Testimony Before the US National Administrative Office

Hearing on Breed Technologies’ Auto Trim and Custom Trim plants
December 12, 2000, San Antonio, TX

Garrett Brown, MPH, CIH
Coordinator, Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network

I would like to thank the U.S. NAO for this opportunity to testify on behalf of the health and safety complaint filed by the workers of Breed Technologies subsidiaries Auto Trim and Custom Trim. I am speaking today, as I did in the Han Young hearing in San Diego in February 1998, as the coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, an all-volunteer network of 400 occupational health and safety professionals in Canada, Mexico and the United States which was founded by the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association in October 1993.

I want to emphasize that I am not speaking today in any official capacity for the State of California. However, I believe that my experience as a regulatory compliance officer who has conducted over 475 workplace inspections in the last seven years for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is relevant to my testimony and written submissions.

For the record, let me also state that I received a Master in Public Health degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and I have been certified in the practice of comprehensive industrial hygiene by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene.

The NAO has two fundamental responsibilities with regard to this submission:

- To determine what violations, if any, of Mexican law occurred at Auto Trim and Custom Trim, that is, violations of workplace health and safety regulations; and

- To determine if the Mexican government, as represented by several related agencies, failed in a persistent manner to enforce the appropriate regulations at the two plants.

The NAO will receive extensive testimony from workers at the facilities regarding the hazards on site, and from technical experts on what Mexican law requires of employers, and the Mexican government itself to identify, evaluate and control these hazards. The NAO may also receive testimony from Breed Technologies and from Mexican government institutions on their activities in these workplaces.

With regard to the NAO’s first investigative responsibility, I have submitted a collection of written materials with this testimony to assist the NAO in this area. These materials are included in Appendices 1 through 6. The appendices consist of: possible questions the NAO may wish to ask Breed Technologies corporate managers, the plant managers at Auto Trim and Custom Trim, and officials on the corresponding Mexican government agencies (Appendix 1); toxicological information on the most commonly used chemicals on site (Appendix 2); the list from Breed Technologies website of "forbidden" and "restricted" chemicals (Appendix 3); copies of peer-reviewed articles on occupational health and safety issues in the maquiladora plants along the U.S.-Mexican border (Appendix 4); text and information on the reglamentos internos of the STPS and its Direccion General de Medicina y Seguridad en el Trabajo (Appendix 5); and relevant conventions of the International Labor Organization (Appendix 6).

The lists of possible questions for company managers and government officials are designed to elicit the specific information needed by the NAO to evaluate whether the company has met its responsibilities under the law, and whether the government agencies responded as required to the workers’ request for plant inspections.

In my experience, employer presentations on their health and safety programs are often long on generalities and expressed good intentions, and considerably less impressive in their actual implementation on the shop floor. My review of the submitted complaint and the worker affidavits indicates that this is the case with Breed Technologies’ facilities. The questions I have submitted will hopefully illuminate the actual implementation of health and safety protections at Auto Trim and Custom Trim, rather than corporate public relations statements and claims.

In particular, it would be interesting to know what precautions Breed Technologies has undertaken to protect workers with exposures to at least four chemical substances – 1,1,1-tricholoethane, toluene, acetone, hexane and its isomers – which appear on company lists of "forbidden" and "restricted" chemical substances (see Appendix 3). Toluene is regulated by the State of California as a reproductive health hazard, a toxin that would be of concern with the heavily female workforces at Auto Trim and Custom Trim.

Workers at the two plants are exposed to these substances when they use "Varsol 18" solvent, "Hallmark 7158" adhesive, Wilsonart "WA 110" adhesive, Loctite "X-NMS" solvent, and HBCC-brand 1,1,1-trichloroethane. The safety programs which the employer is required by Mexican law to implement include: hazard communication with employees to inform them of hazards and control measures; engineering controls, such as effective local exhaust ventilation, to reduce or eliminate airborne exposures; and appropriate gloves (which have different break-through times for specific chemicals) to prevent dermal exposures.

The NAO will need accurate, reliable information on these issues and I hope the attached list of questions will be of assistance.

With regard to the second investigative goal – determining the adequacy of the response of Mexican government agencies – I would like to make a comparison with the Han Young NAO complaint evidence.

As you recall, the NAO complaint at Han Young was based on an analysis of three inspections of the workplace conducted by the state and Federal STPS offices. The inspection reports indicated that at least 11 inspections (both state and Federal) had been made at that plant.

The inspection reports documented very serious hazards and regulatory violations at the Han Young plant, and also documented that the employer failed to correct these hazards over a period of at least two years. The reports also showed that the STPS failed in its responsibility to enforce hazard abatement and to levy financial penalties for employer non-compliance.

