In 2015, Rosa Moreno, a Mexican mother of eight and former factory worker, was awarded the Illuminating Injustice Award by Public Justice, a US law firm. This award is a monetary payment given to a person who has suffered a catastrophic injury, but because of some legal or societal injustice, was unable to receive fair compensation for the injury. Winners of this award have experienced events that took something away from them and completely changed their lives. For Moreno, the award came at the cost of both her hands.

Prior to winning the award, Moreno had been an employee of a Mexican factory owned and operated by LG Electronics, one of thousands of such factories along the US-Mexican border in which imported components are assembled into finished products for export to the United States. These factories are commonly known as “maquiladoras.” Ciudad Juárez, a border town across the Rio Grande from Texas, alone has about 300 of these factories, owned by Mexican, Asian, and US companies hoping to take advantage of Mexico’s cheap labor and the low tariffs that result from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

On February 11, 2011, her last night of work in the maquiladora, Moreno was moved from her usual machine on the assembly line to a new one that was notorious among the plant’s workers for being difficult and dangerous to operate. The previous operator of this machine had been working too slowly, so the manager transferred Moreno to the machine to speed up its production rate. As Moreno was working, the machine began to make strange noises, which she immediately reported to the manager. The manager instructed her not to worry and to get back to work — production rates were his highest priority.

Later in the night as Moreno was assembling a part on the machine, the press suddenly came down onto her hands from above, crushing them and forging them to the metal piece she had been centering on the machine. While the women around her fainted, Moreno used all of her might to stay conscious. She had heard frightening stories of managers covering up workplace accidents, and worried that if she were to faint, the managers would just leave her anywhere they wanted; she could wake up in a dark alley or in the desert.

Even while she was conscious, the managers were still reluctant to take Moreno to the hospital. They insisted that Moreno go to the factory infirmary instead of a public hospital, where doctors would be required by law to report the workplace injury. The factory would then be forced to contribute more to the social security system that funds these hospitals. Moreno, however, realized that her hands would most likely need to be amputated, and wanted this to occur under hospital conditions. After pleading with the managers and eventually convincing them to take her to a hospital, Moreno’s hands did indeed have to be amputated at the wrists. The factory offered her US$3,800 as a settlement, which was less than what she made in a year.

Mechanics at the factory had known that the machine was broken for months. In addition, safeguards to prevent similar accidents from happening had been disabled. The managers knew the machine was dangerous, yet kept it on the production line, prioritizing profit over safety. 

Before NAFTA was signed by the United States, Canada, and Mexico, proponents of the agreement claimed that it would help improve labor conditions in Mexico and strengthen workers’ rights. It was reasoned that free trade would bring US corporations into Mexico, allowing the Mexican manufacturing sector to flourish. This development was supposed to raise wages and provide the government with resources to improve labor conditions for the workers. After it was signed, NAFTA lowered tariffs, enumerated specific steps for resolving trade disputes, and protected intellectual property and patents. Most notably, it successfully tripled trade and caused the manufacturing sector in Mexico to grow at an unprecedented rate. This increase in productivity, however, did not improve labor conditions as proponents predicted. NAFTA has failed to ameliorate working conditions for Mexican laborers; conditions for these workers have actually worsened under the agreement. 

After NAFTA’s signing, thousands of Mexican citizens traveled to border cities to find work in the maquiladoras. As she herself stated in an article in The Texas Observer, Moreno had traveled 700 miles to live and work in Reynosa, Mexico so her family “would never have to go hungry again.” As productivity in Mexico increased, wages did not increase as dramatically as proponents had predicted. Most of the economic benefits of the agreement went to the rich, Mexico’s small middle class, and the government. The poor, on the other hand, began to migrate from the countryside into the cities, only to be exploited in maquiladoras. The government had no reason to improve conditions for these workers as proponents of the agreement had claimed, because doing so would have meant a loss of government revenue and would have discouraged foreign companies from coming to Mexico. Instead of becoming factories of economic opportunity for the poor, the maquiladoras became hubs of labor rights violations, injury, and death.

Statistics on the suffering in the maquiladoras are hard to come by. Many factories actively suppress data on workplace injuries and fatalities because, under Mexican law, more workplace incidents mean higher payoffs to the Mexican social security system and diminishing profits. Hence, factories often threaten to fire workers who speak out, manipulating the fact that most of these underpaid and overworked employees are the only source of income for their families and cannot afford to lose their jobs. Factories also attempt to force injured workers into being treated at a factory infirmary or at a private clinic, instead of at public hospitals funded by social security where doctors are required by law to report workplace injuries. 

It is therefore unsurprising that many of the statistics on workplace accidents maintained by the Mexican government are grossly underestimated. According to The Texas Observer, in 2011 there were 17,302 workplace accidents reported in Mexico. That same year, 2.8 million accidents were reported in the United States. Even though the United States has three times the population of Mexico, this is still a disproportionate difference, especially given that US factories generally have better technology, well-maintained machinery, and strict workplace safety procedures due to the relatively strong labor laws of the United States.

