Alice Nutter, from the rock band Chumbawamba was part of a No Sweat delegation that visited Puebla, Mexico, in September. No Sweat met independent trade union activists who are attempting to unionise the sweatshop factories in the region. This is part of Alice's report.
"Carlton Heston? Charlton Heston?" said Gaby "No entiendo Charlton Heston."
"Course you know Charlton Heston!" I screamed back "Film star! Bastard! Guns everywhere!"
"Non, no entiendo Charlton Heston!"
Introducing the Rizla game to Mexican friends - where you have to guess whose name is on the cigarette paper stuck to your head - was less than successful. Our cultural reference points were just too different, seems the only people we all knew were Mexican revolutionaries and Madonna.
A group of us from No Sweat were travelling through central Mexico with sacked workers from the Tarrant factory in Tehucan and the people from the CAT (a support centre for workers.) CAT had organised for us to talk to many of the people working in Mexico's maquiladoras (sweat-shops.) Ben, a labour organiser from Seattle, was simultaneously acting as our translator and trying to work out whose name was glued to his head.
Raymundo was King Kong; he was also one of the 220 Tarrant workers sacked for trying to set up an independent union. Raymundo kept giving speeches thanking us for being there but we were well aware that thanks weren't due to us but to the Mexicans who were sticking their heads above the parapet and struggling against globalisation.
Inside the maquiladoras it's normal to take home the equivalent of £20 to £30 pounds a week for a minimum of 48 hours. The majority of workers are women. Their wages keep whole families, and the Mexican cost of living is not much below that of Britain. If a boss of a maquiladora decides he wants the workers to do overtime he just tells them that they're not going home, and if he decides not to pay them for that overtime then the money just doesn't turn up in their pay cheques. The Tarrant workers had responded to this sort of treatment by trying to form a union - at which point they were surprised to learn they already had one and they'd been paying dues to it for years.
These "sleeping" unions are called Charro unions and they usually spring to life when a company wants to stop workers from joining together and demanding decent working conditions. A few pesos disappear from each week's pay cheque - it's always nominal, never enough to ring alarm bells - and when workers try and form an independent union they discover they are already fully paid up members of a union, which disqualifies them from forming another.
Augustino worked at the Matamoros Garments factory until it closed down in summer. The workers there had tried to form an independent union and the company responded, first by producing a Charro union and then by taking all the machines out the factory and setting up shop somewhere else. Despite being left without a job for several months, Augustin doesn't regret opposing the Charro and trying to set up an independent union:
"A charro union doesn't know what it's like to sit at a machine ten hours a day. They don't know what it's like not be able to go out to the infirmary if your son or daughter is sick; they don't know these things because they don't work alongside us. The charro union never even showed itself until we demanded rights and then all they did was come and pick up their dues. I don't regret trying to form a new union; I would do it again!"
Sat in Augustin's yard in the fading evening light, her breeze block house looked very much like all the other grey concrete homes we visited. Augustin's meagre possessions make a mockery of the 50s American dream of production-line workers one day owning the consumer goods they produce. There were two rooms instead of one but the bare floor, stark light bulb, dodgy electrics, two obligatory chickens and lack of all discernible luxuries were the same. None of the houses had plumbing, water collected in rain butts and toilets were long drop stone affairs in makeshift sheds - which was fine in daylight but more difficult to manoeuvre at night. Going to the loo in pitch darkness, I only realised I had missed the toilet and was pissing on one of Augustin's chickens when it registered great offence and screeched off... which is more or less what Matamoros Garments did when the women who worked in the factory demanded decent food and payment for the hours they actually worked.
Standing outside the deserted Matamoros factory it's obvious that nature has started to claim back the land that the factory is built on. Huge weeds reach the top of the seven feet high steel fence which circles the building. Built on a green field site, this is the only factory in a rural area. It's a deliberate strategy - if the factory is the only work going then workers are more or less forced to accept whatever terms and conditions the company offer. Part of the reason that the company could so easily up-sticks is that it hadn't shelled out much in investment; the land that Matamoros Garments was built on used to be communal land but the government had sold it for $1.
Mexican communal lands are called ejidos and they make up almost half of the national territory. Ejidos are a direct result of the Mexican revolution: article 27 of the post revolutionary constitution of 1917 decreed land reform. Designed to break-up the ancient hacienda system where corrupt and absentee landlords ruled while peasants starved, ejidos gave each rural community a piece of communal land. This land could not be broken up or sold but was to be passed from generation to generation, in rural areas, ejidos became crucial to the survival of whole communities.
The PRI (the party which ruled Mexico for almost a century) decided that the ejido law was against the interests of trade and "modernising" Mexico (read, "against the interests of George Bush senior's new world order".) Until the mid nineties almost a quarter of all Mexicans worked the land, either on small farms, eijdos or small holdings. The land provided a secure living and continuity but the PRI decided that working the land was "backward". It set about "restructuring" Mexico, destroying the peasant class and making Mexico fit the model America liked; intensive agribusiness with almost all the crops destined for export.
