Environmental Justice Case Study:

Maquiladora Workers and Border Issues

By: Elyse Bolterstein                            

Table of Contents
Key Actors


(EPA, 1999)



Within the last 30 years, the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico has become what the American Medical Association calls, "a virtual cesspool and breeding ground for infectious disease (Public Citizen, 2000)."  The causes of this unfortunate observation are the more than 3,000 manufacturing plants that cover the Mexican border known as the “maquiladoras.”  The maquiladoras are the mostly American-owned factories along the Mexican border that assemble products for export to U.S. markets (Nation’s Health, 1998).


The Mexican maquiladora program, implemented in 1965, created a free trade agreement for foreign companies to bring materials into the country for manufacturing.  The goal of the program was to provide Mexico’s northern cities with a better job market while also providing foreign manufacturers with cheap labor.  The maquiladoras do provide Mexican border cities with a great number of jobs, but at the expense of low wages, terrible working conditions, low job security, and high exposure to toxic chemicals (EHC, 1998).


The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented by the Mexican, U.S., and Canadian governments in 1993.  NAFTA proponents promised that the agreement would help to alleviate many of the current border problems caused by the existing free-trade zone.  NAFTA would also help to improve working conditions, better enforce environmental laws, and decrease the high maquiladora concentration along the border (Public Citizen, 2000). 


Unfortunately, NAFTA did not have the effect that its proponents had talked of.  In 1995, two years after NAFTA was implemented, the maquiladora work force increased by 20%.  The agreement also did little to help disperse the plants further from the border areas.  In 1995, 85% of all maquiladora workers were employed in one of the six Mexican Border States (Public Citizen, 2000).  Another downfall of NAFTA was the disposal of toxic waste from the foreign-owned factories.  Under the original maquiladora program, foreign manufactures were required to return all waste to the country of origin, however NAFTA allows all goods imported to the maquiladoras to remain in Mexico, including the waste products (EHC, 2000).

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 Working Conditions

The 948,658 Mexicans that work in the maquiladoras must endure a terrible working environment that includes inadequate training, exposure to many potentially hazardous materials, and inadequate information and protective equipment (Sawicki, 98).  In a recent survey by the Comite de Apoyo Fronterizo Obrero Regional, 177 workers from 77 maquiladoras in Tijuana and Tecante, Mexico described their work experiences. 

·         One-fifth of the workers surveyed reported illnesses believed to be caused by working conditions.     

·         53% of the workers interviewed claimed not to have received any written information from their employers that explained the hazards of some of the materials used on the job.

·         40% never received any training sponsored by their employer that went over hazards and different safety precautions.

·         40% of the maquiladoras represented in the survey did not have a joint management-worker health and safety commission.  Such a program is required my Mexican law (Nation’s Health, 98).



Hazardous conditions within the maquiladoras are just the beginning of the problem.  The presence of the maquiladoras combined with loosely enforced Mexican environmental laws and a lack of suitable waste storage and treatment facilities, cause the border area to be among the most polluted in Mexico.  Even in the event that one of the factories is shut down for environmental reasons, that does not necessarily mean an end to the factory’s pollution to the surrounding community.  Metales y Derivados, a lead-smelting facility in Tijuana, was shut down in 1994 when its owners failed to comply with toxic waste disposal laws.  However, the waste was never properly treated and/or relocated and is currently leaking through its containers, seeping into the ground, and contaminating community’s water supply (Global Exchange, 2000). 


Air pollution is a great concern along the border.  Border residents are exposed daily to extremely high air-pollutant levels including high levels of carbon monoxide.  Deteriorating water quality is another concern along the border.  There is a considerable amount of pollution that is dumped into the Rio Grande, poisoning wildlife and communities all along the river and causing a much greater Hepatitis A risk (Public Citizen, 1998b). 


 The Maquiladoras’ Effects on the U.S.

Although there have been environmental problems in Mexico since the implementation of the maquiladora plan, industrial damage is becoming more apparent on the United States border.   Water and air pollution generated in Mexican border cities travels freely into the United States.  In cities such as San Diego, CA and El Paso, TX, the air exceeds U.S. ambient air quality standards and ozone levels are extremely high (Public Citizen, 1998b).


Birth defects are a problem on both sides of the border.  A study conducted in 1994 was the first to show that maquiladora workers gave birth to lower weight babies than women who worked in other industries (Eskenazi, 1994).  Since then, studies have progressed to charting remarkable trends in birth defects.


In 1991, public health officials began their study of Brownsville, TX where an inordinate number of cases of anencephaly, babies born missing part or all of their brains, had occurred.  Brownsville is located in Cameron County, which is one of the four Texas border counties.  The pattern in birth defects was originally attributed to regional vitamin B deficiency in pregnant mothers who were then advised to take folic acid supplements (Mathis, 2000).  The families of the anencephalic babies were not convinced by this reasoning and pressured the Texas government to examine the case further (Knight, 1998). 


