages that I perceive as unjust and who suffer from labor harassment, lack of security and sexual harassment.

[Lexmark workers protesting] lasted five months living in tents outside of the maquiladora and demanding justice and establishing an independent union. Because they could no longer continue without work and had been fired from the company, [they ended up settling with Lexmark]. The difference between the Lexmark movement and Johnson Controls, are the times and actions of each company. A few months ago, Johnson Controls implemented (in June 2016) a new production system called “bumping” that consists of each worker working on between 3 and 5 machines and handling 5 to 14 different operations, for the same salary payment (as if they weren’t doing this extra work). 800 workers staged a protest for two days in Ciudad Juárez, in four Johnson Controls plants against bumping. As a result, the company retained workers’ wages earned prior to that week, therefore incurring grounds for termination of their employment without a liability for the workers. Presently, there are 673 judgments against the company where the workers are demanding their severance pay, against a false pattern of probability. The company is holding workers’ wages to retaliate against them. The company hopes to starve out the rebellion using workers’ hunger or economic needs. Because of their very low salaries, workers live day-to-day and the company thought that if they held out, they were going win, but this time, they lost because the workers decided to maintain their dignity. Workers decided to terminate their employment relationship, although a minority of the workers, about 100 of them, resisted and they returned to work.

Q: We know that Johnson Controls workers are seeking their Bono de Ahorro (a form of wage savings). Why hasn’t the company given workers their Bono de Ahorro?

Another retention was imposed upon workers with the denial of their savings fund. Funds are collected every week from workers that amounts to 13 percent of their salaries and constitute a savings fund that given to them in November each year. Workers contribute to it. It doubles every week with an equal contribution paid by the company, that is held for the workers in an accumulated savings fund. One of the ways that money can be returned to workers before November, is if the worker terminates their employment with the company. Since many workers terminated employment before November, Mexican federal law required that workers get their accumulated savings funds but the company with support from the Board of Conciliation has denied it, therefore it has become necessary to demand it legally. At this point, the Board of Conciliation (siding with the company) is dragging its feet and the process could take as long as two years. It has not been easy for employees to get other jobs because they have been blacklisted as a result of them leaving their positions. A judgment to pay workers was recently presented and it ordered the company to pay them the savings fund to workers, but it has already been seven days since the judgement.

Q: How are you working with workers in other cities?

The movement of Johnson Controls, has spread not only in Cd. Juarez, but in Saltillo and Monclova, to the state of Coahuila and Matamoros, and in the state of Tamaulipas. On my Facebook wall and the Obrer@s Maquiler@s AC Juárez we have exposed all investigations into this case and have shown how workers are being exploited in all these states not only by the company but also by the white managers and charros leaders. Johnson Controls created a new company in the United States, separated from their plants and other companies, such as Johnson Controls and Technotrim. These companies will become a new company, which no longer have anything to do with Johnson Controls, called ADIENT. ADIENT started trading on the stock exchange in New York on October 1, 2016, therefore, they should liquidate all its employees in Mexico because the Labor Law (which does not exist in the United States) mandates they do so. This rebranding is to avoid paying compensation to their workers. Before entering the stock quote values, this company will have a contingent liability of 673 labor lawsuits against him. This is extremely important to know for those that intend on purchasing Adient stock, that they should not be deceived.

Q: What would you consider a labor victory for the workers?

Image provided by authors of poster calling workers to protest

Image provided by authors. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A victory would be that workers create a similar situation like the workers at Lexmark that created a civil association (a nonprofit) called Obrer@s Maquiler@s Ciudad Juárez AC, that helps workers with loans and with free legal advice. [2] This organization is permitted by the Constitution of Mexico, as syndicates, to defend the common interests of the workers. Miriam and Asuncion, two workers from the Lexmark plant who were very active in the Lexmark Workers Strike, now permanently work as administrative assistants for my law firm, and actively help other workers in struggle. They also help to organize workers to defend their rights.

To support Prieto-Terrazas efforts helping maquila workers in Cd. Juárez, we created ObrerxPower – PoderObrerx, a Facebook page to post updates, etc. On September 15th, Johnson Controls workers staged a Grito Maquilero or Maquiladora Cry (Grito) at the Benito Juárez Monument. This cry, was for rebels and workers, as a repudiation of the campaign launched by the maquiladora industry in Juárez called “Maquilas in Juárez, I Work with Heart.” The maquiladora industries spent millions of dollars on the PR campaign, which seeks to disguise the slavery that exists within maquiladoras in Cd. Juárez. The videos basically spin the maquila workplace as a place of respect and prosperity. They are calling on all non-governmental organizations, maquila obrer@s, dissatisfied with the government and businesses and countrymen who want to support the maquiladora obrer@s.

[1] Gender stereotypes have often played a role in the justification for hiring mostly young female workers, with the suggestion that women are better suited for the work (‘they have more nimble fingers’). Some scholars have suggested that women are perceived as more docile and easier to control as workers. Women are considered a vulnerable workforce. For a more thorough discussion of the role of vulnerability and gender see For We are Sold, I and My People: Women and Industry in Mexico’s Frontier by Maria Patricia Fernandez-Kelly. The numbers are outdated but the broad approach is still quite relevant.

[2] Independent unions are extremely difficult to establish in Mexico, hence the creation of the non-profit.

Marlene Florés and Miguel Juárez are members of L@s Fronteriz@s Student Association at the University of Texas at El Paso, an organization created to support maquiladora workers in Cd. Juárez. Marlene is an MA student in Latin-American and Border Studies Program at UTEP and can be reached at mflores136@miners.utep.edu. Miguel is a doctoral student in Borderlands History at UTEP and can be reached at migueljuarez.soha@gmail.com. Both authors have attended various press conferences and lectures involving Prieto-Terrazas.

 

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