Occupational Health News Roundup

Maquiladora workers (manufacturing workers) in Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, are at the center of a growing worker rebellion in border factories, which employ more than 69,000 people, are nearly all foreign-owned, and pay some of the lowest wages along the border, reports David Bacon in The Nation. In fact, manufacturing workers in Juárez typically make 18 percent less than the average manufacturing worker in one of Mexico’s border cities. Bacon reports:

Ali Lopez, a single mother at the planton outside the ADC CommScope factory, describes grinding poverty. “The only way a single mother can survive here is with help from family or friends,” she says. Lopez has two daughters, one 13 and one 6 years old. “I can’t spend any time with them because I’m always working. When I leave in the morning, I leave food for the older one to warm up for lunch. Childcare would cost 200 pesos a week or more, so I can’t afford it.”

A cold winter has already descended on Ciudad Juárez, close to freezing at night. Parents worry that children at home alone with a heater for warmth risk fire in highly flammable homes of cardboard or castoff pallets from factories. “We just have enough money to eat soup and beans,” she explains. “We don’t eat meat.” Lopez’s wage is 600 pesos a week (about $36). “No one can live on this. A fair wage would be 250 pesos a day. In the United States people make in one hour what it takes us all day to earn.”

Bacon reports that the new worker movement began in August, as anger over workplace conditions began to boil over. For example, at the company CommScope, supervisors reportedly charged 50 pesos a week to put a worker’s name on the list for overtime. A CommScope worker who complained was sent to a special work area known as “the prison,” according to a worker interviewed in the story. In mid-September, nearly 200 CommScope workers filed a request for an independent union. However, the company began retaliating, eventually firing 171 workers in October. Bacon reports:

This new wave of worker protests, therefore, is breaking the fear and terror that has gripped working-class neighborhoods for over a decade. Elizabeth Flores has been director of the Pastoral Center for Workers, a center within the Catholic diocese of Ciudad Juárez that has advocated for the welfare of maquiladora workers for the past 15 years. According to Flores, “Each week a woman comes through our center looking for her daughter. At the same time, parents have lost hope that any better future awaits their children other than a job in the maquiladora. And young people themselves don’t want to go to work there. Spend their lives—for what?”

Nevertheless, she says, “People are tired of the abuse, which has been terrible. They had to lose their fear to protest, but desperation and anger are potent antidotes to fear.”

Read the entire article at The Nation.

In other news:

ABC13 News Houston: Reporters Ted Oberg and Trent Seibert investigate whether OSHA has the capacity to keep workers in Houston safe, noting that no other OSHA office is responsible for more refineries than the Houston South office. In addition, Houston is home to the highest rate of new construction in the country. Currently, OSHA has 24 compliance officers to cover the entire Houston area. Oberg and Seibert write: “Interviews with attorneys suggest that companies — armed with teams of attorneys — can chip away at big OSHA fines until the firms are paying just pennies on the dollar. ‘OSHA has to move on,’ attorney Lance Walters said. ‘There are over 4000 deaths a year in Texas. They have other cases they have to worry about. When they’re limited in manpower and resources there’s only so much they can do.’”

The Hill: Reporters Tim Devaney and Lydia Wheeler write that congressional Republicans are unveiling the National Labor Relations Board Reform Act, which would roll back the agency’s ability to oversee workplace disputes and slash its budget.

In These Times: Bruce Vail reports that the Fight for $15 has landed on the doorsteps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Cooks and waiters working for a catering company that operates the Senate restaurant are calling for better wages and the right to form a union. In fact, Vail reports that 34 members of the Senate are standing in support of the campaign. In a letter to members of the Senate who oversee the catering contract, chef James Powell wrote: “I’ve worked as a Senate chef for 5 years, but I only make $13 an hour. I’m a single father and it’s hard to support my son on a poverty wage. The cost of living in Washington is so expensive that I recently ended up homeless. I lived in an abandoned house for nearly two months. That’s how long it took me to save up enough money to rent a bedroom in an apartment. I often had to skip meals to save money.”

My Fox Memphis: Chris Higginbottom, 39, a single father of twin boys, was killed while working at a FedEx hub in Memphis. The death is the shipping company’s third in five years. According to the news report, Higginbottom died after crashing a large vehicle used to move merchandise to and from FedEx airplanes and the warehouse. OSHA is conducting an investigation. The article reports: “After looking through previous OSHA investigations, FOX13 discovered similar reports and incidents in the past. In each case, an employee either fell off of heavy equipment, or heavy equipment fell on top of the employee.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.