Mexican Labor Department's Failure to Enforce Safety Laws Threatens Lives of Han Young Workers in Tijuana
[Testimony before the U.S. NAO Hearing, February 18, 1998, in San Diego, CA, by Garrett D. Brown, MPH, CIH, Coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network.]
I would like to thank the U.S. NAO for this opportunity to testify on behalf of the health and safety amendment to Submission #97-02 related to the Han Young de México plant in Tijuana. I am speaking today as the coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, an all-volunteer organization of 400 occupational health professionals in Canada, Mexico and the United States which was founded by the Occupational Health & 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 330 workplace inspections in the last five years for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), is relevant to my testimony. 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 health and safety amendment, and my testimony today, is based on an analysis of a series of three inspections by the Mexican government's Department of Labor and Social Welfare (STPS) at the Han Young de México plant in Tijuana in June 1997, September 1997 and January 1998.
The STPS inspection reports very clearly indicate a persistent pattern of failure on the part of the STPS to enforce Mexico's health and safety regulations at the plant. This pattern includes:
- failure to order corrective action to abate two dozen identified hazards;
- failure to order immediate correction of at least two identified life- threatening, "imminent danger" hazards;
- failure to verify and assure completion of mandated corrective actions months after the deadlines have passed and after the STPS has conducted 11 inspections of the plant;
- failure to assess monetary penalties, both initially and after continued employer non-compliance; and
- failure to exercise its authority to partially or totally close specific operations, or the entire plant, in the face of on-going violations, including life-threatening hazards.
As described in detail in the health and safety amendment, the STPS conducted an inspection of Han Young on June 16, 1997, following a two-day strike by workers in late May. The inspection report listed 41 violations of Mexico's workplace health and safety regulations.
However, the STPS ordered corrective action for only half of these identified violations. Among the identified violations for which no corrective action was ordered were:
- lack of a workplace Health and Safety Committee (required by law since 1991);
- lack of a written workplace health and safety program;
- lack of a noise control and hearing conservation program in a high noise environment;
- lack of employee training regarding exposure to hazardous substances on site, such as welding fumes, ozone and ultraviolet light;
- lack of written "lockout/tagout" procedures and employee training to prevent amputations and electrocutions with electrically- energized machinery;
- lack of required medical personnel, materials and programs on site;
- lack of required fire safety plans, equipment and employee training.
Moreover, the STPS did not issue the specific abatement orders until July 23, 1997, five weeks after the identification of serious violations and hazards at the plant. The STPS gave Han Young between 15 and 25 working days (three to five calendar weeks) to abate hazards identified to the employer in June.
The follow-up, verification inspection by STPS did not occur until September 5, 1997, more than 80 calendar days after the original inspection. The September inspection revealed that Han Young had failed to abate at least six of the violations identified in June, including:
- failure to assess fire hazards in the workplace, install fire alarms and fire-extinguishing equipment;
- failure to determine the airborne concentrations of welding fumes in the workplace and to identify means to maintain them below regulatory limits;
- failure to install local exhaust ventilation in production areas; and
- failure to evaluate and upgrade lighting levels in the plant.
The STPS gave Han Young management another 10 working days, despite the passage of almost three months from the original inspection, to correct these unabated serious violations. The STPS then failed to conduct any inspection between September and January 1998 to verify employer compliance with its own abatement order.
In addition, the STPS failed to assess monetary penalties against Han Young following either inspection. Federal Labor Law (LFT) Articles 994-V and 1002 state that employers are to be fined for violations of the law at the time of initial inspection; and LFT Article 512-D and Article 168 of the Federal Regulation (RFSH) clearly require doubling the initial penalties if employers fail to comply with abatement orders. The STPS failed to issue either the initial or the doubled non-abatement fines against Han Young.
In fact, the fines established by Mexican law are so small as to be meaningless to transnational corporations such as Hyundai and other maquiladora operators, but the failure by STPS to assess even these nominal monetary penalties encourages and emboldens employers like Han Young to ignore health and safety regulations with impunity.
In January 1998, Han Young's workers were again forced to carry out a work stoppage over safety, and they marched en masse to the STPS office on January 23rd to demand a re-inspection of the plant following two near-fatal crane accidents in the plant. STPS inspected the plant on January 27 and 28, 1998.