A study by the Texas Department of Health from 1993 –1996 showed that 15 out of every 10,000 babies born in the four Texas border counties were anencephalic, which is more than double the national rate.  During that same time period, 46 anencephalic births were reported in Cameron County alone, as well as 42 cases directly across the border in Matamoros, Mexico (Knight, 1998).  This trend still continues and in 1998, the Texas Department of Health has declared the entire border area continues to be a “high-risk area [for neural tube defects] compared to the rest of the US." (Public Citizen, 1998b).

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Key Actors

 Comité Ciudadano Pro Restauración del Cañón del Padre, A.C.:  A non-profit organization that is comprised of over 25,000 lower- to middle-class Mexican families who live close to the El Padre Canyon in Tijuana.  The organization was founded in 1980 by its president, Maurilio Sanchez Pachuca, in order to organize communities to fight for workers’ rights and also to provide more information to the communities so that the general public can become more involved in the political processes.  The comité’s main goals today include their continued efforts in providing workshops on health issues and risks for maquiladora workers and also the clean up of Metales y Derivado – an abandoned lead smelter (EHC, 2000).     


 North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (NACEC): Includes Mexico, the United States, and Canada that was formed to prevent trade conflicts between the countries and enforce environmental laws.  The NACEC is comprised of three parts: Council, the environmental ministers from each country; Joint Public Advisory Committee, 5 government appointed official from each country whose main job is to advise the council; and Secretariat, professional staff who conduct research and work with citizen’s petitions. (NACEC, 2000)       


 Environmental Health Coalition (EHC): A grassroots organization that promotes environmental justice through their dedication to the prevention and clean up of toxic waste and contaminated areas.  EHC created the Border Environmental Justice Campaign that works with social justice groups to promote workers’ and communities’ right-to-know about hazardous chemicals used in the maquiladoras in their area (EHC, 1999a).    


 Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network: A volunteer network of over 400 occupational and safety professionals from the United States, Mexico, and Canada who are part of a resource to provide information and assistance regarding the maquiladoras.  The network was started in 1993 at a meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) (Brown, 2000).           
 Large Foreign Corporations: Take advantage of cheap labor and less strict environmental laws along the Mexican border by sending raw materials to Mexico to be assembled in the maquiladoras.  Corporations that are represented along the Mexican border include Ford, GM, Honda, Mattel, Sony, IBM, Fischer Price, and Xerox (Corporate Watch, 1999).


 Mexican Governmental Agencies: Includes the Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare (STPS), Social Security Institute (IMSS), and Department of Health (SSA).  The agencies help to establish laws and regulation regarding maquiladora labor, but have been repeatedly unresponsive to numerous worker complaints (Brown, 2000). 

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Mainly low-income, working-class families inhabit the Mexican borderlands.  The problem lies in the fact that most Mexican maquiladora workers barely earn enough wages to sustain themselves and their families.  Although factory workers in both the U.S. and Mexico perform comparable work, the minimum wage in Mexico is only $3.40 per day compared to $5.75 per hour in the U.S.(Public Citizen, 1998a).  Almost all of the workers’ weekly wages are spent on necessities making it nearly impossible for them to save money and improve their situation.  In 1998, the Mexican government raised minimum wage by 14%, however the consumer price index rose 18.6% that same year (Corporate Watch, 1999).

Text Box: Wages of an Average Worker
Credit: Information as provided by Auto Trim de Mexico S. A. de C. V workers
Type of employment: Worker from Auto Trim de Mexico S. A. de C. V
Work Schedule: 40 hours per week
Wage per hour: $1.04
Weekly salary: $58.09
Discount for union dues (4%): $2.32
Net pay: $55.77

Text Box: Average Fixed Weekly Expenses for a Worker
Food    		26.90
Butane  	1.50
Rent  		10.00
Electricity 	3.00
Transportation	3.00
Refrigerator 	7.30
Water 		2.00         
TOTAL 	54.00

Woman and child labor is also commonly exploited in the borderlands.  60% of all maquiladora workers are female and many of them are younger than 20.  Women and children typically receive 10% to 30% less wages than men performing comparable work.  Although it is legal to work in Mexico at age 16, it is not uncommon for forged documents to allow children as young as 12 years old to work in the maquiladoras (MLNA, 1999).           

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 Organization of communities and groups

With so many people in border towns who are affected by the maquiladoras, there has to be a method of organizing groups into a more powerful force in order to bring about a more efficient campaign.  One of these groups is Comité Ciudadano Pro Restauración del Cañón del Padre, A.C.  Since its start in 1980, the group has successfully rallied 23 communities together in the struggle against the maquiladoras.  Through community outreach and organization, the Comité Ciudadano Pro Restauración del Cañón del Padre, A.C. has helped to close down Metales y Derivados and Alco Pacifico, two large lead smelters, because they were not in compliance with Mexican environmental laws and therefore a public hazard (EHC, 2000).


