EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Prior to February, the biggest worry at U.S.-run maquiladoras in Mexico was finding enough workers.
The industry stood at a record 6,300 plants and its economic activity surpassed Mexican oil exports, tourism and remittances. It also broke the 3 million-employee mark, according to Luis Aguirre Lang, president of Index, formerly the Mexican National Maquiladora Association.
Then COVID-19 struck. Today 1.5 million maquiladora workers are sitting at home in Mexico, many at half pay, and some of those who remain on the assembly line have staged protests or missed work alleging lack of personal protective equipment.
In Juarez, at least 17 maquiladora workers have died from the coronavirus (health authorities haven’t updated that number in a week) and many factories remain closed.
Now, as the Mexican government prepares to reopen its economy on June 1, the plants are struggling to ensure a safe resumption of activities amid international scrutiny.
Cesar Ochoa Reyes, a Harvard graduate and Juarez business lawyer, said he’s giving some basic advice to his clients.
“The first is that you have to observe the law. If you are essential, keep working; if you’re not essential, you have to stop. If you have production lines that are non-essential, bring them to a stop. That’s the law,” Ochoa said Wednesday on a Facebook Live teleconference.
He said it’s difficult for those involved in manufacturing to stop working because meeting production quotas “is part of their DNA.” However, he believes people have to uphold the law, especially in times of crisis.
“They should keep a folder where they can prove they’re doing things right, that they have their documents in order. When the inspector comes they should be ready to prove you’re doing essential work,” Ochoa said.
But the most important advice he’s doling out to maquiladora managers in Juarez and Chihuahua City is to not neglect their workers. That means procuring the necessary personal protective equipment inside the factories and making sure the host community has the needed infrastructure to take care of its workers.
“You have to take care of your workers,” he said, adding that he’s seen plenty of that, as the multinationals that own or have a stake in the Mexican plants have made donations of medical supplies to medical institutions.
“We have to assume co-responsibility to ensure workers will be taken care of,” Ochoa said.
Maquiladora leader Aguirre said donations of medical equipment have exceeded $5 million nationwide and have primarily consisted of personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses.
“We don’t fall behind in our social responsibility,” he said during the teleconference. “We have values of being generous and showing solidarity with those who need it the most right now.”
Addressing the social distancing and re-engineering of workspaces the Mexican government is requiring of large businesses in order to reopen, Aguirre said the maquiladoras’ priority is to reopen in a safe manner.
Many of the plants assemble parts or components for big Detroit automakers. Others craft electronics and computer parts. Many are also involved in the medical supply industry.
He said some maquiladoras assemble products for Chinese companies and that those companies — being months ahead in handling the COVID-19 pandemic — have given valuable advice to the Mexican plants on how to prepare for a safe resumption of operations.
And open they must, he said. The industry has sent 1.5 million workers home since March and has seen exports reduced by $2.5 billion in March and $10 billion in April, he noted.
“The industry, like (the Mexican government), is committed to upholding protocols according to international standards,” he said, adding that the government “has a shared responsibility to reactivate this important sector that is being greatly impacted.”
Border Report posted questions to the speakers regarding how many employees had either died or gotten sick from the coronavirus so far, but the questions weren’t addressed.