MEXICAN HIGH-TECH WORKERS DEMAND JUSTICE
by Kent Paterson, Frontera NorteSur
The two high-tech workers laughed when asked if they could afford the smartphones made by their colleagues on Mexican production lines. "No, no, no," chuckled Maria and Alma, two Guadalajara workers who have labored for years in Mexico's Silicon Valley. A cheap $20 cell phone has to make do for Maria, while Alma uses a similarly low-priced contraption she won on a five-dollar raffle ticket. "It's not a luxury, it's a necessity, especially when you have kids," Alma said.
The two women, who asked that their real names not be used because of possible employer retaliation, recently sat down with Frontera NorteSur to discuss their jobs and lives as factory workers in Mexico's second largest city and one of the world's most important centers in the electronics industry supply chain.
An assembly-line worker, Maria makes about $10 for an eight hour shift six days a week. Although Maria said she gets all the benefits afforded by Mexican law, she must renew her work contract every two months. A quality control specialist, Alma has more responsibilities than Maria but gets the same amount of pay. A third woman who joined the conversation worked in the local high-tech industry until she was fired two years ago. Unlike Maria and Alma, the friend completed higher education training for a technician’s career but still maxed out her earnings at approximately $500 monthly after a dozen years in the industry.
All the women interviewed have multiple children to support, and two of them are single mothers. Living in Guadalajara these days is expensive, they said. The lowest rent hovers around $100 a month, a cylinder of gas costs a couple of days’ pay and the price of staple corn tortillas is now well above a dollar. Tomatoes, eggs and the hot chile de arbol essential for so many Mexican sauces have all gone up in price recently. A family budget for four or more people can get quickly dented just by forking out the bus fare necessary for moving around a sprawling city.
To make ends meet, the women play what might be called the Mexican Shuffle. They take out pay-day loans from a bank, dip into small savings accounts, accept packages of basic commodities from churches and contemplate the ever-expanding doors of pawn shops. Like other low-income Mexicans, they participate in tandas, a form of economic solidarity in which members of a group contribute ten bucks or so and then pay out the sum total to a member on a rotating basis. Guadalajara's women workers get by on a "miracle," Maria laughed again. "God is great!"
Maria and her friends said they endure an employment system in which a job is on an increasingly temporary basis, unpaid furloughs pop up, promised bonuses do not materialize, overtime is not properly compensated and "labor representation" is performed by "unions" the workers often do not even know exist. Complaints are waved away by the constant fluttering of an economic wand.
"If you don't like the work, there are five other people outside willing to do it," Maria said. "You have no option." While Maria and her friends say they are too afraid to speak out publicly, many workers like themselves channel their grievances through the non-governmental organization Cereal (Centre for Reflection and Action on Labour Rights).
"These are very generalized, across-the board situations, especially in the electronics industry," said Felipe Burgueno, Cereal's outreach coordinator. "Many of the [high-tech] businesses are sustained by women, and many of them are housewives. They are frequently paid less than the men and get treated worse."
Celebrating its 15th anniversary this month, Cereal documents the complaints of workers, negotiates with employers, helps fired workers get severance pay and advocates for the right of workers to collective bargaining and union representation of their choice. Cereal has focused its efforts on electronics industry workers but is beginning to hear more from other sectors of the workforce, according to Burgueno.
Some workers are taking collective action. On Feb. 21, a small group of former Jabil Circuit employees, some of them wearing masks and holding signs, staged a demonstration outside the gate of the company's Guadalajara plant. The protesters demanded the reinstatement of dismissed workers, freedom of association, steady work and labor justice. In a press statement, the demonstrators contended that pay inequity among "workers performing the same activities" violated Article 4 of the Mexican Constitution that guarantees equal pay for equal work.
The Guadalajara action was also endorsed by the National Coalition of Workers and Ex-Workers of the Electronics Industry. A phone call to Jabil's headquarters in Florida was not immediately returned.
Last fall, Cereal released a report that highlighted the low pay of electronics industry workers in Mexico. According to the Jesuit-affiliated group, the $8.70 average rate of daily pay in the electronics industry is sufficient to cover only 60% of the cost of a basket of food and other routinely-consumed goods. In a production cost analysis, Cereal asserted that workers only receive 0.1%, or 64 cents, of the sales price of a smartphone that retails for more than $600 abroad.
Covering a variety of issues, the report included case studies of worker experiences with Nokia, Lenovo, Philips, Blackberry, Dell, Foxconn, and Celestica. Since the Mexican high-tech sector is so reliant on sub-contracted workers hired through temporary agencies, the report also discussed the Manpower and Azanza temporary employment firms.
"Frequently, workers who sign seven-day contracts stay in the company months and even years, signing contracts every week," Cereal said in a statement announcing the release of the report.
Jorge Barajas, Cereal coordinator for Guadalajara, said industry reactions to the report varied. While Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sanmina were most responsive, some finger-pointing went on with Blackberry, for example, telling Cereal to speak with its supplier Jabil about labor problems, Barajas said. On the other hand, Sanmina rehired 10 workers and made severance and social security payments to 20 others, according to the longtime labor activist. "These are verified, concrete changes," he said.
For years Cereal and other non-governmental organizations have dialogued with the heavy hitters in the high-tech world assembled in the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), an initiative which was launched eight years ago to promote business, labor and environmental best practices.
According to the EICC's mission statement, the organization envisions "a global electronics industry supply chain that consistently operates with social, environmental and economic responsibility." Available in 16 languages, the EICC has a code of conduct its 67 member companies must commit to implement in their employment and production policies.
The EICC Code of Conduct upholds adherence to all local laws regarding wages and benefits, and explicitly recognizes the right of workers to freedom of association.
"Workers shall be able to communicate openly with management regarding working conditions without fear of reprisal, intimidation or harassment," the EICC Code of Conduct states.
Barajas said the results of the management-labor dialogue have been mixed at best, with progress noted in different individual grievances but little headway made in changing structural conditions like the growing use of temporary workers, the lack of genuine union representation and revolving lay-offs.
Since the beginning of the year, Cereal has estimated that about 3,000 high-tech workers have been laid off from Guadalajara plants.
"There was a lot of expectation in the beginning but (EICC) has lost a lot of credibility in the last two years among unions and NGOs because of its inability to affect changes in the industry," Barajas said. "There is a lot of debate about the utility of the EICC, even in the industry."
The lot of high-tech industry workers in Guadalajara and elsewhere will be on the agenda of an international gathering scheduled for Amsterdam this upcoming May. The meeting is expected to draw representatives from the EICC and its European counterpart as well as unions and groups like Cereal. According to Barajas, labor activists are increasingly looking to the United Nations as the possible forum for resolving worker grievances in an emblematic industry that spans the globe.
For Guadalajara high-tech worker Maria, the right of workers to organize and enjoy a decent career is a fundamental one that’s currently missing
from their lives. "I want my job, but I want it with dignity," she said. "This is something we deserve."
This article was first published March 3 on Frontera NorteSur.
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