Juarez fights US pressure to reopen maquiladoras during ‘worst part’ of pandemic

Trade

30 new cases and 9 additional deaths reported in Mexican border city that doesn't expect outbreak to peak until mid-May

Workers of TECMA, a cross-border plant (maquiladora) are seen on September 29 in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state. The company has about 3,000 employees and gives its services to more than 25 clients of the world. (Jesus Alcazar/AFP via Getty Images)

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Mexico shouldn’t budge amid pressure from the U.S. to reopen American-run plants south of the border while the COVID-19 pandemic rages, a Juarez health official said.

“As much as they need our industry — our maquilas and our commerce — we cannot and we should not, responsibly, open non-essential activities because we’re on the most difficult part of the pandemic,” said Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, head of the Chihuahua state Health Department in Juarez. “We cannot go at the same pace as the U.S.”

Juarez on Thursday reported 30 new cases of COVID-19 and nine new deaths. The city that’s home to some 300 manufacturing plants linked to the U.S. automobile, medical, and electronics industries has recorded 73 deaths and 289 cases so far, though officials admit the numbers could be higher due to limited testing.

At least 17 of the dead were maquiladora workers. Employees of at least three plants this month have staged protests, demanding to be sent home at full pay or alleging they were exposed to sick workers.

Dr. Arturo Valenzuela Zorrilla, head of the Chihuahua state Health Department in Juarez. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

“For many reasons, we have the highest number of cases, the highest number of deaths (in the state) and we cannot give in to pressure from the United States to reopen one sector or sectors (of the economy) during the worst part of the epidemic,” Valenzuela said. “We’re on Phase 3 and no place in the world should open its economy during the worst part of an epidemic. It’s that clear.”

Last week, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau urged keeping North American supply chains intact. He expressed concern about virus lockdowns damaging the flow of parts and goods and warned that “if we do not coordinate our response, these chains can evaporate.”

“There are risks everywhere, but we don’t all stay at home for fear we are going to get in a car accident,” Landau wrote. “The destruction of the economy is also a health threat.”

Ellen Lord, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, voiced similar concerns, the Associated Press reported.

“We are seeing impacts on the industrial base by several pockets of closure internationally. Particularly of note is Mexico, where we have a group of companies that are impacting many of our major primes,” she said.

And this week, the president of Mexico’s National Maquiladora Association told reporters he expected the plants to reopen in a matter of days. “Production won’t return at 100 percent — we think 30 to 40 percent,” Gerardo Vazquez told the Financial Times. “It’s very important to do this in a coordinated fashion so we don’t lose jobs in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.”

But Valenzuela said Juarez won’t reach the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic until mid-May or possibly the end of May.

“Certainly, there will be more cases. The maquiladora industry employs 300,000 or more people in our state. It’s an economic engine we should conserve, yet it’s a workplace that is vulnerable to the spread (of COVID-19),” Valenzuela said. “They are very large spaces with many people inside. We continue to investigate how many plants have had outbreaks and how many workers have died.”

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