On June 9, Mexican authorities arrested a prominent no-holds-barred labor lawyer Susan Prieto who recently campaigned in Ciudad Juárez against work conditions in Mexican maquilas that she contends subject Mexican workers to unacceptable risks of contracting the coronavirus (Covid-19). Though supposedly on unrelated charges, her arrest thrusts back into public view the thorny issue of how to reopen Mexico’s economy, including its maquilas, which are deeply integrated into U.S. and global supply chains. It reemphasizes the need to supply-side harmonization between Mexico and the U.S. while Covid-19 still rages in both countries and beyond.
In May, as the U.S. began to reopen, U.S. manufacturing companies and the Trump administration strongly pressured Mexico to reopen the foreign-owned maquilas that supply the U.S. with product components for everything from automobiles to specialized medical equipment to television sets. Long prioritizing the Mexican economy over public health effects of Covid-19, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has been keen to reopen. But the drive to reopen takes place as the Mexican government recently acknowledged its extensive undercount of Covid-19 infections, with data showing the number of cases in Mexico at almost 160,000 as of June 17 and of deaths at over 19,000.
Mexican maquilas are not automated like in the U.S.. Hundreds of thousands on Mexicans work on the assembly lines shoulder to shoulder. In May, Mexico’s deputy health minister Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez declared maquilas were key sources of Covid-19 infection. The workers themselves have expressed grave concern about the inadequate social distancing and protective equipment, and the lack of paid leave when they become infected. In a Lear Corporation factory producing car seat covers in Ciudad Juárez, at least 30 workers may have died of Covid-19. Maquila owners have rejected the complaints, claiming that the Covid-19 protections they provide on the assembly lines are sufficient.
Yet the U.S. government and manufacturers cannot be indifferent to the health of Mexican workers and Covid-19’s spread. Mexican lives matter to the U.S. – not just for humanitarian reasons but because the U.S. will not be able to maintain much needed collaboration with its neighbor and partner on a wide range of issues if it acts with utter selfishness toward the deaths and disasters in Mexican communities.
Moreover, U.S. citizens travel to Mexico for a variety of reasons –tourism, access to cheaper health care, and visits with their families, some of whom work in the maquilas. And if Mexico keeps suffering waves of Covid-19 reinfection from premature reopening without adequate safeguards, the pandemic could spill back into the U.S.
To enable a healthy restart of the U.S. and Mexican economies and to ensure they are better prepared to withstand further disruptions to supply chains following waves of Covid-19, the following measures should be undertaken:
Both countries need to agree on significantly improving health-protection measures in the maquilas regarding Covid-19 and other health hazards. Bi-national teams of health and technical experts should conduct inspections. And live close-circuit TV (CCTV) feeds can be mandated to be available to the inspection teams for constant monitoring beyond one-time unannounced visits.
Rapidly, the U.S. and Mexico should establish a joint commission composed of government officials, technical experts, and industry representatives to determine what industries and what types of production are genuinely vital and essential and which can be shut down in wave two of Covid-19. The inspectors can then evaluate existing stockpiles to determine whether any shortage of supply is imminent and thus whether a maquila can remain shut down. Since there may well be situations where both countries will not agree what an essential industry is, each country could have the right to designate up to three industries in one’s country as essential beyond those jointly agreed upon.
Mexican maquilas producing medical supplies, such as ventilators, or personal protective equipment (PPE) should continue operating during pandemics. But there must be guaranteed sick pay for maquila workers who become infected, so they do not feel forced to continue working to avoid losing pay or employment. Otherwise, they will only infect more workers. The U.S. must take into account Mexico’s needs and guarantee an adequate supply of medical equipment and PPEs for Mexico.
Mexico must also be assured that it will get critical safe food supplies from the U.S., such as meat processed in hygienic ways and healthy dairy products. Three major U.S. meat producers have experienced significant outbreaks of Covid-19 among their staffs across their plants. Like in Mexico’s maquilas, many workers in U.S. meat plants, some of whom are immigrants, are concerned about the lack of guaranteed sick leave, PPEs, and other necessary health measures and risks to their families and communities.
Finally, the U.S. and Mexico must coordinate their policies on the flow of people across the border. Although air traffic is subject to health controls and northbound travel by land to the U.S. from Mexico was shut down for non-essential cargo and people (exempting, for example, nurses living in Mexico and working in the U.S.), southbound travel remained open and uncontrolled. Thus infection can continue spreading from the U.S. to Mexico – while President Donald Trump cynically looks for ways to falsely blame Mexico for Covid-19 infection spreading north.
* Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Twitter: @VFelbabBrown