One way for Mexican citizens to speak out against environmental hazards is to file a petition through the NACEC against the offending corporation.  In 1998, the Environmental Health Coalition and Comité Ciudadano Pro Restauración del Cañón del Padre, A.C. have filed such a petition with the NACEC regarding the clean up of the 5,400 tons of toxic waste which remained after the shut down of Metales y Derivados in 1994.  Their citizen’s petition is currently being considered by the NACEC (Global Exchange, 2000a).   

The process of filing a petition with the NACEC is a long and complicated process that involves multiple reviews of the submission by the Secretariat as well as an opportunity for the offending party to comment on the situation, which is a process that can be completed in an unlimited amount of time.  Another problem in the system is that it does not allow for the filing citizens or group to challenge the offending party’s position on the case or be directly involved in the process.  Finally, even if the group does make it through all the preliminary requirements and prove that the offending party is at fault, there is no law that forces the party to comply with the environmental laws.  The filing citizens have to hope that another party or government will become involved in the situation and pursue the claim further.  Even though the petition process has its flaws, it is still a reasonably effective way to bring more attention to the problem (EHC, 2000).  

 File Complaints with the Government

Unfortunately, one of the least effective strategies in the fight for worker’s rights is contacting Mexican government agencies. Workers at the Auto Trim and Custom Trim plants in Valle Hermoso and Matamoros, Mexico have been trying for over two years to get the Mexican Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare (STPS) to conduct an inspection of the plants.  The workers have written many detailed letters describing their exposure to hazardous chemicals, lack of information about work-related health and environmental issues, as well as the company’s disregard of Mexican environmental laws.  The workers have yet to hear back from STPS (Brown, 2000).       

 Help and Support for Maquiladora Workers

La Casa de la Mujer - Grupo Factor X is an organization that is dedicated to providing information to all maquiladora workers, but what makes this group special is that they cater to women, who incidentally make up 60% of the maquiladora work force (MLNA, 1999).  La Casa de la Mujer was originally formed in 1989 by the feminist group, Emancipación, to advocate legal abortion.  The group and cause gained national attention when the Mexican federal police imprisoned 14 of its members.  The group than joined forces with other American social-rights groups and turned their attention to the environmental problems involving the maquiladoras. La Casa has held numerous workshops on health, reproductive and workers’ rights, domestic violence, and environmental hazards for maquiladora workers (Martinez, 1999).    


 Fair Trade Stores

An indirect way to help the border situation is to simply not buy products produced by maquiladora-owning companies.  Global exchange, along with other non-profit organizations, owns several fair trade stores where consumers can be assured that they are not contributing to the horrible working conditions of the maquiladoras.  Many fair trade stores guarantee equal opportunities, gender equality, no child labor, and 15-30% of the retail price to their artisans, who would ordinarily earn a very small portion of the profits (Global Exchange, 2000b).

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The maquiladoras present a very complex list of problems to the people living on both side of the border, so a single, concrete solution is nearly impossible to formulate.  In an email interview Laura Durazo, a coordinator of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educacion Ambiental (PFEA), reiterated this complexity: “There are policy issues, legal issues, compliance issues, technological advances issues, financial issues, social, cultural political and infrastructure ones as well.  All of these are factors that contribute to environmental justice problems (Durazo, 2000).”                                 

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For this case study, I will focus on the opinions and recommendations from three different groups and/or people that are involved with the border campaign: the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), PFEA, and Lori Saldaña, a former chairwoman of the City of San Diego's Wetlands Advisory Board.


As mentioned previously, the EHC conducts extensive work with border issues through their Border Environmental Justice Campaign (BEJC).  BEJC has four main points of recommendation to help improve the border situation.

· Right-to-Know: Promote workers’ rights to know what chemicals and hazards they are exposed to in the workplace.

· Amend NAFTA: Currently NAFTA’s regulations for protecting maquiladora workers and the environment are weak and not often enforced.  The agreement needs to be amended to help provide for the health and safety of the workers.

· Right to Participate: Many workers refuse to speak out against working conditions for fear of losing  their job and being blacklisted from other factories.  Every citizen should be guaranteed the right to participate in the implementation of projects that can affect their quality of life.  BEJC calls for government and industry to require public participation in big decisions that affect everyone.

· Toxic Waste Cleanup: The cleanup of abandoned toxic waste sites and maquiladoras such as Metales    y Derivados (EHC, 1999b).    

