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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 28, 2002

Mexico's border bleeding jobs

By Julie Watson
Associated Press

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The signs of crisis are everywhere. Homeless people sleep in abandoned factories where workers once assembled irons, toasters, shirts and other goods. Border migrant groups air radio announcements in the countryside telling job seekers to stay away.

Julia Mendiola, right, nursed her baby in the home she shares with her mother and six children outside Ciudad Juarez in July. Mendiola, along with most other working members of her family, lost her job in one of the assembly plants lining the border.

Associated Press

Mexico's northern border industry, hit hard by a year-long downturn, is finally starting to recover, but with some of its biggest factories shuttered, no one expects the region to return to the thriving export economy it enjoyed for a decade.

Toy maker Hasbro Inc. has moved its Tijuana plant to China. Canon Inc. moved its Tijuana inkjet printer plant to Vietnam. Philips Electronics shifted one of its Ciudad Juarez computer monitor plants to China.

It is a dramatic change from the influx of manufacturing that began in the 1960s when mostly U.S.-owned assembly plants came to the 2,000-mile frontier in the 1960s to take advantage of Mexico's proximity and low labor costs.

Mexico recently complained to the World Trade Organization about China luring away its factories, but Asia is not the border's only competition. Some companies have opted for Central America and Mexico's impoverished southern states, where labor is cheaper than along the border.

"It's going to be very difficult for the border to bounce back to the way it was with labor-intensive plants," said Rolando Gonzalez, president of Mexico's Association of Maquiladoras, as the plants are known in Spanish. "Labor is too expensive. The border can't compete, paying $2.50 to $4.50 an hour when China pays less than 50 cents an hour."

For decades, busloads of Mexico's unemployed arrived daily and found work amid the boom of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Plants offered gymnasiums, day care and other perks to compete for workers. More than 3,500 plants employed 1.2 million people.

But the maquiladora industry has since lost 250,000 jobs, most along the border. Some jobs have been created recently, but most are in the interior, Gonzalez said.

Catalina Mendiola lost her factory job in January. Her son was next, then her daughter, daughter-in-law and finally her son-in-law.

They have spent months standing in applicant lines that by 5 a.m. already snake around factories such as Lear, General Motors and Hoover — only to return home empty-handed. Six children, ages 2 to 11, live in the family home.

Mendiola makes a few pesos selling soft drinks, toilet paper, noodles and other goods from her shack, but business is slow. Many in her shantytown on the edge of Ciudad Juarez have lost their jobs as well.

Ciudad Juarez continues to bleed more than 2,000 jobs a month. More than 30 of its 392 plants have closed, according to the local maquiladora association.

Mendiola sighs and says her chances of finding another full-time factory job are slim. She is 51 with a grade-school education.

Gonzalez said the region is positioning itself to attract sophisticated manufacturing jobs that will be more resilient to changing financial winds. But that won't translate to as many jobs as in the past.

"What the border is going to bring is another kind of industry ... more complex jobs that require better-trained people and better salaries," Gonzalez said. "Growth is going to be slower, because the plants will hire, say, 50 workers instead of 1,000 — but the positions will be better paid."

A little more than a year ago, the University of Texas at El Paso, across from Ciudad Juarez, started a weekend graduate engineering program for advanced-level maquiladora employees. About 100 people are participating.

"We see it as a kind of model for people to be thinking about," said Charles Ambler, graduate school dean.

Rather than massive plants with thousands of laborers sewing flaps onto jeans and baseball caps, the border's future may see more plants like the Ciudad Juarez plant of General Motors' Delphi Automotive division, a research and development center where hundreds of Mexican engineers design a variety of car parts, earning considerably less than their U.S. counterparts.

Such operations have hundreds of workers doing such things as producing electronic sensors to tell drivers when the brakes have failed or when the oil needs to be changed.

In the meantime, the region suffers. Border cities are filled with tens of thousands of unemployed workers. Crime is on the rise.

Yet, even with such a difficult situation, Mendiola said she has no plans to leave, because there are even fewer opportunities in her village in Veracruz state. Six years after moving to this city of 1.3 million, the family owns a slice of dusty land where they built a makeshift home of cardboard, metal siding and wood.

"Our dream was to come to Ciudad Juarez and get ahead," she said. "It may seem like an illusion now, but we did improve some. So, no, we won't leave. We'll just keep filling out applications and waiting. God can't abandon us."