At a time of uncertainty over the fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement, what does it feel like to work in a manufacturing plant in Mexico, where a surge of American companies have taken advantage of low labor costs?
This year, we followed a group of steelworkers in Indianapolis whose jobs were moving to Monterrey, Mexico, as discontent simmered in the American Rust Belt over the loss of blue-collar jobs.
In the wake of the article’s publication, and as tensions rose over attempts to renegotiate Nafta, we sought out perspectives on globalization from readers who had worked in the manufacturing industry in Mexico. We asked them what they would tell American workers if they could.
When Nafta was passed nearly 24 years ago, the trade deal marked a major milestone for globalization. It greatly expanded the number of assembly plants in Mexico known as maquiladoras, which import parts duty-free and send finished products back across the border. Today, Mexico’s maquiladora industry is far more sophisticated and global than when Nafta began.
In response to our queries, we received over 200 responses from readers. They ranged from expressions of solidarity — “We are not your enemy, but your brother in arms,” one wrote — to anger at being demonized for merely trying to make a living.Continue reading the main stor
Many of the respondents echoed a common theme: Fear of the looming threat of automation, and of losing jobs to China. In follow-up interviews, respondents shared more about their experiences and their views on globalization.
These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed, and one was translated from Spanish.
‘Americans should be seeking “first world” jobs’
Luis Arturo Torres Romero, 37, has worked for 19 years in factories in Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, a city in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
The son of an artist and a nurse who has struggled to make ends meet, Mr. Torres Romero put himself through college by working the night shift as an assembly operator at a factory that made consumer electronics. Now, he’s a development engineer for automotive electronics.
I would have never been able to finish college if there weren’t those kinds of jobs in a maquiladora. Now I have a good life, I can afford certain luxuries. I no longer live worried about money. I no longer wonder what am I going to eat tomorrow.
That kind of activity can’t fulfill you as a human being: doing something over and over like a machine. The staff turnover is very high. A lot of us didn’t even have a contract. We were outsourced by employment agencies. If there was a production spike, they would hire people, but if it lowered you would get fired.
Those jobs no longer have a future. Machines will make them cheaper. Those jobs are being automated. Americans should be seeking first-world jobs. They should focus on making education accessible to more people to focus on higher-ranking positions.
‘We’re competing against everybody just like you’
Raquel Gerardo, 22, grew up in Tijuana in a family that depended on the maquiladora industry for its livelihood.
Ms. Gerardo’s parents met while working together in a factory. Her father started off sweeping floors as a teenager. He rose through the ranks, becoming a technician, an engineer and finally a plant manager at an electronics factory in Tijuana.
Ms. Gerardo attended high school in Tijuana, where students were taught quality control, marketing and other skills necessary for the maquiladora industry. She went to college in Idaho, but returned to Tijuana for an internship at a factory. Today, she lives in Tijuana and works for an American software company that markets to Latin American customers.
We are privileged. Not everyone has a chance to learn English and get an education to that level. I remember as a kid, my father would take me to the factory. Now that I’m an adult, I realize that people’s education levels are very mixed. If you are under, you are under. If you are the boss, all the respect is for you.
Even if you earn a little above minimum wage, it’s not a livable wage. You can’t just do one shift and survive. Everybody in the family has to be working two or even three shifts.
We’re competing against everybody just like you. China — it’s almost impossible to compete with them. My dad was the plant manager for this company and his bosses would call him every day and say, “If you don’t reduce the costs by this much, we’re going to move.” We didn’t celebrate my 12th birthday because of the stress.
Work from the United States has been ‘a boon for Mexico’
Douglas Naudin, 75, of Laredo, Texas, worked as a human resources manager in the maquiladora industry from 1983 to 2007.
Mr. Naudin was born in Mexico, but grew up in El Paso after his father earned an engineering degree from the University of Missouri. A dual citizen of the United States and Mexico, Mr. Naudin always felt drawn to the Mexican side of the border.
He was thrilled when an American company based in Carrollton, Tex., hired him in the 1980s to work in a newly built electronics factory in Juárez, Mexico. Mr. Naudin became head of human resources at that plant, which made LED bulbs for automobile dashboards.
The Americans liked the idea of me going over there, because they could communicate with me. At the time, they had a Mexican H.R. manager who couldn’t speak English. People in Carrollton struggled with “Why are people leaving? What’s the head count?”
We were putting together little teeny tiny bulbs. They are soldered with little teeny gold string, wire. And it was done through microscopes. It was tough work. We used to manufacture a kajillion of them. The workers were coming from some of the farms nearby.
By the 1990s, American companies started sending more technical work, higher-grade equipment, laboratories. As time went on, all these other tasks started going to Mexico. Engineers. Machinists. Mechanics. You had a lot of the second and third generation who are professionals at the plants, where their parents had been operators. It has been a boon for Mexico.
‘Mexico, the U.S. and Canada should be working together’
David Treviño, 56, worked for 12 years as a production manager at a plant in Mexico City that made electrical bundles.
Mr. Treviño has traveled to China more than 100 times in the last 27 years, first as the representative of an international wire assemblies company that was establishing factories in China in the 1990s, and with an electronics distributor in Mexico City he founded that imports products from China to Mexico and the United States.
In 1989, I was working for a Mexican company that was making wiring assemblies, those bundles of wires that connect to all the buttons in the back — for example, in a washing machine. I called it “working in the salt mines,” because it was hard. I was one of the few guys to speak English. I got promoted.
At that time, China was totally underdeveloped. There were almost no hotels. You had to stay in the factory. The salary in China was $1 per day. More and more companies were coming, to the point that in the early 2000s, you had to have a factory in China, or you were wrong. Americans transferred huge investments and know-how to China for free. They did it for corporate profits, to keep shareholders happy. But you see the results.
Chinese people started their own factories, becoming a rich country and now a U.S. rival. My youngest son just graduated a year ago from a very good college in Mexico. He did an exchange in China. Given the situation, I told him, “You might want to learn Chinese because it’s the language of the future.”
Americans should have made better political and economic decisions years ago. Punishing Mexico is not the solution. Eliminating Nafta or building walls is not the solution. Mexico, the U.S. and Canada should be working together to face the big challenges the rest of the world is posing. If the U.S., Mexico and Canada do not find ways to work together, we will see many U.S. manufacturing companies closing due to the brutal competition from Asia, and China in particular.