The January 1998 inspection report is, perhaps, the most shocking document of all. The STPS inspector describes, in eight pages of chilling detail, a workplace which is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Among the findings reported (summarized in the attached Table 6) are:
- At least two types of life-threatening, "imminent danger" hazards exist in the plant:
- malfunctioning and poorly maintained cranes carrying heavy metal truck-trailer chassis over the heads of workers throughout the plant. On January 8, 1998, a crane dropped a one-ton chassis in mid-air without warning, barely missing six employees working below; and
- numerous high-voltage electric welding cables, many in poor condition, running through pools of rain water and energized welding machines located directly under roof leaks. The STPS report points out that such conditions can easily have "fatal consequences."
-- After eleven inspections by the STPS, including the two in June and September 1997, the plant lacks even the most basic health and safety programs (plant Health and Safety Committee, plant health and safety plan, plant medical services, monitoring for airborne contaminants, engineering controls to reduce/eliminate such contaminants, hearing conservation and noise control, fire prevention and suppression plans, employee training on hazards and safe operating procedures for machinery); and the plant operates numerous pieces of machinery and equipment that regularly malfunction and/or are in a dangerous state of disrepair.
- At least 36 of the corrective actions ordered in the June and September inspections had not been completed, or were again in violation of the law. The inspection report also listed at least nine new violations not previously identified in the last set of inspections (see Table 6).
Despite this report, the STPS failed to order immediate action to eliminate the imminent danger hazards and failed to exercise its authority to close part or all of the plant until such life-threatening hazards were eliminated. Instead the STPS gave the employer another 20 working days (one calendar month) to correct the hazards, almost all of which were identified seven months earlier. And again no monetary penalties were assessed against Han Young.
To this very day, Han Young has been allowed to continue operating a workplace which is "immediately dangerous to life and health" of the workers.
These three inspections conducted by the STPS at Han Young show an agency that has failed to enforce Mexican law and is apparently unwilling to apply clearly-stated requirements of workplace health and safety regulations at the Han Young plant. This failure is direct threat to the lives and well-being of the Mexican citizens who work at Han Young. This failure is also a violation of the terms of the NAALC, not to mention other international agreements and conventions of which the Mexican government is a signatory.
It is worth noting that part of the STPS' failure to enforce Mexican regulations is due to the austerity programs imposed on Mexico by the International Monetary Fund and related institutions. The impact of the IMF agreements and "economic globalization" severely undermines the political will of the Mexican government to enforce its regulations against transnational corporations generating hard currency desperately needed to pay off foreign bankers. In fact, the conditions at Han Young are not unique among the 3,000 maquiladora plants now employing one million Mexican workers on the U.S.-Mexico border and in other parts of Mexico.
The dictates of imposed austerity, however, cannot be a justification for workplace conditions and the failure of regulatory enforcement that threaten the lives of workers. The question that must be asked is "what will it take before the STPS effectively acts to clean up the Han Young plant?" I fear the answer may be "multiple worker deaths in a catastrophic accident."
The purpose of our complaint and my testimony today is not to "bash Mexico" or to attack individual STPS inspectors. Our purpose to bring to light conditions and official inaction which pose a threat to workplace safety not only at Han Young but throughout the maquiladora industry, and throughout the United States and Canada as the "lowest common denominator" of economic global integration drives down workplace health and safety throughout North America.
Thank you very much for your time.
Note: Key Exhibits and Tables attached to the Health and Safety amendment related to this testimony:
Appendix A: Tables
- Table 1: "22 Deficiencies Identified at Han Young by STPS' in June 1997 "
- Table 2: "23 Mandated Corrective Actions Ordered at Han Young from June 1997 STPS Inspection Report"
- Table 3: "Six Corrective Actions Ordered in June 1997 Which the STPS Reported Still Unabated at the September 1997 Inspection"
- Table 4: "Identified Mandated Corrective Actions from the June 1997 STPS Inspection which were reported as still unabated on November 19, 1997"
- Table 5: "Hazards identified by workers at the July 19, 1997, UCLA-LOSH health and Safety Training that were not identified in the June 16, 1997, STPS inspection"
- Table 6: "Violations/Hazards Identified by STPS in the January 27-28, 1998, Inspection of Han Young de México, Tijuana"
- Exhibit A: June 16, 1997, STPS Inspection Report (in Spanish)
- Exhibit B: July 23, 1997, STPS Abatement Order from June Inspection (in Spanish)
- Exhibit C: September 5, 1997, STPS Inspection Report (in Spanish)
- Exhibit E: January 27-28, 1998, STPS Inspection report (in Spanish)