Demand Justice for Customtrim/Autotrim Workers


THE FACTORIES: Autotrim and Customtrim are two factories in Tamaulipus, Mexico owned by U.S.-based Breed Technologies that produce leather and vinyl covers for steering wheels and gear shifts in cars bound for the U.S. market. For many years, workers in these plants have suffered serious health problems related to exposure to adhesives, solvents, and other chemicals, resulting from their plants’ poor ventilation systems. The workers also have suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, shoulder, back and other strains from the fast-paced and repetitive assembly work.

THE COMPLAINT: On June 30, 2000, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), the Matamoros-based Pastoral Juvenil Obrera (PJO), and more than 20 other organizations in the three NAFTA countries joined the Customtrim/Autotrim workers in filing a complaint under the NAFTA labor side agreement. The petition alleged that the Mexican government persistently failed to enforce health and safety laws in the plants despite requests to do so, and that this failure had resulted in unsafe conditions which caused numerous worker injuries and illnesses.

THE HEARING: At a December 12, 2000 hearing, two dozen workers gave first-hand testimony to the U.S. National Administrative Office (NAO), the agency established to investigate charges of labor rights violations in the NAFTA countries.

THE NAO REPORT: On April 6, 2001, the U.S. NAO issued a report confirming worker allegations of chemical exposure and injuries from poor ergonomic conditions and highlighted the failure of Mexican government agencies to effectively ensure that employers protect the health and safety of their workers. The report called for ministerial consultations to remedy these problems.

DEMAND FOR FURTHER ACTION: Nearly a year after the NAO report called for ministerial consultations, the U.S. Department of Labor has failed to provide the Customtrim/Autotrim workers or their advocates any evidence that consultations have produced results. In December 2001, CJM called for the case to be moved to the next stage in the process with the creation of an "Evaluation Committee of Experts," an independent panel that would study the matter and give recommendations. In February 2002, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao rejected this request. In March 2002, CJM and other supporters again called for an ECE to be formed.

FAILURE OF NAFTA ON LABOR: Unless the U.S. Department of Labor takes strong action, the Customtrim/Autotrim case will join the more than 20 other cases filed to date with the NAO that have produced virtually no positive results, other than increased public attention to the problems of labor rights abuse. Most of the cases have involved violations of the right to freedom of association, which can lead, at most, to inter-governmental consultation. The Customtrim/Autotrim case could go further because it deals with health and safety violations, one of only three types of violations that could lead to economic sanctions against a government—the strongest remedy available. There is no mechanism under NAFTA to penalize corporate violators directly.


Please send a letter to Labor Secretary Chao demanding that the U.S. Department of Labor call for an Evaluation Committee of Experts and take whatever additional action is necessary to address the serious problems documented in the Customtrim/Autotrim case. Letters should be sent to: Ms. Elaine Chao, Secretary, Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20210. Please send a copy to CJM (address below).

Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras
530 Bandera Road, San Antonio, Texas 78228
Tel: 210-732-8957, FAX: 210-732-8324,,

Testimony of Customtrim/Autotrim Workers

(excerpted from April 6, 2001 NAO Report)

"For about three and a half years now, I have suffered from respiratory and throat problems, which I believe have been caused by working for years with toxic glues and solvents. I now suffer from a constant cough that never goes away. I also frequently get throat infections and sometimes cough up blood. I sometimes feel as though I can’t breathe properly – that I can’t get enough air and that I’m gasping. My nose burns a lot, especially at work. The skin on my hand is irritated and peels easily. Sometimes if I get a lot of glue or solvent on my hands, it causes skin burns. My eyes get very irritated, and I get terrible headaches. I am now often dizzy and have almost constant nausea and stomach pain." (Section 6.1.1 Use of Chemicals, U.S. Public Report of NAO Submission No. 200-01, issued April 6, 2001)

"(For) the chemical substances – the yellow glue – there is no labeling. Some of the solvents did have labels, but the information was labeled in English. So none of the workers knew what it said. Nor was any information disclosed by supervisors, managers or human resources (personnel) about the content of the solvents or the consequences of using those solvents…" (Section 6.1.1 Use of Chemicals, U.S. Public Report of NAO Submission No. 2000-01, issued April 6, 2001)

"I rest on weekends and I come back rested when I start on Mondays and I can sew until about 1 or 2 pm without too many problems but after that hour I begin to feel a lot of pain in my right hand and my wrist and in my forearm. I have a lot of problems with my left hand too…. And I’m in a lot of pain as I work. I also have back pain…I take a lot of pain pills… When I get home from work, I have a lot of trouble cooking and during the winter I can’t do anything because the pain is unbearable; I get cramps in my arm and I have to sleep with my hands all covered and I ask my daughter to massage my arm and my hands because they hurt so much." (Section 6.1.2 Ergonomics, U.S. Public Report of NAO Submission No. 2000-01, issued April 6, 2001)

"After seven years of being exposed to these toxic substances, in 1995, my wife and I had a daughter that died two hours later; she had anencephaly. After this, we started asking about the cause of death of my daughter, and I started getting information from other co-workers that had had miscarriages … and that had children with physical defects. Eighteen days after my daughter died, another worker had a daughter that died due to hydrocephaly and the wife of another co-worker had another daughter like my daughter. My friend… had a son with Spina bifida." (Section 6.1.1 Use of Chemicals, U.S. Public Report of NAO Submission No. 2000-01, issued April 6, 2001)

National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health Report
(included in NAO Report)

Based upon our experience conducting studies of manually intensive jobs involving repetitive and forceful upper extremity exposures in a variety of manufacturing facilities in the United States, the types of musculoskeletal injuries recorded on company logs and those expressed by former workers at the public hearing are consistent with the biomechanical risk factors which exist in both plants…… The highly repetitive work involving awkward hand/arm positions, which we observed in both plants, has been linked to a variety of musculoskeletal disorders, including tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. (Section 6.1.2 Ergonomics, U.S. Public Report of NAO Submission No. 2000-01, issued April 6, 2001)

About the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras
CJM is a tri-national, non-profit coalition founded in 1989 and composed of organizations from religious, labor, environmental, community and women’s groups in Mexico, the United States and Canada. CJM’s activities consist of organizing, educating and awareness raising, promoting self-reliance and solidarity among workers and their communities, as well as exerting pressure on corporations to adopt socially responsible standards. For more information about becoming a CJM member or to sign up for the CJM action alert email list, please call 210-732-8957 or write to: