On Saturday, July 27th, Enlace volunteers headed to Tijuana, Mexico to connect with allies across the border and learn about the maquiladoras, or sweatshops, that line the Mexican side of the border region. The tour was sponsored by Colectivo Ollin Calli de Tijuana, San Diego Maquiladora Workers’ Solidarity Network, and the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras.
The maquiladora industry in Tijuana is a symptom of the free trade agreements that unleashed multinational corporations on the border region, bringing harmful chemicals and disregard for human dignity with them. Fueled by the many new arrivals to border towns who either failed to cross to the United States or were deported, nearly 900 factories line the border, employing more than 160,000 workers paid poverty wages.
Recent changes in laws imposed by the new Peña Nieto administration have made life even more difficult for workers who attempt to unionize or assert their rights. Their working conditions often include severe restrictions on drinking water and using the bathroom. Management punishes workers who attempt to organize by crafting work schedules that intentionally conflict with childcare or schooling, and firing women who become pregnant. Furthermore, maquiladoras work with harmful chemicals and little to no protection for the workers or the environment around them—the unchecked chemicals and carcinogens are the best explanation for the border region experiencing the highest rates of cancer in North America. Many otherwise rare diseases and birth defects have become common in Tijuana, and many of the chemicals causing them flow back into the United States, unheeded by the international boundary.
Even so, many maquiladora workers continue to fight for their own rights and for social justice in their society. Two maquiladora workers, one current and one former, joined us on the tour and offered their experiences. They told stories of being fired after being identified as an activist or simply asking about a union, and of unsafe conditions that went unchallenged for fear of being assigned hours conflicting with school. By taking action to share their stories, these workers are fighting back, and adding to the success stories that keep workers and maquiladora activists hopeful. We were able to visit a place that embodied this hope at the site of a former maquiladora, which had continued to poison the Tijuana community with lead and other chemicals even after being shut down and abandoned. Today, where the factory once stood, the chemicals and lead are trapped under the cement of a community park and can no longer terrorize the people of Tijuana.