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Health and Environmental Issues

An Overview

by Rachel Kamel and Anya HoffmanThe Maquiladora Reader (American Friends Service Committee)
June 30th, 1999


Between 1988 and 1992, twenty-five children were born with a neural tube defect known as spina bifida in the border towns of Brownsville, Texas and neighboring Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Another thirty children were diagnosed during this period with anencephaly, a rare and invariably fatal birth defect in which a full-term baby is born with incomplete or missing brain. Although this cluster of birth defects was investigated by the Texas Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control, the results of the investigation were inconclusive. Meanwhile, twenty-seven parents of anencephalic babies on the U.S. side of the border sued eighty-eight maquiladora firms and the Brownsville Public Utility Board, charging that pollution from maquiladora plants was responsible for these birth defects. Although the defendants insisted they had abided by environmental regulations, the lawsuit was settled for $17 million in 1995, shortly before it went to trial.

This settlement offered a measure of vindication, as well as monetary compensation, to the Brownsville parents. Families of anencephalic babies in Matamoros, for their part, continue to struggle with the human and financial burden of caring for their fatally ill children. Clusters of anencephaly have also turned up in towns like Del Rio, Texas (across the border from the maquiladora center of Ciudad Acuña), and Colonia Chilpancingo, in Tijuana, where twenty anencephalic births were reported in 1993 and 1994.

* * *

I work with hot metal and management is supposed to give me a pair of gloves, but sometimes they don't. One day the material came down the line before the gloves and I did nothing, and the entire line of workers stopped with me. The supervisor asked me why I wasn't working, and I said I wouldn't work without gloves. He said, fine—if you don't want to work I'll change your post. He put a new woman in my place and didn't give her gloves, but she didn't know any better and worked without them.

— Celia

Maquiladora workers voice constant fears about their safety on the job. In the electronics industry alone, workers are exposed to a variety of substances which include xylene, trichloroethylene, zinc and lead oxides, and nitric acid. Not only electronics assembly but other industries as well expose workers to the materials used in thinners, paints, solvents, resins, solders, dyes, flux, and acetone. Exposure to such substances without proper protection can cause cancer, reproductive problems, skin diseases, vision problems, respiratory impairments, gastrointestinal and nervous disorders, and headaches and fatigue.

Maquiladora workers in many industries also risk injuries to their fingers, hands, and feet; stress-related conditions; and circulatory and muscular problems caused by repetitive motion and standing for ten-hour workshifts. Health-and-safety training and the provision of protective equipment fall far short of Mexican legal requirements throughout the industry.

It is difficult to collect reliable data on health issues inside the plants because most managers will not allow researchers access to their facilities and workers, says Garrett Brown of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network. Gloria, a worker at the General Motors plant in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, explains that workers are not allowed to bring a camera into the plant, even if they want to take a picture of friends on the line, because management is afraid that a safety hazard will show up in a photo. Management's response to organized work stoppages in a Reynosa plant has led to further safety violations. "The new supervisor locked the emergency doors so no one leaves before the shift is over," says Gloria. "We're not in jail, we're working." Working without access to emergency doors, an obvious danger, is illegal under Mexico's labor code.

Julia, who works at Deltrónico making car radios, is concerned about her hearing. After each radio is made, Julia makes sure that it functions correctly. She works all day with earphones, listening to see that the radio plays all frequencies and performs all functions and that all the buttons work.

"I listen to deep sounds, sharp sounds, all day it's the same," she says. At a meeting of the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), Julia plays the tape she must test on every radio. The first sound is more than sharp, it is piercing, and it seems to last for longer than thirty seconds. In spite of the discomfort, Julia thinks her job is better than those of other workers who are not given chairs and are forced to work while standing.

A "Breeding Ground for Disease"

Within maquiladora communities, even those who do not themselves work in the factories are adversely affected by the industry. According to a report by the American Medical Association, the border area has become a "virtual cesspool and breeding ground for infectious diseases." As noted in chapter 1, the tax exemption afforded to maquiladora firms leaves border towns unable to invest in infrastructure for their rapidly growing populations. As a result, most maquiladora workers live without access to basic services.

Without an adequate sewer system, water sources are contaminated with garbage and human wastes. According to a 1991 survey in U.S. News and World Report, canals and rivers containing raw sewage were causing widespread gastrointestinal illness, hepatitis, and other health problems. A 1996 report from Public Citizen states that "two years after NAFTA the hepatitis rate in the border region remains at two to five times the U.S. national average."

* * *

Next to a colonia in Matamoros, foaming liquid gushes into a canal. Near the bank, an old tire floats atop oily sludge. Colonia residents transport drinking water laden with toxic wastes in empty gallon drums once used as chemical containers. The growth of electronics, chemical, and furniture plants on the border since the 1980s has greatly increased the amount of industrial solvents polluting the environment.