As bad as the Han Young case was, the Breed Technologies case is worse.

Despite two separate, detailed and specific complaints from workers about violations of Mexican health and safety regulations in their workplaces, the STPS has not conducted any inspections of the Auto Trim and Custom Trim plants, as far as anyone can ascertain.

There are indications that some type of official visit occurred in early August 1998, and that some type of inspection was scheduled for May 13, 1999. The employees of Auto Trim and Custom Trim, including those who were members of the plant health and safety committee during this period, have never been informed of any such inspections, did not participate in any such inspections, and have never received any written report or other notification of the results of these inspections, if, in fact, they occurred at all.

At Han Young, at least the STPS carried out inspections and generated reports, which, although not entirely comprehensive, were accurate and compelling in both their findings and the hazard controls they mandated.

At Auto Trim and Custom Trim, it appears the no inspections have been conducted in response to the workers’ complaints, or that secret "inspections" without the required participation of the workers and the plants’ health and safety commissions. Moreover, the unsafe and unhealthy conditions at Auto Trim and Custom Trim described by the workers and confirmed by their injuries and adverse health effects, have not been abated either by the STPS and other agencies, or by the company itself.

This persistent failure to identify regulatory non-compliance and order corrective action of the part of several Mexican government agencies violates numerous national and international laws and regulations adopted by the Mexican government, including the Reglamento Federal and Normas Oficiales Mexicanas related to workplace safety and health, the Reglamentos Internos of the agencies themselves, several conventions of the International Labor Organization, and, of course, the NAALC.

As I noted in February 1998, part of the Mexican government’s failure to enforce its own regulations is due to the austerity programs imposed on Mexico by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and related institutions. The impact of these international financial agencies, and the process of "economic globalization" itself, severely undermines the political will of the Mexican government to enforce its regulations with transnational corporations (such as Breed) generating hard currency desperately needed to pay off foreign bankers. The dictates of imposed austerity, however, cannot be a justification for workplace conditions and the failure of regulatory enforcement that threaten the lives of Mexican workers.

The purpose of our complaint and my testimony today is not to "bash Mexico" or to attack individual STPS managers. In fact, the conditions at Auto Trim and Custom Trim are not unique among the more than 3,200 maquiladoras now employing 1.2 million workers along the US-Mexico border and other parts of Mexico.

Our purpose is to shed light on conditions and official inaction which pose a threat to workplace safety not only at Auto Trim and Custom Trim, but throughout the maquila industry, and through all of North America as the "lowest common denominator" of economic global integration drives down workplace health and safety in Canada, Mexico and the United States alike.

Thank you.


Peer-reviewed journal articles and reports on occupational health and safety issues in the maquiladora plants on the US-Mexico border

Brown, Garrett; "Real Life in the Maquiladora Plants on the US-Mexico Border;" summary of selected studies, November 1999

Castleman, Barry; Global Corporate Policies and International "Double Standards" in Occupational and Environmental Health; Int J Occup Environ Health; 14 (5) 61-64, 1999.

Comite Fronterizo de Obreras: Six Years of NAFTA: A View from Inside the Maquiladoras. Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. October 1999.

Frumkin, Howard; Across the Water and Down the Ladder: Occupational Health in the Global Economy; Occupational Medicine: State of the Art; 14 (3) 637-663, July-September 1999.

Kourous, George; Occupational Health and Safety in the Maquiladoras; Borderlines; 6 (6) 1-4, August 1998.

LaDou, Joseph; DBCP in Global Context: The Unchecked Power of Multinational Corporations; Int J Occup Environ Health; 14 (5)151-153, 1999.

Lemus, Blanca; Occupational Health and Safety in Mexico: Adequate Legislation and Ineffective Enforcement; New Solutions; 5:64-71; Summer 1995.

Lemus, Blanca and David Barkin; The Impact of Integration on Mexico’s Workers: Why GATT, NAFTA, WTO, and OECD are important; New Solutions; 8 (2) 243-252, 1998.

Moure-Eraso, Rafael, Meg Wilcox, Laura Punnet. Leslie Copland, and Charles Levenstein: Back to the Future: Sweatshop Conditions on the Mexico-US Border. II. Occupational Health Impact of Maquiladora Industrial Activity. Am J of Ind Medicine. 31:587-599, 1997.

Takaro, Timothy K, Michele Gonzalez Arroyo, Garrett D. Brown, Simone G. Brumis and Elizabeth B. Knight; Community-based Survey of Maquiladora Workers in Tijuana and Tecate, Mexico; Int J Occup Environ Health; 14 (5) 313-315, 1999.