She once demanded a raise in wages in a Sony factory, and now Mexican-born Martha Ojeda has become a prominent campaigner for the improvement of working conditions. The focus of her criticism: free trade agreements that pave the way for multinationals to cheap labor in the South. “Workers all over the world are fighting the same battle for economic justice.”
You can tell right away that Martha Ojeda is a woman to be reckoned with. In a passionate flood of words, Ojeda paints a picture of the maquiladoras, the free-trade zone in Mexico where factory workers are employed by multinationals who pay low wages. “People work from dusk till dawn, seven days a week. They never see the light of day. They are sometimes unknowingly exposed to chemicals which make them ill or cause them to bear deformed babies. Women – of which there are a lot in the maquiladoras – are discriminated and harassed by their male employers. If you protest, you get fired. Or even worse: you are prosecuted by the police.”
Ojeda is one to know. For twenty years, she herself worked in such factories. In the Sony factory in Nuevo Laredo, she the forming of an independent union to stand up for the wishes of the thousands of people who made audio and video cassettes there. The unions in Mexico, Ojeda tells us, made a deal with the government and big business. “Our trade unions are always ‘fighting for jobs’, but not for the workers’ right to self-organisation, the right to a better and decent life.”
At Sony, Ojeda was nominated for new union president, but she lost the elections to the candidate whom the electronics giant had put forward themselves. A fraud! cried the employees, who then held a demonstration outside the factory. Sony had water cannons brought in, and policemen armed with clubs laid into the crowd. The ensuing strike lasted for five days. In the end, the police were victorious. Thanks to the legalised union’s informers, the leaders of the protest were fired and blacklisted. Sony took the forty leaders to court and sued them for causing production losses. Ojeda fled the country to San Antonio, Texas, nine years ago now.
In her new homeland she was supported by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), a group of dozens of unions, religious groups and environmental and womens’ rights organisations from the United States, Canada and Mexico. Together they took legal action against Sony. To no avail: they appealed to the free-trade agreement of the three North American countries (NAFTA), but it proved to be unable to protect workers’ rights.
Ojeda has since become the first Mexican to be Director of CJM and she has dedicated her life to uniting workers who are suffering under the effects NAFTA. That, she says, is necessary as a counterbalance in a time in which the borders between countries mean nothing to labor and capital. After all, NAFTA was meant to bring more competition between countries, which forces companies to keep costs low. One time-tried way of doing this is by moving factories from industrialised to low-wage countries, where the few existing rules on working conditions aren’t kept anyway, and where resistance is nipped in the bud.
“NAFTA was supposed to bring more jobs and higher wages to all of North America,” Ms. Ojiba explains. “But although there may be more jobs, they are not of the kind we want. Working and living conditions have only deteriorated.” The lenient rules for foreign investments and export tariffs have brought an uncontrolled growth of thousands of mulinational factories along the U.S.-Mexico border. In these sweatshops, as critics call them, at least a million Mexicans have found work. Their wages are no more than five dollars a day – barely enough to survive on. Cars, television sets, stereos, leather bags, wallets: the products they make are practically all intended for export to the United States.
The villages and towns the multinationals are moving their factories to, were hardly prepared for their coming. Ojeda: “Thousands of families live in houses made of cardboard crates and wooden pallets. Isn’t it ironic that the Mexican government does provide roads, water, electricity and sewage to the factories, while the people who live there don’t even have access to simple, basic needs?”
Ojeda intends to use the CJM as a tool to improve the workers’ position by supporting the battle for an independant union with legal aid and government lobbying. CJM informs workers about the chemicals they work with and keeps track of the violations multinationals make. An ALCOA factory director was fired after Ojeda had demonstrated that under his managment gas leaks had not been repaired and caused many workers to become ill.
But Ojeda is concerned about more than Mexico alone. She is a new type of union woman, one who strives for international solidarity. She addressed American workers who were angry when their factory moved to a town just across the Mexican border, to explain that they had landed in the same battle for economic justice. In Canada too she talks to the middle classes who are afraid of losing their job security. “Free trade is a serious threat to internationally acknowleged workers’ rights,” says Ojeda. “The agenda for globalistion now being drawn up by governments speaks only of capital and jobs, not of wages and working conditions.”
Justice is still hard to come by in the maquiladoras, but Ojeda remains optimistic. “Every alliance we build is a milestone in history. I keep hoping that each day will be a little bit better than the day before.”