A lot of the evidence of the abject working environments in the maquiladoras comes in the form of anecdotes. One maquiladora worker, Omar Gil, recalls working with lead in his “street clothes” because the company refused to give factory workers the proper clothing needed for handling the hazardous material. The factory also refused to give workers safety gloves, forcing them to handle sharp metal parts with their bare hands and causing their hands to become cut up and bloodied. According to a WIDE+ report supported by the European Commission on “Women’s Labour Migration in the Context of Globalisation,” workers are continuously subjected to dangerous levels of noise, extreme temperatures, and toxic materials with little to no protection whatsoever. As in the case of Moreno, machines are oftentimes poorly maintained or broken, causing injury, dismemberment, and death. In a particularly appalling example, one worker in a factory owned by HD Electronics was crushed to death in a press larger than the one involved in Moreno’s case. His family received a settlement of US$11,538, which is less than three years worth of his income. 

NAFTA was not supposed to cause all these tragedies. In fact, the United States, Canada, and Mexico also signed the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) with the specific purpose of promoting labor rights in North America. This side agreement to NAFTA, negotiated independently of the main agreement, listed 11 principles that the countries wished to promote, including “compensation in cases of occupational injuries and illnesses, prevention of occupational injuries and illnesses, and elimination of employment discrimination.” The compact has done little, however, to actually implement these practices. 

The failure of NAFTA and the NAALC to improve labor rights can be attributed to many factors. One aforementioned factor is the unwillingness of the government to risk lowering its manufacturing revenue by enacting tougher labor laws. Another is the failure of grievance systems created by the NAALC. The side agreement allows workers to submit complaints to a specialized agency in each country, operated by the countries’ respective secretaries of labor, who were to evaluate and act on the claims. This system, however, fell through in Mexico, where the secretary of labor has not pursued even the most well-documented cases for fear of losing government revenue. 

Moreover, this grievance system actually disadvantages the petitioner, because it removes pressure from the government to act on claims and instead places pressure at the feet of a specialized agency. The government can then project blame onto this agency, and thus the NAALC. Therefore, not even public relations pressure can force the government to treat grievances seriously, as this pressure can easily be defected onto the specialized agency.

In addition, while a state can face sanctions under the NAALC if it fails to enforce occupational safety and health, child labor, or minimum wage standards, violation of the other eight labor principles do not result in any sanctions. Instead, “soft” mechanisms are stated as enforcement mechanisms. These soft mechanisms include intergovernmental conferences and the creation of committees to investigate compliance. Complaints under the NAALC are initially handled through conferences between national administrative offices or governmental ministers. After this step is completed, a member state may request the formation of an Evaluation Committee of Experts (ECE) to research and write a report on the claim. Both processes usually result in no real change or enforcement of the labor principles, leaving claimants frustrated and discouraged. Governments have used these soft mechanisms primarily to quell public outrage by giving the mere impression that something is being done to fix the issues. In reality, nothing said in the consultations or committees is binding or likely to result in real action. 

The environmental side agreement of NAFTA, called the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC), provides a potential solution for the shortcomings of the NAALC. The NAAEC created the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an independent agency composed of representatives from all member states of NAFTA, to review environmental complaints. This commission can assess monetary penalties against parties that violate environmental law through an independent tribunal. Such independent oversight is not present anywhere else within the framework of NAFTA or its side agreements; not even violators of NAFTA’s international trade laws face monetary sanctions under an independent commission. The success of the environmental side agreement largely comes from this commission, which has encouraged parties to obey the environmental laws.

A similar agency could remedy the inadequacy of NAFTA and the NAALC in preventing labor rights violations. An amendment to NAFTA or the creation of a new side agreement could establish an independent regulatory commission that assesses penalties against parties that violate labor laws. Such a measure would allow victims to obtain justice for labor law violations without having to go through institutions with conflicts of interest, such as the government. It would also send a clear message to all signatories of NAFTA that a condition of free trade must be the guarantee of labor rights, and that the failure to enforce labor laws will not be tolerated. 

Whether or not the establishment of independent regulatory agencies is the most surefire method to eliminate the injustices occurring under NAFTA, something must be done by the United States, Canada, and Mexico to end the suffering in the maquiladoras. These countries cannot continue to stand idle as workers are subject to dangerous working conditions, coercion, and bodily harm all in the name of profit. Rather than calling for the abolishment of NAFTA or restriction of free trade, NAFTA’s signatories should call for the elimination of the exploitation of labor occurring under the agreement. Free trade is not inherently detrimental for workers’ rights and, in many instances, can be beneficial for national economies, but the weaknesses of NAFTA have facilitated systematic abuse against marginalized maquiladora workers in Mexico. 

Until the United States, Canada, and Mexico take action, it is important to share the stories of people like Moreno and protest alongside the maquiladora workers as they stand up to the abuses they face and attempt to form labor unions despite government repression. In the end, North America must send a message to the world that it will not prioritize profit over human rights: the misery in the maquiladoras must end.