By Mick Duncan
The Mexican state of Puebla is sometimes called the jeans capital of America. If you live in the USA, the chances are the jeans you wear were made in Puebla. They will have been made in a maquila, an assembly factory in the free trade zone.
At the end of September, Alice from Chumbawamba, Sarah and Paula, organisers from the GPMU print union, Katrina from Lambeth Unison, Pennie from Indymedia and I spent a week in Mexico with the Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador (CAT, Workers' Support Centre) visiting workers involved in independent union struggles there.
Over a million people work in the garment, leather and textile maquilas in Mexico, about 700,000 of them in garments. Puebla is the biggest garment maquila area, in the country with over ten per cent of the working-age population working in maquilas. The land they are built on is often communal land, sold illegally by the Government to the factory owners, usually for £1. The CAT supports workers' organisation efforts in Puebla and in the neighbouring state of Oaxcala.
We visited three garment maquilas - Mexmode (ex Kukdong), Matamoros (now closed) and Tarrant. What strikes you immediately is the size of these factories. They are huge! Mexmode stretches for blocks.
The next thing is the security. Each plant is surrounded by a vast wall, eight or ten feet high. There is a large metal gate and a security booth at the entrance. Matamoros even has a concentration-camp-style watch tower by the entrance that once spied on workers in the plant and now serves as target practice for local rock-throwers.
We talked to dozens of workers from the three factories. The wages are low, normally about £20 or so a week. Yes, many things are cheaper in Mexico than here - but many, especially non-essentials are of comparable price and some, such as electrical goods, are more expensive. Anita, a worker at Mexmode, started on 43 pesos a day a bit under £3.
If the factory is near capacity, the work is shoulder to shoulder, in incredible heat. The ventilation is poor and the masks (when provided) are of a rudimentary thin plastic design, banned in this country as worse than useless.
When big orders are due the work rate is fierce fall behind and you are shouted at, insulted and publicly humiliated by the bosses. This abuse is even more offensive in such a polite culture as Mexico. Many workers have to travel long distances from isolated rural areas, often spending a large proportion of their wages on bus fares. The food in the canteen is often rotten.
We visited a stream running from the Mexmode site. When they flush the dyes, the water turns blue. We could see the banks and the grass stained a vivid blue. There is a noticeable concentration of cancer and other diseases affecting workers and their families around the plant.
This is what is required by big-name brands like Nike, Gap, Levis and Tommy Hillfiger to keep their profits high.
Workers fight back. Independent trade unionism has begun to develop in the garment factories of the region.
Kukdong / Mexmode was the first big success in this story. In 2001, workers decided they had had enough of low wages, abuse and rotten food. They organised a canteen boycott as protest. The management's response was to fire the "ringleaders".
The workers then stepped up their action. "We stood in front of the managers' officers and told them we wanted our five colleagues reinstated", says Anita. When the bosses failed to answer their demands, they "brought food and clothes and camped outside".
The police were called in and attacked the workers, hospitalising many and causing one woman to miscarry. Nike, the biggest client of Kukdong, tried to pull out, things getting a little hot for their liking.
The workers contacted the CAT for help. They visited workers at home, talking about their need for an independent union, and they started to contact organisations overseas. They managed to keep up resolve in the plant and to pressure the State Labour Board. They also mobilised international support to apply pressure to the authorities, the owners and, crucially, to companies like Nike. If Nike had been allowed to cut and run, the company would have cut jobs and pointed the finger at "trouble-makers", severely hampering efforts to organise an independent union at Kukdong and throughout the region.
Nike were forced to go back, and eventually the Labour Board granted recognition to the independent union, SUITMEX, at the factory which was by then called Mexmode.
When the workers at Kukdong started organising they found out that they had a union, the CROC, to whom they had been paying dues for some years. At Matamoros and Tarrant the story was the same.
These "charro unions" sign deals directly with the management. The workers often don't know who they are, or even that they exist. When the workers take action, they help the management discipline them. Anita recalls seeing the CROC union during their sit-down, "with the management, filming the beatings and pointing out to the police who to attack".
These "unions" are effectively protection rackets. They make sure that the company can operate safe from the interference of genuine trade union action. They act with the collusion of the state as well as the factory bosses.
Together with a group of workers from Tarrant we met an adviser from the Federal Ministry of Labour who asked, "why do you want to make another union, when there is already one there?" We explained that Mexican and international law recognises the right of workers to join a union of their choice, and that there is a big difference between that and the right to join a union of the labour ministry's or the factory's choice.
We also met Jose Luis Rodriguez Salazar, general secretary of the independent union at Volkswagen, where workers have organised an independent union for about 30 years, and, as a direct result, are among the best paid workers in Mexico.
Agustina, who used to work at Matamoros before she was sacked, blacklisted, accused of making death-threats and left penniless with two children to look after, and before the factory eventually closed explained to us that "an independent union will fight for decent food at work, when the charro will ignore it. An independent union will demand higher wages when the charro won't care. An independent union means that the bosses can't shout at us any more, they can't hit us. It means we have dignity".
We visited the workers at their homes, normally after work. At each place, however modest, dozens of chairs would appear how many houses do you know with a dozen chairs to welcome guests? As soon as the interviews were over out came the tortillas and beans. To a person, they were all proud and incredibly hospitable.
Despite the dreadful plight Agustina has faced, and the vile victimisation she was subjected to, on being asked, "Would you do this again?" there was no hesitation. "Yes, absolutely. If Matamoros opened again tomorrow I would be there in the morning to ask for a job and I would try to organise an independent union there. Definitely".
There is a dignity and militancy amongst these workers that inspired all of us who went and that the British trade union movement could well learn from.