July 23, 2009 The Pump Handle 1Comment

by Garrett Brown

On June 5th, 200 babies and small children were dropped off at a private, government-subsidized day care center in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora state in northern Mexico.  A fire broke out next door and soon smoke and fire filled the day care center killing 48 babies and children, and severely burning two dozen more. 

It turns out that the owners of the day care center included the wives of two top state officials and a businessman with close links to Eduardo Bours, governor of the state of Sonora.  It also turns out the building was a fire trap that had repeatedly “passed” every government inspection.  Except one in 2005, when the owners were ordered to widen the main entrance, remove flammable materials, and add two emergency exits with regulation fire doors. 

But the owners did nothing. 

A few months later the same federal agency that ordered the changes, renewed its contract with the day care center.  Without having installed emergency exits or brought the main door up to code, the center continued to pass government inspections, one after another.  In fact, just 10 days before the murderous fire, a federal agency inspector ticked off every line in the safety column of her inspection report as “satisfactory.”

What does this have to do with occupational safety and health in Mexico? 

Well, if the Mexican government – for reasons of corruption, incompetence or political connections – will not even protect Mexican babies and children, what can be expected of that same government when it comes to adult workers in US- and Asian-owned maquiladoras channeling critical foreign investment into the country? 

If meeting basic life-safety regulations to protect sleeping babies is too much for the wives of prominent politicians and the golf buddy of the governor, why should anyone be surprised that the US-owned and -operated maquilas routinely “pass” government inspections despite continuous reports from workers of unsafe and unhealthy working conditions?

If spending the money required to have actually functioning emergency exits is too much to protect 200 children, why should anyone be surprised that maquila operators decline to spend the money to install and maintain adequate ventilation systems to eliminate chemical exposures, or mechanize operations to prevent repetitive motion injuries; or re-engineer processes to reduce noise?

If the Mexican elite who make up its political class and who pocketed the government subsidies ($200 a child per month) would never send their own children to this working class day care center, why should anyone be surprised that this same elite – executive managers and partners in many maquilas – could care less about the parents of these children working in their factories. 

Mexico has workplace safety regulations that are roughly equivalent to those in the United States and Canada, and it has federal and state enforcement offices with a corps of inspectors.  But Mexico also has a foreign debt of $212 billion and must pay more than $16 billion a year in interest alone.  Foreign investment by maquiladora operators is crucial to paying this annual interest.  Anything that “discourages foreign investment” – such as actual enforcement of workplace safety regulations – is economic suicide and a political impossibility. 
Mexico’s OHS regs will never – never – be enforced as long as it is saddled with this foreign debt, as long as there is zero political will for enforcement, as long as there are completely insufficient numbers and resources for government inspectors, as long as political and personal corruption is so deep that even the minimal expenses required to prevent 48 babies from being burned alive will not be spent. 

Many transnational corporations operating maquiladoras in Mexico believe their factories meet “one global standard” set by the corporation’s “code of conduct.”  Our Network’s experience over the last 16 years indicates that all the pretty words of the pre-arranged corporate plant audits and the annual “corporate social responsibility” reports very often bear no resemblance whatever to the reality of the factory floor and the conditions lived day in and day out by maquila workers. 

It’s not just day care center audits that are “gamed” in abbreviated, pre-arranged inspections; it’s not just day care centers where government officials turn a blind eye; it’s not just day care centers where “capital improvements” are put on hold for one or another reason; and it’s not just day care centers where greed, class bias, incompetence and corruption have combined to take away innocent lives, or left trusting people maimed and scarred for the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile back in Hermosillo, enraged and anguished parents have held marches every weekend since the fire to demand justice for their dead children.  By mid-July, 16 people have been arrested, including one or two of the owners, but mostly low-level state and federal officials.

“Even if the case eventually gets to court, which is not a given,”

the New York Times noted on June 23rd,

“Mexican trials can take years and often do little to clarify the facts.” 

The Los Angeles Times reported on July 11th that a Mexican federal justice official revealed that only 3% of criminal cases actually reach sentencing, and that the principal owners of the daycare have fled the country. 

“Since the fire on June 5, bureaucrats and politicians have repeatedly promised investigations to root out those at fault,”

the Times reported,

“But many people here suspect a more typical Mexican outcome: an endless investigation that will ultimately point fingers at many and hold no one responsible.”

Garrett Brown is an industrial hygienists whose “day job” is as a compliance officer for Cal/OSHA in Oakland, CA. Since 1993, he has been the volunteer coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network. 

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