Let me tell you a story from Mexico. Manuel Lubian is a Mexico City taxi driver who refused a reward after spending two days hunting down a passenger who had left $53,000 in his cab. Explaining why he didn't just keep the money, he said, "I felt that I would lose the beauty inside of me."
That inner beauty of the people was one of the lasting impressions I had from my recent trip to the Mexican maquiladoras, sponsored by the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition. Maquiladoras are factories built in Mexico at the Texas border by transnational companies to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor and easy movement of capital, made easier by NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Our group of 13 was composed of professors, union workers, a state environmentalist, a student, a Catholic priest and myself. We went to learn, to do a justice audit and determine if we could help.
Our tour guide was Martha Ojeda, a vibrant Mexican woman who is Executive Director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, an advocacy organization of religious groups. Martha told us there is no tradition of democratic unions in Mexico. The most powerful ones are government sanctioned and run in cooperation with the company, often negotiating contracts without the workers' knowledge. When she tried to organize an independent union at a SONY plant, the leaders of the official union said "Forget it; all workers will be fired." She retorted, "We'll eventually all be fired anyway." The company made a deal with the government union; there was a strike; a lock-in; forty-five union organizers were fired and blacklisted, including Martha.
Martha is tireless and totally committed. She kept us on the move around the clock for five solid days, driving around the maquiladora factories, showing us industrial pollution and enabling our visits to the homes of the workers - all of whom she seemed to know - including the children. She is a charismatic and indomitable presence in the face of overwhelming odds. I believed her when she said, "I am Mexican and I am very proud."
What first struck me was the juxtaposition between state-of-the-art factories with their lush landscaping, and the poverty-stricken colonias, home to the workers, which surround them. The colonias do not appear on many city maps. As their residents say, "The colonia does not exist, but we are here." Most American managers commute from their comfortable Texas homes to modern factories while tens of thousands of impoverished Mexican workers try to scratch out a living on wages of $1 an hour for a 48-hour week, some more, some less. One worker asked us if a certain profitable American company did not have enough "budget" (money) to increase wages as it claimed. We assured him it did.
We spoke with workers who complained of wages so low they can barely survive. Market basket surveys place their wages between marginal survival and basic survival. For example, while the average American worker works about 12 minutes to buy a gallon of milk, an average maquiladora worker must work over two-and-a half hours.
Religious groups have responded by filing stockholder resolutions protesting low wages. Now, however, there is pending legislation to make it harder for groups to do this. While no doubt annoying to companies, these resolutions are a matter of ethical urgency to those who want to "do well by doing good" and hold our companies to high ethical standards.
One situation is illustrative of what is being done. The Alcoa Fujicura plant at Acuna, which we saw from the outside, is notorious for paying low wages, $25 a week in 1995; we experienced at first hand the poverty of the colonias surrounding it.
One worker we met was Juan Tovar, who attended the 1996 annual meeting of Alcoa in Pittsburgh to which the Benedictine Sisters sought to bring a shareholder resolution. Alcoa executives agreed to a meeting, which the Sisters insisted be on site at Acuna. Upon arriving they were greeted, not only by the sisters, but by 20 workers and their families ready to discuss wages. These officials promised to take this information to CEO Paul O'Neill.
Meanwhile, however, the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission ruled the company would not have to place this resolution on the agenda since wages were part of "ordinary business" and thus not subject to shareholder action. Juan and other workers made the trip anyway and leafleted at the hotel meeting place, making a case for the workers, and pointing out that Alcoa's CEO, at $10.78 million a year, made more money in one day than his Mexican workers will make in 32 years. O'Neil was indignant, rebuffing concerns about plant conditions -workers "could eat off the floors." He then defended his own annual compensation package, but finally met with workers and shareholder representatives. Since then conditions have marginally improved at the plant, with the Alcoa Fujicura president taking early retirement and workers being given a $5 per week salary increase.
On our visit we were unable to get inside the factories, though one American CEO did say we could visit his factory only if he could accompany us - and he was tied up with his board chair during our visit. We were, however, able to visit the colonias - which can only be described as slums. The best homes we might compare with the worst of U.S. public housing for the poor. The worst are cardboard shacks with (leaky) corrugated tin roofs. One company sold cardboard packing boxes and wooden skids to their workers for this purpose, which I thought pushed the bottom line just a bit too far.
Some homes have running water - mostly through a community tap by the dirt road; public latrines and raw sewage are the order of the day; electricity - when there is any - is provided by extension cords strung dangerously in the house. Public services are virtually non-existent; schooling seems haphazard, and many children are said to work in the factories.
On our trip we met not only what Franz Fanon called "the wretched of the earth." We also met Cesar Onesimo Gonzalez, a medical doctor who has worked for maquiladora companies 13 years. While he felt the companies tried to provide decent health services, he acknowledged that Mexican law focuses more on the process of production than on the health of the worker. Company piece-work incentives stress working fast with risk instead of carefully - to earn more. Safety is often sacrificed. The work force is growing so fast that health services can't keep up, but that is a national phenomenon.
I asked about public health. Dr. Gonzalez shook his head and laughed sadly. There are few public health services. People can't afford to buy water and the public supply from the Rio Grande (where we witnessed pollution at first hand) is unsafe. Someone asked how long since you can't drink the water? "Always," he said.