Proyecto Fronterizo de Educacion Ambiental is a Mexican based non-profit organization that deals with border environmental issues.  The main goal of PFEA is to promote public participation in matters of pollution prevention and resource preservation along the Mexican-American border (EHC, 1999b).  Members of the organization believe that the better exchange of information and more educational opportunities are key in starting to solve the border problem.  The organization has been influential in the past in helping to make changes in environmental policy such as the promotion of a community’s right to information.  This victory was a big step for the border issues and PFEA is ready to fight the border challenges that are yet to come (Durazo, 2000).    


Lori Saldaña is still involved in wetland conservation in San Diego, CA and has been the plaintiff in a lawsuit regarding the construction of a wastewater treatment plant in the Tijuana River Valley.  Her recommendations are very similar to those of the EHC and include a greater enforcement of Mexican environmental laws, encouraging maquiladora owners to better invest in the infrastructure of northern Mexico, and also developing funding programs to improve conditions along the border (Saldaña, 96).

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Border Areas.  IPS News Reports.  Retrieved November 15, 2000 from the World Wide Web:                 http://www.oneworld.org/ips2/june98/19_57_093.html


Brown, Garrett.  (2000).  Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network Newsletter. Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network.                 Retrieved November 20, from the World Wide Web: http://www.igc.org/mhssn/news.htm


Corporate Watch.  (1999).  Maquiladoras at a Glance.  Retrieved November 26, from the World Wide Web:                                                                  http://www.igc.org/trac/feature/border/factsheet.html#industry


Durazo, Laura.  “Re: Maquiladora information.”  Proyecto Fronterizo de Educacion Ambiental. pfea@mail.tij.cetys.mx.  (2000, December 4)


Environmental Health Coalition.  (1999a).  MAQUILADORAS.  Retrieved November 19, from the World Wide Web:                                                       http://www.igc.org/ehc/images/maquiladoras.html


Environmental Health Coalition.  (1999b).  Border Environmental Justice Campaign. Retrieved November 19, from the World Wide Web:                http://www.igc.org/ehc/border.html


Environmental Health Coalition.  (2000).  Metales y Derivados.  Retrieved November 19, from the World Wide Web:                                                    http://www.igc.org/ehc/cec.html


Environmental Protection Agency.  (1999)  U.S.-Mexico Border Map.  Retrieved November 26, 2000 from the World Wide Web:                               http://www.epa.gov/earth1r6/6en/h/haztraks/usmexmap.htm


Eskenazi, Brenda.  (1994).  Low birth weights at maquiladoras.  Occupational Hazards.  Vol 56/Issue 2. 


Global Exchange.  (2000a).  Exploring California.  Retrieved November 26, from the World Wide Web:                           http://www.globalexchange.org/education/california/  


Global Exchange.  (2000b).  Fair Trade: Shop without sweat(shops)!  Retrieved November 26, from the World Wide Web:                                         http://www.globalexchange.org/stores/ 


Knight, Danielle.  (1998, June 18).  HEALTH: Birth Defects Continue in US-Mexico Maquiladora workers report unhealthful working conditions.            (1998).  Nation’s Health.  Vol 28/Issue 1.


Martinez, Luz Aida Ruiz.  (1999).  La Casa de la Mujer - Grupo Factor X.  Retrieved November 26, from the World Wide Web:                                  http://www.f8.com/FP/TIJUANA/English/PROJECTS/Luz1.htm


Mathis, Deborah. (2000, April 12).  Deadly birth defects defy modern medicine.  USA Today On-line.  Retrieved October 14, 2000 from the                World Wide Web: http://www.usatoday.com/life/health/child/lhchi146.htm       


Mexican Labor News & Analysis.  (1999, March 2).  No. of Women Working in the Maquiladora Industry.  Retrieved November 26, from the                World Wide Web: http://www.igc.org/unitedelect/vol4no4.html 


North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation.  (2000).  Retrieved November 27, 2000 from the World Wide Web:                 http://www.cec.org/home/index.cfm?varlan=english  


Public Citizen.  (1998a).  The NAFTA Index.  Retrieved November 15, 2000 from the World Wide Web:                            http://www.citizen.org/pctrade/nafta/naftaindex.htm


Public Citizen.  (1998b).  NAFTA at 5.  Retrieved November 15, 2000 from the World Wide Web:                                       http://www.citizen.org/pctrade/nafta/reports/5years.htm


Public Citizen.  (2000).  NAFTA's Broken Promises: The Border Betrayed.  Retrieved November 15, 2000 from the World Wide Web:                        http://www.citizen.org/pctrade/nafta/reports/enviro96.htm


Saldaña, Lori.  (1996, August 22).  The Downside of the Border Boom.  L.A. Times. Retrieved November 15, 2000 from the World Wide Web:                 http://www.sierraclub.org/chapters/sandiego/border.html


Sawicki, Steve.  (1998, Jul/Aug).  The maquiladoras: Back door pollution.  Norwalk: the environmental magazine.  Volume 9/ Issue 4.


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