The ignored injuries of Reynosa's factory workers

by @ranjchak @ChristofPutzel September 30, 2015 1:00PM ET

In Reynosa, a Mexican border city, there are hundreds of assembly plants that feed global demand; but at what price?


REYNOSA, Mexico – As a single mom raising six children in her home, Rosa Moreno knew her wage of $1.50 per hour was the only thing keeping her family afloat. Moreno, 42, had been working in various assembly plants in the industrial city of Reynosa for 15 years – until one night in February 2011.

“I went to work as I always did, but it never crossed my mind that it was going to be my last day of work,” she said.

Moreno was working the night shift, placing the backs on what would become LG Electronics TV sets, when her machine suddenly malfunctioned. It closed with both her hands inside, molding them to the back of the TV. 

The accident resulted in her losing both her hands – and her livelihood. Since then, she hasn’t been able to work another factory job.

In Reynosa, just two miles across the Texas border, worker injuries are all too common. The town is dotted with more than 200 assembly plants, or maquiladoras, putting together products for some of the biggest brand names in the world, including Panasonic, Caterpillar and Black and Decker. For these global giants, the city is a source of cheap labor.

The starting wage for maquiladora workers in Reynosa can be less than a dollar per hour. But these jobs are often the best option. The industry lured many of the workers here from rural towns hours away, with hopes for a steady paycheck.  

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The maquiladora industry is the lifeblood of Reynosa and the surrounding area. Every single day, more than 100,000 laborers are bussed in and out of the city for their shifts, where they try to keep up with global demand for items like car parts, flat-screen televisions and air conditioners.

Moreno says many more have been injured, but there’s too much at stake for them to speak up.

“There’s a lot of people who say that they don’t want to talk about the factories because then they won’t get any job, or their families won’t get a job,” she said. “So, they’d rather shut up.”

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In nearby Edinburg, Texas, Ed Krueger prepares for another trip across the border. He’s a retired minister who has been investigating questionable labor practices in Mexico’s maquiladoras for 35 years. The 84-year-old created Comité de Apoyo, or Committee of Support. But don’t let his age fool you: Up to three times a week, he continues to hop into his rickety Ford Escort to organize and educate workers about their rights.

Krueger and a fellow nonprofit, Partners for Responsible Trade, organize weekly worker meetings in Reynosa. Krueger compares it to Bible study, but the text they examine is Mexico’s federal labor law. 

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Vikki and Christine Ruddy, the mother-daughter team that founded Partners for Responsible Trade, listen to grievances from Abril Cruz, a current factory worker. At this meeting, the workers said they faced many problems, from poorly maintained machines to safety controls completely ignored for efficiency. But many of their stories are also about the lack of recourse they have after being injured.

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Moreno shows us what part of the TV she was making the night of the accident. To add insult to injury, companies like LG Electronics have found a way to limit their liability when workers like Moreno get hurt. It’s common practice for big companies to use smaller, more anonymous ones to manufacture the majority of the parts before final assembly. While the product Moreno was making would eventually become an LG TV, she was making parts for them in a separate factory called HD Electronics.

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Moreno writes a shopping list for her kids before sending them to the store. Without hands, she can’t find work in a Reynosa factory again.

After her accident, Moreno asked her factory manager what her options were. “The manager told me, ‘You have nothing to do here, we can’t offer you a job. The only thing that I can offer you is 50,000 pesos,’” she said. “I said no, that the money was no good for me, that’s not what my hands were worth.” She knew that 50,000 pesos, or just less than $3,000, would not be enough to support her family. 

Carlos Castro was born and raised in Reynosa. Eight years ago, Castro, now 26, went to work at HD Electronics, making the backs of LG TV sets. Castro was assigned to operate a machine to stamp the LG logo on TVs. But on just his second day on the job, there was an accident.

"When I put my arm and my hand in [the machine] to pick up the sheet…it pressed my arm," he said. "I screamed that I lost my arm, I looked around and my coworkers that were close by turned their backs and ran away."

Castro lost his right arm and four fingers from his left hand. Like many of his coworkers, he had little to no training before being put on the assembly line.

Now, Castro lives off of a pension of roughly $175 a month. He’s opened up a pet shop with his wife to make a little more money for his family.

“We – I know it sounds horrible – are disposable for the company,” Castro said. “It is not fair that a company as big as LG or HD Electronics don’t look back just a little, that they are not human and they don’t feel for us in their hearts.”

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Here at HD Electronics, behind the security guards and darkened windows, is where Moreno and Castro had their accidents. HD Electronics is one of LG Electronics’ approximately 3,000 vendors worldwide. It’s located just down the road from their Reynosa plant.

“LG has this system where they’re very good at using these shell companies, that are Korean companies, that they've essentially created to make their products,” Vikki Ruddy said. “And essentially, the factories that are making their products and their suppliers are not following the rules. Workers are being injured constantly, and in the end, LG doesn't have to take responsibility because LG says, ‘That's not my factory. My name's not on the front door.’”

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An HD Electronics maintenance manager told us they haven’t had an accident in at least a year, but cases like Moreno’s must have been workers’ mistake. LG Electronics told America Tonight that while Moreno’s accident was a terrible situation, it is something between the employee and the direct vendor, HD Electronics.

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Moreno continues to take care of her household, living off of a small disability pension, less than $150 a month.

She filed a lawsuit against LG Electronics, but the company fought back, saying since the accident happened at HD Electronics and not their plant, it wasn’t their fault. The case was originally thrown out, but Moreno is appealing. 

“It is an injustice what they are doing, what happens here in Mexico,” she said. “And we keep on fighting. We are not giving up, because I’m not responsible for my accident.”

She’s also filed a suit against HD Electronics, but four years after her accident, that case is still pending in court.

“The only thing we ask is that people value our lives and not just the product,” she said. “When a person has an accident, then what happens to us? They abandon us and no one remembers us.”