Workers in Mexico’s border factories say they can barely survive, so they’re turning to unions

Workers in Mexico's maquiladora factories earn 20% less than those in China.
Workers in Mexico’s maquiladora factories earn 40 percent less than those in China.

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe / PRI

They make everything from puppy chew-toys to Dell computers to giant wind turbines, but when they try to form a union, they face big trouble.

For half a century, multinational companies have flocked to Ciudad Juárez in search of cheap labor at the doorstep of the United States. Today, El Paso’s neighbor has the largest labor force along the US-Mexico border. In good times, about 200,000 workers are employed at more than 300 factories.

Workers help fuel a half-trillion dollars in annual trade between the US and Mexico, a figure that’s grown six-fold in the last two decades. That’s brought prosperity to American border cities like El Paso, where one out of every four jobs is tied to trade and per capita income is rising at a faster pace than the national average.

But on the Mexican side, the peso has been falling in value, while wages have not kept up. According to a study by Mexico’s National Autonomous University, Mexico’s minimum wage has lost 78 percent of its value in the last 30 years.

A study by the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness at the University of Texas at El Paso shows factory wages in Juárez are among the lowest in Mexico, and plant manager salaries are among the highest. When compared to manufacturing wages in China, Mexico is now 40 percent cheaper.

“You can’t live on our salaries,” says Brenda Estrada, a former employee of one border manufacturer, the American telecommunications giant CommScope. “You just survive.”

Estrada is among those who say CommScope fired them last year for forming a union.

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