Later we met Jaimie, a worker with carpal tunnel syndrome, a spina bifida baby and no job, having been recently fired for union activity. His story underscores a Time Magazine story about a plague of spina bifada and babies born without brains in Brownsville, Texas, across the border from Matamoros. Parents blamed this on pollution from maquiladora plants. Internal company documents revealed lax standards and the company settled out of court, admitting no fault.
And there were Estafan, his wife and child. He was leading a union organizing session in an unheated building with cement floor and bare wood walls. Low paid and uneducated workers were role-playing how to ask for raises, how to file a complaint about working conditions, how to organize a union. I couldn't help but think of training sessions in this country led by management gurus Stephen Covey and Tom Peters - expensive affairs in plush ballrooms. It seems like David going to meet Goliath. But the workers are organizing for their lives and the lives of their children. While it is easy to say their lot will improve with time, they have no time; their future is now. I was moved by their courage.
One of the most fascinating people we met was Ninfa Deander, editor and publisher of El Manana - Tomorrow. She was literally born at the newspaper her father founded; there is "ink in my blood," as she put it. Ninfa is an attractive, charming, aristocratic and complex woman. She is proud to have Irish, Indian and Spanish blood. I was bothered only by her long cigarette holder and the palatial home in which she hosted us for dinner our first night in Mexico.
She believes in an equilibrium between capitalism and socialism - Mexico needs those who can make money and provide jobs, but at fair wages. She and her late father had heated arguments because he thought the rich cruel, while she saw them as spiritually impoverished but necessary for the poor. Ninfa, however, sides with the maquiladora workers and has taken both business and the government to task for their policies. She said of the workers, "They fear for their jobs, but they are paid nothing." Ninfa believes the corrupt government that has been in control for 70 years "is destroying our soul."
Ninfa has paid a price for her political outspokenness. Over 20 years ago her young son was killed when the newspaper was bombed; she has spent time in jail for alleged slander; the government investigates her paper, constantly looking for violations. As she said rather dramatically, "If the government can't convince you, it will try to buy you; if it can't buy you, it will arrest you; if it can't arrest you, it will kill you." But she seems undeterred, fearless, believing her newspaper is a voice of the people.
These are a few pages from my Mexican journal. So what? What are we to do about the injustice, if we agree there is injustice in the maquiladoras? Like it or not, we have economic globalization. But our thinking and our acting are still provincial. What is required is a globalization of ethics which will spur enforceable national and international rules promoting humane working conditions, environmental safeguards and fair wages. Bill Clinton, who never saw a free trade agreement he didn't like, must be persuaded to incorporate protections for labor and the environment in any trade agreement. Otherwise, more maquiladoras and colonias are guaranteed.
As theologian Joseph Sittler once put it, "Justice is love operating at a distance." It is tempting to discuss the maquiladora and other large-scale economic issues in the abstract. Of course, we must consider capital formation, profit margins, comparative advantage, return on investment and all those other powerful abstractions that comprise economic debate. But it can't stop there.
I think of an image in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in which a bulldozer flattens an Oklahoma farm in the dust bowl of the 1930's. The farmer asks who is doing this - who is wiping out a lifetime of blood, sweat and tears? The bulldozer operator, a friend of the farmer, answers "the bank" - not individuals but an impersonal structure whose inexorable laws seem to govern human actions.
Intellectually I know about the "necessary creative destruction" of capitalism. But I cannot forget the farmer whose life is undermined by "the bank," or Martha and Juan and Estafan and others who are caught in the vortex of these forces and are being crushed by them. We fail to do justice if we do not compute the human cost of seemingly abstract forces. How does one study a slum objectively? I'm afraid I can't.
And so a series of questions: What is a worker worth to a company? Here or in Mexico? Should it not be a human right to earn a family-sustaining wage for full-time work? And what about the 300 auto workers in Syracuse who will soon be out of work as a new plant opens up in Mexico, a question asked by our labor friends from Syracuse.
More specifically, are Rochester companies involved? I tried to get management's view and so called Kodak and Xerox which have plants in Mexico. Xerox gave me five minutes of voice mail and a student packet to be delivered; a friendly but wary Kodak spokesman said they never reveal wages or working conditions. I will persist. If I am to be an ethically responsible shareholder, a practitioner of conscientious capitalism, I need to hold my companies accountable. They're spending my money.
Even more specifically, what can we do? Our Labor-Religion team is exploring how we can help our friends directly. But right now we can support our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's Guest at Your Table program. The connection? UUSC supports development and human rights in Chiapas, a poor region with rich resources which large landowners have taken to amass large profits from agriculture, cattle and oil interests. Many indigenous people are forced to go to the border for work. And we can support UUSC better than one denomination which proudly reported it had given $2 million to alleviate world hunger, 88 cents per member.
Hope is not dead in the colonias. Last summer's election in Mexico brought high hopes for democracy and for electing a reformist president. But the people are not waiting for election 2000. They are taking fate into their own hands - in cardboard shacks and concrete block meeting halls and the streets. Those in the suites had best pay attention. As one worker said, "We would rather die standing than live on our knees." I believe him.
In the words of Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda:
"I must speak to the dead now as if they were here -
brothers and sisters, it will go on
our fight will go on in the land,
in the factories, in the farms, in the streets the fight will go on,
and then, out of the silence your voices will rise
in the mighty shout of freedom
when the hopes of the people flame into hymns of joy."