Many U.S. officials blame the slow cleanup of hazardous waste sites on Mexico's economic crisis and the corresponding lack of resources. While it may be easy for those in the United States to hold Mexico responsible for the precarious status of environmental cleanup, the truth is that U.S.-based corporations have been the principal contributors to the problem in the first place. Although the La Paz Agreement, signed by Mexico and the United States in 1983, requires hazardous waste created by U.S. corporations to be transported back to the United States for disposal, many companies avoid paying disposal costs by dumping toxic and other waste into Mexico's rivers and marine waters. Under NAFTA, even this limited protection will be eliminated as of the year 2000, and hazardous wastes produced by the maquiladoras will be under the sole authority of Mexico's underfunded and inadequate regulatory apparatus.

Even when financial resources are available, border cleanup still proceeds at a snail's pace. The prosecution of those responsible for the Alco Pacífico site in Tijuana (where thousands of tons of toxic waste were abandoned when the company went bankrupt) resulted in a $2 million court settlement in 1993, earmarked for remediation of the site. Yet it took four years for cleanup to even begin. During all that time a mountain of lead was left uncovered in a residential area, near a dairy farm.

NAFTA and Environmental Protection

Both the U.S. and Mexican governments affirm their commitment to environmental preservation, while failing to provide adequate resources to implement existing policies. Further, only those initiatives that do not hinder the pace of trade are capable of garnering official support. Sustained lobbying by environmental activists and human rights groups won an environmental side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), known formally as the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC). This measure was ostensibly to alleviate the environmental impact of industrial development fueled by the trade agreement. (See chapter 6 for a discussion of NAFTA's labor side accord.) Under the NAAEC, a trinational Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) has been established. According to CEC Executive Director Victor Lichtinger, this body hopes to ensure high levels of environmental protection, foster public discussion of environmental concerns, advise trade representatives from the three countries, and facilitate enforcement of environmental laws. Critics have highlighted structural problems that limit the CEC's authority and effectiveness. It is extremely difficult for the CEC to impose trade sanctions on countries that lower or ignore environmental standards: the process can only be initiated by a government, not by nongovernmental organizations; there is an unusually demanding burden of proof; and fines are capped at $20 million, even if the cost of the damage is far greater. In the eyes of many observers, such flaws leave the NAAEC without teeth.

"'The typical strategy for the last twenty years has been to give companies permission to discharge, and then try [to] manage those emissions. [Now] we need to be working on the front end of things—to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and ensure more efficient use of the materials that are used,' says Eileen Sheehan of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency." Government funding, however, is still focused on dealing with environmental problems after they develop, rather than prevention.

Two additional environmental institutions were created by the United States and Mexico to address problems along the border: the North American Development Bank (NADBank) and the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC). NADBank was created to "assist local communities in developing and financing environmental infrastructure while promoting sustainable development in the border region," and the BECC is charged with collecting and evaluating applications for NADBank financing. Because of provisions that require borrowers to prove their ability to pay back loans, this funding is unavailable to those who need it most. In Nuevo Laredo, in the state of Nuevo Leon, for example, the death of a thirteen-year-old boy from a brain infection caused by an ameba found in untreated water led to plans for a wastewater treatment plant. Construction on the plant was halted, however, because the Nuevo Laredo municipal government could not afford to pay the required 10 percent share of project costs.

While many organizers hope that BECC and NADBank will one day become useful tools for supporting sustainable development, it seems unlikely that this will happen in the near future. Argues Harry Browne of the Interhemispheric Resource Center: "NADBank and BECC are primarily products of political horse-trading rather than comprehensive environmental planning, and they are incapable of meeting many challenges posed by transboundary pollution and water depletion."

Activist Responses

How can workers and their communities address environmental and health problems? Fighting for enforcement of health-and-safety provisions of Mexico's labor code has been a major focus of shopfloor actions by maquiladora workers. Typical demands include the installation of local exhaust ventilation to remove airborne contaminants; the provision of personal safety equipment; and rank-and-file representation on the Comisiones Mixtas, joint health-and-safety committees mandated under Mexican law.

Cross-border activism traces its roots to a moment more than twenty years ago when a staffperson for the United Church of Christ responded to a plea by maquiladora workers for help in translating an English-language safety data sheet that was packaged with solvents used in their factory. Today, many cross-border initiatives offer training to maquiladora workers in occupational health, using techniques such as risk mapping. The Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network connects occupational health specialists with groups of maquiladora workers along the border to provide Spanish-language health-and-safety trainings. Training has also been provided to Mexican physicians. At the training sessions, workers and doctors learn how to recognize and control hazards. They study toxicology and workers' rights and develop action plans.

The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM) has been pressuring maquiladora firms to provide workers with safety information on the materials and chemicals they are working with. However, until the factories are forced by their governments to comply with this basic request, few maquiladoras will do so. To help workers educate themselves on the dangers of the workplace, the CJM has published a Manual de Seguridad Ocupacional (Occupational Safety Manual), which discusses risk management in conversational Spanish.

American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), for its part, has supported Mexican groups to train workers in health-related issues. As part of this effort, the Mexican nongovernmental organization Servicio, Desarrollo y Paz (SEDEPAC—Service, Development, and Peace), has developed workshops in which women workers discuss issues of labor, reproductive, and community health. The CFO has also provided trainings in health and safety to its membership, and in 1998 initiated a process of participatory diagnosis of health problems in the maquiladoras. In conjunction with this training program, AFSC has also sponsored publication of a review of existing scientific and professional literature on health and environmental issues in the maquiladoras.