CJM Letter to Labor Secretaries Chao and Abascal (September 6, 2002)

September 6, 2002

Dear Secretaries Chao and Abascal:

We write to express our extreme disappointment with the Ministerial Declaration issued on June 11, 2002 regarding several NAO submissions, including NAO Submission 2000-01, the Autotrim/Customtrim case, in which we have participated for the past several years. The Declaration proposes nothing more than a bi-lateral governmental working group to talk about the occupational health and safety problems already documented by the submission and several others like it, and affirmed by the NAO and experts in the field. Similarly, the Declaration proposes no concrete action, plan, or timetable for amelioration of these problems.

The Declaration is stunning in the degree to which it utterly ignores the Mexican workers who filed the Autotrim/Customtrim complaint and similar submissions. No provision is made for participation by current and former workers who suffer the consequences of governmental failure to enforce already-existing occupational health and safety laws, and who took significant personal and professional risks to bring ongoing violations to the attention of the NAFTA parties.

Likewise, no mention is made of the detailed recommendations the workers and other petitioners in the Autotrim/Customtrim case filed more than a year ago at the U.S. NAO’s own request. These recommendations, which we enclose here yet again, describe specific, relatively low-cost measures that the NAFTA governments could undertake now, which would yield tangible improvements in the lives of Mexican workers and their families. We would venture that for the cost of the ongoing governmental protocol meetings to foster government-to-government cooperation, "exchange of information," and discussion of "best practices," the NAFTA governments could make significant progress toward implementing our recommendations.

As you both know, the Autotrim/Customtrim petition consisted of 100-plus pages of detailed documentation and legal analysis, to which we attached more than two-dozen affidavits from current and former workers of the Autotrim and Customtrim maquiladoras, owned by U.S.-based Breed Technologies. The NAO submission was filed only after Mexican workers had repeatedly petitioned – in writing and delivered in person – the relevant Mexican government agencies for assistance. The workers patiently waited more than two years to see if their own government would help them. When the Mexican government failed to respond, they reluctantly turned to the NAALC, which the NAFTA governments had promised would operate to protect workers.

At the public hearing on the case in December 2000, more than a dozen Mexican workers described the health and safety problems inherent in the production processes at Autotrim and Customtrim, the often-incapacitating illnesses and injuries they and other workers suffered as a result, and the failure of the Mexican government to assist them in obtaining lawfully-required improvements. Mexican and U.S. experts testified about the dangers of the chemical and ergonomic work practices occurring in Autotrim and Customtrim, the requirements of Mexico’s comprehensive occupational health and safety laws, and the routine failure of the government to enforce those laws adequately.

In its April 2001 Public Report on the Autotrim/Customtrim submission, the U.S. NAO affirmed the deficiencies described by the submitters. The U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also produced a written report in March 2001 describing the serious occupational health and safety problems it found during its visit to the Autotrim and Customtrim plants.

The Autotrim/Customtrim submission, the hearing and reports on the case, and other analyses of unlawful working conditions and lax or non-existent enforcement of occupational health and safety laws in Mexico’s maquiladoras have made clear, over and over again, what the problems are. Realistic recommendations that would create real improvements have also been proposed time and again. Another set of discussions, without a public commitment to action and the full participation of workers, cannot lead to real change. Accordingly, we wholeheartedly disagree your belief, cited in the July 22, 2002 issue of INSIDE OSHA, that the creation of a bi-lateral working group "settles the occupational safety and health issues" raised by the Autotrim/Customtrim and other NAO cases. Only governmental commitment to action and to participation by those most affected by the failure to enforce work-related health and safety laws, and actual implementation of plans that will directly improve the lives of workers will settle the issues raised by the NAO filings.

With all due respect, we therefore request the following at this time:

  1. participation in the working group by current and former Autotrim and Customtrim workers and others who can speak from experience about what is needed to bring about real and lasting change in the enforcement of Mexican health and safety standards;

  2. integration into the working group of non-governmental occupational health and safety and legal experts;

  3. a timetable for implementing the enclosed recommendations from our July 6, 2001 letter, and an explanation for the rejection of any recommendation that you do not plan to carry out.

  4. the simple, common courtesy by your offices to regularly inform us – the workers and tri-national organizations who actually submitted the complaint being "resolved" by your actions – of activities being taken to address the concerns raised by our petition.

Finally, we focus in this letter on Autotrim and Customtrim and the occupational health and safety problems that plague maquiladoras in Mexico, including those owned by U.S. companies. This is not because we think that the issues raised in Mexican NAO Public Communication 98-04 and in U.S. NAO Public Communications 97-02, 97-03 and 99-01, also the subjects of the June 11th Declaration, are inconsequential. We recognize that the United States also routinely fails to enforce its labor laws. We know that Mexican workers often suffer in the United States from the U.S. government’s failure to enforce its labor laws, as they do in Mexico when the Mexican government refuses to enforce its laws. Again, the only way to "settle" the submissions that address these deficiencies is through political will, action, and consistent implementation of plans that respond constructively to the realities of workers, who after all, bear the consequences when the laws created to protect their rights are not fulfilled.


Rosario Ortiz, CJM President, Network of Union Women

CJM Board of Directors, Executive Committee members:

Luis Romero, Democratic Lawyers Association (ANAD), Mexico City

Hector de la Cueva, Resource Center for Labor Advice (CILAS), Mexico City

Judy Ancel, Cross Border Network, Kansas City

Brad Markell, UAW, Detroit, MI

Manuel Mondragon, Youth Pastoral Workers (PJO), Matamoros

Jaime Cota, Resource Center for Workers (CITTAC), Tijuana

Martha A. Ojeda, CJM Executive Director

Monica Schurtman, Legal Advisor, Associate Professor of Law and Supervising Attorney, University of Idaho

Pedro Lopez, Representing Custom-Trim workers from Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas