Workers might be the big losers in Mexico’s car boom

Part of the reason Mexico is so attractive to auto manufacturers is the cheap labor costs.
Part of the reason Mexico is so attractive to auto manufacturers is the cheap labor costs.

By Joshua Partlow / Washington Post

It wasn’t a planned strike, more an impromptu protest: A group of assembly-line workers at the Mazda car factory one spring morning just stepped away from their posts.

In addition to long, strenuous hours, they said, they endured constant taunts from one assistant manager, who also had allegedly sexually harassed an employee.

Across Mexico’s economic landscape, it is cars as far as you can see. In a country burned out on beastly news — drug violence, political corruption, kidnappings — the auto industry is the beautiful princess.

States are competing to seize the investment pouring in: Seemingly each month, a new auto company is announcing billion-dollar expansion plans. Mexico is now the world’s seventh-biggest car producer, surpassing Brazil, and rising quickly.

In the enthusiasm for Mexico’s auto boom, the question of labor conditions often gets overlooked. Industry analysts and experts say most of these jobs provide above-average employment for Mexicans, offering insurance, overtime and other benefits in state-of-the-art factories.

But the labor dispute at the Mazda factory serves as a reminder of the challenges that can crop up behind the gates of these mega-factories. In an environment where these auto jobs are in demand, workers say they have little recourse in conflicts with management.

A few weeks after colleagues at Mazda complained, they were fired or forced to resign. The months since, they say, have been a losing battle against unresponsive union representatives and an apathetic state government.

“They don’t treat you with humanity. It was exploitation in general,” said Ricardo Gutierrez, 32, who had spent two years at the plant before losing his job. “But there was nothing we could do.”

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