At the new Mazda assembly plant in Salamanca, Mexico, 20 workers were fired in March for supporting a co-worker who was being sexually harassed by their supervisor.
According to workers, the accused supervisor would use the cultural practice of a kiss on the cheek as an excuse to get sexual. He would stalk women at work and force himself on them physically.
While traditionally most Mexican auto industry workers have been men, in the state of Guanajuato, where the Salamanca factory is located, women make up about half the auto workforce. They tend to be single—as in the maquiladoras, the Mexican textile factories which prefer women because bosses feel they are more vulnerable and can be paid less.
One worker first complained about this sexual harassment—to the company and the union, using the established complaint procedures—back in May of last year, but the situation was allowed to continue. Next, workers took their case to government agencies, with witnesses and support statements, again with no results.
So “we decided to protest,” said Tadeo Velaquez, one of the 20 fired workers. “We were [all] being harassed at work by this supervisor. It was so intense that it was really difficult to work in a good environment. He would mistreat and bully us all the time.
“Then we heard that one of our partners, a woman, was sexually harassed by him. He wasn’t just disrespecting us; he was also sexually abusing her.”
In March, workers on a subassembly line organized a work-to-rule slowdown. That grabbed management’s attention. A meeting was held. Management and the union agreed to handle the problem with the supervisor.
“We were informed that we weren’t going to be punished for the demonstration,” said Edgar Capetillo, another fired worker. “We had a mutual agreement with the union that nothing was going to happen to us. But 15 days later, we were removed from our duties.”
They were fired without explanation. All 20 of the workers were male.
Pushy New Plant
Representatives of the fired workers appeared on the local news program, Zona Franca, and asked their fellow workers for support. Another woman came forward with her story of harassment.
The supervisor was given two days off. Many workers feel he should be fired.
Supervisor bullies are common at this plant, where management is pushing arduous hours and an intense pace. Workers on the assembly line have suffered injuries to the tendons in their hands, spinal injuries, even convulsions.
Production would stop for nothing, according to the fired workers—if a worker was having convulsions, they would simply be carried away and replaced by another worker.
The plant opened last year with 3,000 employees. It’s in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, Mazda’s only North American assembly site.
This is the first time in decades that the company has run an overseas plant on its own. The last one, in Flat Rock, Michigan, became a joint venture with Ford in 1992, and Mazda ceased production there in 2012.
The Salamanca plant’s annual capacity is initially targeted at 140,000 vehicles. Production is slated to grow to 230,000 in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2016.
After the plant reaches full production, about 30 percent of the Mazda vehicles sold in the United States will be sourced from North America—compared with virtually none today. At full capacity, it will employ 4,600 people.
Mexico’s Auto Boom
Mazda isn’t alone. Mexico just surpassed Brazil as the seventh-largest auto producer in the world, producing 3.2 million vehicles last year. By 2020 it’s expected to reach 5.1 million.
Toyota has announced a new $1 billion plant in Guanajuato that will employ 2,000 workers and make 200,000 vehicles. GM is investing $5 billion between 2013 and 2018, adding 5,600 new jobs to the 15,000 it already employs in Mexico. Ford projects another $2.5 billion.
The combination of tariff-free manufacturing, low wages, cheap land, few enforced regulations, and easy access to global markets make Mexico a prime manufacturing center. In the last five years companies have announced $20 billion in investments made or planned.
Salaries have stagnated. One recent study—by a financial institution, the Grupo Financiero BVA Bancomer—found more than half of all working people in Mexico earn less than twice the minimum wage, or about $7 per day. Ten percent receive less than the minimum, $3.50 a day.
These days, if plants in Mexico are threatened with closure, it’s to move the work to Asia. But a Bank of America study found that while in 2003 Mexico’s average wages were 188 percent higher than China’s, today they’re 20 percent lower.
All the workers in Guanajuato’s auto industry, including at the Mazda plant, are represented by the corrupt Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM).
The union sided with management in the firing of the 20.
Despite a law that allows workers the right to return to work after unjust firings, companies operating in Mexico can bank on getting away with firing permanently. Unions are regional, and contracts are negotiated plant by plant. Workers report that the CTM, a company union controlled by Mexico’s ruling party, will not defend them. Fired workers are often forced to sign away their jobs and accept a legally required cash payment instead.
To illustrate the level of corruption, look at Alejandro Rangel, a leader in the Guanajuato CTM who’s also a federal deputy. Union leaders often become federal and state deputies and senators.
Since taking office, Rangel has built himself a castle with a gigantic swimming pool in front. He used his position to have federal funds used to build a road from the main road to his castle.
Unfortunately for him, an error in the specifications labeled the paving project as meant for a nearby town. Like many in the area, this town only had a dirt road. When the error became known, townspeople demanded that their road be paved too.
As a side effect of a federal labor “reform” law passed in 2012, regional union leaders are now allowed to move into other regions. This means those who have the most power in the party and government are taking control of plants in other areas—making the corruption even worse. But they all belong to the CTM and oppose independent unions.
Those independent unions that do exist—in auto plants in Puebla and Cuernavaca—have been unable to expand into Guanajuato. An attempt to form one at the Honda plant in the neighboring state of Jalisco a few years ago ended with organizers being fired, though that’s still being challenged in court.
Ford’s plants are close to the U.S. border. But most of Mexico’s auto production is in the center of the country. That’s where GM, Volkswagen, Honda, Renault-Nissan, BMW, Daimler, parts suppliers, and even research and development operations are concentrated.
From a mountain high point, the view is spectacular: an enormous plain filled with auto plants, all emitting the same brownish-pinkish smog. It sits in a layer over the plain, and extends into the surrounding mountains.
This is also the area where the Mexican Revolution of 1810 began. When Miguel Hidalgo announced independence, he demanded that the slaveholders immediately release the indigenous people who toiled in the mines here, carting out gold and silver for the empire.
Will Mexico’s workers be able to use their strength to confront the companies, the government, and the corrupt CTM to build independent unions that can give form to their anger?
Wendy Thompson is a former president of United Auto Workers Local 235.
Meanwhile in the U.S., workers in a Chicago Ford plant are also battling against sexual harassment on the job.
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