December 29, 2007 – Eve White writes: On January 1st, Mexican environmental, farmer, and human rights activists are going to form a human wall across five highways along the U.S. border between Juárez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. They are protesting the lifting of tariffs for corn, bean, powdered milk, and other U.S. products entering Mexico. This economic move is a continuation of policies that adhere to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which began in 1994. These five highways are where U.S. grain trucks enter Mexico.
While many U.S. citizens are clamoring for stronger border security to keep more Mexican immigrants from entering the country illegally, it would do us all a lot of good to understand how this protest is directly linked to the problem of immigration.
In Mexico it’s already well known that since NAFTA was implemented, the rural economy has rapidly deteriorated. Real wages have only gone up four percent while the cost basic staple foods have increased 35%. Cheap U.S. agribusiness imports have put local Mexican farmers out of work, who have left their land in search of new jobs. According to Miguel Colunga of the Chihuahua Farmers’ Democratic Front in Mexico, around 6 million Mexicans have left their farmland since NAFTA was enacted. He explains that local production has gone down and now Mexico depends on the U.S. for 40% of its food imports. Colunga is one of the activists that will be participating in the January 1st protest.
On the U.S. side NAFTA has been the cause of job loss and economic instability as well, as manufacturing companies have moved their plants down to Mexico in search of cheap labor and loose environmental and human rights standards. Global Exchange, a non-profit group that advocates for fair trade and fair labor policies, has documented how sweatshops have expanded due to free trade policies like NAFTA, which have favored large corporations over laborers and local economies.
Global Exchange and Human Rights Watch have also documented some of the conditions that sweatshop workers are forced to endure. They are paid minimum wage, which in Mexico is approximately four dollars a day. This is barely enough for one person to survive in Mexico’s economy. Mexican workers in one sweatshop are sometimes forced to work all night shifts while armed guards prevent them from leaving the factory. Other Mexican workers have testified that they are not allowed to take bathroom breaks or drink water all day. Women are regularly sexually harassed without any access to legal protection. Sometimes they are forced to show they are menstruating, in order to prove they are not pregnant. If they become pregnant, they are fired.
These are the sweatshop jobs to which many poor farmers flee once they have lost their land. It is no wonder that many of them continue to flee to the U.S. border, where if they successfully cross, they may find a job that pays a living wage and treats them with a little more dignity.
NAFTA has benefited large corporations, especially agribusiness corporations, which have been showing record profits every year. But the cost of benefiting a handful of huge corporations and their shareholders has been job loss, lower wages, and increased immigration. Álvarez Figueroa, a Mexican economist, warns that the upcoming move to lift tariffs on more U.S. products to Mexico in 2008 will put more small producers out of work and further increase poverty and hunger. Those in the U.S. who are trying to halt illegal immigration on the Mexican border would be more productive working to repeal and block such harmful free trade policies, and supporting fellow Mexican citizens who are fighting to do the same.
The 300 groups that will form the human wall are calling on people from the U.S. and other countries to join them and support them. They will begin on the first minute of January 1st, and try to maintain the wall until January 2nd. Colunga says that public security forces may intervene, making this goal difficult. It would be helpful for all U.S. citizens, especially those along the El Paso, Texas – Juarez border to participate in whatever way they can. They can be part of the wall, and even more importantly, people are needed to take photos and document what will happen this New Year’s day.
Note: Most of this research was taken from the Enciso article from La Jornada, which I translated and adapted to this article to make it relevant to U.S. citizens.
Bracamontes, Reynaldo. “Detiene economía informal un estallido social: Álvarez Figueroa.” December 27, 2007. Noticias.
Enciso L., Angélica. “En Cuidad Juárez campesinos formarán una muralla humana en cruces fronterizos.” La Jornada. December 27, 2007. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2007/12/27/index.php
Rough English translation: http://chicago.indymedia.org/archive/newswire/display/80762/index.php
“Frequently Asked Questions: ‘Free Trade’ and Sweatshops.” Global Exchange. October 28, 2007. http://www.globalexchange.org/fairtrade/sweatfree/faq