Union organizer Pedro Lopez discusses working conditions in Mexico with Archbishop Tom Morgan.
An unprecedented level of exploitation in the Americas awaits if free trade is expanded, says Archbishop Thomas Morgan.
Archbishop Morgan, back from a fact-finding trip to Mexico with the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America in early April, said in an interview that the level of poverty he witnessed had left him “in turmoil.”
“If what I saw in the city of Juarez is evidence of what has happened under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), then to open up the whole of the Americas to more free trade is to open them up to a level of exploitation we have never known before.”
As Quebec City was preparing for the Summit of the Americas, Archbishop Morgan, from the diocese of Saskatoon, was part of an ecumenical group of church leaders that visited communities adversely affected by free trade policies.
He described scenes of despair among the families of workers for international electronic and technology giants, which had opened up factories just south of the U.S. border to take advantage of cheap Mexican labour.
The population of Juarez, which is just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tex., has swollen to 1.5 million from 60,000 in 1960, with people drawn to work in the factories rather than face starvation on subsistence farms which could not compete with cheaper American imports.
An average worker, Archbishop Morgan said, makes just $95 a month “scarcely enough to buy a jug of milk a day and little else.” But, he added, “People preferred to be employed rather than to starve.”
The workers live in cardboard houses in Anapra, a shantytown that has sprouted without any infrastructure around Juarez. Anapra has no sewage system or running water, the archbishop said. “A water truck comes once a week to fill the barrels, and if that runs out, they have to buy their water,” he said.
The Canadian delegation could not get used to seeing the level of poverty, said Archbishop Morgan.
“These people are the employed, not the unemployed. They are producing cheap microwaves and television sets for our markets.”
Before the trip, Archbishop Morgan said, he had an “exotic view of human rights.” Now, “I think it’s about food, water, health and education.” In Anapra and Juarez, he noted, parents of small children worked 12- to 16-hour days in factories while grandparents cared for children. There was one daycare centre with 90 spaces for a population of 300,000.
The Mexican government is not enforcing labour standards, said Archbishop Morgan, and workers are afraid to complain or organize, fearing putting their jobs in jeopardy.
“It’s simply slavery,” said the archbishop. The resulting desperation has led to an increase in crime, and the Canadians heard that 230 women were killed in Juarez over a three-year period.
Joining Archbishop Morgan on the trip were Rev. Glen Davis, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Canada; Catholic Bishop Jean Gagnon from Quebec City; Very Rev. Robert Smith, former moderator of the United Church of Canada, from Vancouver; and Sr. Priscilla Solomon, a member of the Anishnabe nation and the Sisters of Saint Joseph in North Bay, Ont.
The delegation also met with farming communities in the state of Chihuahua, where corn and bean producers struggle to survive since the elimination of subsidies and tariffs, which has led to a flood of cheap U.S. imports.
Delegation members also went to the highlands of Tarahumar Sierra, where the arrival of transnational forestry companies has resulted in intensive, largely unregulated logging. Indigenous communities who depend on the forest for many edible plants and medicinal herbs, as well as for their livelihood, have complained about the situation.