Working conditions for crap

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Thu Feb 15 12:15:38 MST 2001

February 15, 2001
Profits Raise Pressures on U.S.-Owned Factories in Mexican Border Zone


Wesley Bocxe for The New York Times
Oscar Chavez Diaz, a factory worker, eating dinner inside his home, a converted bus.


CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico * Juan Tovar Santos, an assembly- line worker in this border
city, will not forget the time he traveled to Alcoa's annual shareholders meeting in
Pittsburgh and confronted the chief executive about working conditions in Alcoa
factories here.

After Paul H. O'Neill, the Alcoa chief executive who became President Bush's treasury
secretary last month, trumpeted the company's growing profits, Mr. Tovar stepped to a
microphone. At the time Mr. Tovar, who was earning about $6 a day, described Alcoa
managers so stingy that they stationed a janitor at bathroom doors to limit workers to
just three pieces of toilet paper. He also recounted an incident in which more than
100 workers had been overcome by fumes from a gas leak and taken to hospitals.

Mr. O'Neill, stunned by the descriptions, defended conditions in Ciudad Acuña. "Our
plants in Mexico are so clean they can eat off the floor," he said.

"That's a lie," Mr. Tovar shot back, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. And
he produced news clippings describing the hospitalization of his co-workers from the
gas leak.

After Mr. O'Neill's own investigation determined that the chief executive of one of
Alcoa's operations had covered up the leak, Mr. O'Neill dismissed him and began to
improve conditions at the eight Acuña plants owned by Alcoa Fujikura Ltd., an Alcoa
joint venture with a Japanese company. Today, Alcoa pays wages that are among Acuña's

Still, since that meeting in 1996, tensions have continued to flare in this city
across from Del Rio, Tex. There have been difficult meetings between Alcoa workers and
managers to discuss pay, benefits and bathroom breaks. There was a confrontation last
October in a factory parking lot in which Acuña police officers lobbed tear gas at
disgruntled workers.

In Acuña, as in other border settlements, Mexican workers earn such miserable wages
and American companies pay such minimal taxes that its schools are a shambles, its
hospital crumbling, its trash collection slapdash, and its sewage lines collapsed.
Half of Acuña's 150,000 residents now use backyard latrines.

Over the years, Mexico and its people came to accept these conditions in return for
steady jobs. But now everyone from Mexican tax officials to environmental experts in
both countries are debating the rules, written and unwritten, under which the mostly
American corporations have operated on the border. There is rising concern that as
factories making everything from sneakers to televisions have spread through the
developing world, labor rights and environmental standards have often been overlooked.

"Acuña is a disgrace," said Javier Villarreal Lozano, a Mexican historian who directs
a government-financed cultural institute in Coahuila, the state that includes Acuña.
"A hundred years ago, U.S. employers would have been ashamed of these conditions.
Henry Ford's workers living in cardboard boxes? He'd never have tolerated it."


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