What a Wasteland

"The biggest environmental contribution the maquilas can make is paying workers enough to improve housing," Dos Santos says.

As with laws governing hazardous waste, regulations covering the health and safety of maquiladora workers are routinely ignored.

Pick your study--there have been dozens on worker health and safety in the maquiladoras since 1990, all of which reported similar findings: Most maquila workers never receive any safety training or information on hazardous chemicals in their workplace, both of which are required by Mexican federal law. Each plant is required to have a "Joint Management-Worker Health and Safety Commission" that meets regularly, but the committees are practically nonexistent.

The plants are not always the only culprits, however. Maria Guzman, the company nurse for the four Nogales maquilas owned by New York-based corporation Amphenol, says workers are to blame for almost all accidents.

"They take out the safety guards [from machinery] so they can work faster, and they're always talking, playing and laughing, not paying close attention," she says. "Also, some of them don't eat, so they fall asleep and the machinery hurts them."

Most of the workers she treats come to her with repetitive-stress injuries or, if they work in areas where solvents are used, headaches.

"The chemicals smell really nasty, like the liquid that takes paint off girls' nails," says Guzman, 45. "They say breathing it hurts their head, so I give them aspirin. If they're not better in a week, I ask managers to rotate them to another area."

Guzman says she constantly harangues employees who work with solvents to don the safety gear Amphenol provides for them, and they simply refuse.

"They say, 'Well, we have to die someday,'" Guzman says.
About a year ago, Guzman says, she told plant managers they needed to start suspending workers for not wearing safety equipment. "They did for a while, but production went down, so they stopped," she says.

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