In 1992 the ejido law was repealed and communal land began to be sold off at a dollar a parcel. Millions of Mexican peasants lost their land and entire communities were destroyed. The price of corn shot up, species of maize (Mexico's staple) began to disappear, but the profits of American agribusiness reached record levels. Zapatista Subcommandante Marcos wrote about this in 1996:
"We, the indigenous people are not profitable. We are a bad investment... Power's money does not want to buy merchandise which does not yield good profits... Today, the shopkeeper has to modernise his store and get rid of all merchandise that is unattractive. And we, with our dark skin and our overwhelming need to stay close to the earth... we are not attractive."*
I was depressed when we climbed back into the van after meeting Augustin. She had attempted to form a union and all she had got for her pains was sacked and blacklisted. She was working again but in a maquiladora inside someone's house, for even less pay than she was receiving at Matamoros Garments. Travelling back to Puebla (where we were based) I had to remind myself that the reason she lost her job was that capital was running away from people's desire to be treated like human beings, and humanity transcends nationality, so we have to just keep chasing the money around the globe whether it's India, Indonesia, China, Mexico, the UK or elsewhere.
The money and the power was currently in the hands of Oscar Gasca, who manages the Tarrant factory in Tehucan. 50,000 denim workers means that the region is the jeans capital of the world. The pretty colonial style square in the centre is very different from the rural poverty in which most of the inhabitants of Tehucan live. With no strike fund and the CAT desperately trying to raise money to give the sacked workers a few pesos a week, the sacked workers still insisted that we go to one of their homes and eat with them.
I learnt to make tortillas, cooked on a gas burning stove in the yard, and it was all going well until somebody told our hosts I was in a band. The Tarrant workers asked me to sing and I attempted to commit suicide by forcing a homemade tortilla into my wind-pipe. It didn't work and I had to seem rude and decline; it was better to be thought ignorant than inflict my unaccompanied voice on them. The irony was that when I was drunk and screaming Clash songs out in the van a few nights later they told me to shut up! As Mick from No Sweat pointed out: "They were desperate for you to sing, and when you did they were desperate for you to stop!"
A couple of days later Mick was humming: "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun" as we stood outside the Tarrant factory in the baking heat of the September afternoon. Factor 25 suncream wasn't enough. One of the sacked workers, Elvio, had her four-month-old baby in her arms. He seemed undisturbed by the heat, but I guess he was used to it. Doing our best impersonation of Mark Thomas, we asked to see the factory manager, Oscar Gasca. Security played the game back to us and said we had to make an appointment because he was 50 miles away at a meeting.
They must have been 50 very short miles because two minutes later Oscar Gasca turned up in a four wheel drive and replied to our request for a meeting with a gesture which meant: "Go fuck your Mama!" Wish I'd shouted: "That would be necrophillia as well as incest!" But I didn't, I just stood back and watched the money drive into the factory it had locked the workers out of.
A couple of days later we ended up chasing the money straight into the office of Puebla's Labour Board. The board's track record was not good, in the case of Matamoros Garments they had sided with the company and not the workers, but if it so wished the board could uphold the new union and force Tarrant to reinstate the sacked workers.
Armando Toxqui Quintero, President of the Labour Board, glided into the room like a basking shark. Quintero had dead eyes behind rimless glasses and the Tarrant workers had asked us to meet him to demonstrate international support. The Puebla Labour Board isn't an altruistic body, it has a reputation for corruption, for siding with companies and power. As soon as he entered the room Quintero demanded to see business cards; all I had was a gym membership and a Boots Advantage card. That would make him think the international thumb screws were really going to turn! We asked for assurances that the labour board were going to rule in the Tarrant workers' favour and Quintero looked bored and condescending when he claimed that it would happen "as long as all the legalities are in order".
A week later the board decided against the Tarrant workers on the grounds that one worker's name was spelt wrong on the application and they had been supplied with a photocopied document instead of a duplicate. It took a very, very fine tooth comb but they managed to wreck lives and let international business know that the Labour Board and the government weren't on the side of uppity workers. Those sacked have been blacklisted as troublemakers, so there isn't much chance of finding work in maquiladoras which pay the going rate. Many of them will end up just going over the border as illegal migrants.
Before we left Mexico we met the Christino family. Three of their five children had crossed the border illegally and were working to pay off the $1,400 it had cost each of them. "They send money back," said Christino Cazales Duarte as we sat in the fading dusk in his yard. "They worked in maquiladoras here but it wasn't enough to meet their needs. When they were younger we took care of them and now they have to take care of us."
According to Edward Said, migration is the symbol of the 20th century - and for many Mexicans it's the only way to survive globalisation and provide for their families, many of whom will be left behind as parents go over the border to work as cheap labour in a country whose language they don't understand. Suddenly the victims of globalisation have human faces and families and globalisation isn't just the WTO, it's a million corrupt Labour Boards, a British Labour party which allows money to cross borders freely but not people, it's the Pace electronics factory closing in Shipley, West Yorkshire and moving to Mexico where the labour is cheaper, and it's a media unable to file sympathetic reports on strikers - whether they be Liverpool dockworkers or Mexican peasants. This is the face of modern capitalism and to paraphrase Oscar Gasca and Philip Larkin, globalisation it fucks you up!
Taken from One No, Many Yeses, Paul Kingsnorth, The Free Press.
- Chumbawamba, PO Box TR666, Leeds, LS12 3XJ, UK
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Mexican workers solidarity
- Donations can be made to the CAT via No Sweat's website - www.nosweat.org.uk - or sent by cheque payable to "Mexican Workers' Solidarity" to No Sweat, PO Box 36707, London SW9 8YA.