The El Paso-Juarez border community once again will prove to be a laboratory for how a global crisis like Covid-19 plays out. It was inevitable that men and women working in Juarez assembly plants known as maquiladoras would come down with the novel virus. What was not expected is that their employers, including Fortune-500 companies like Lear and others, would be caught so unprepared when it came to worker safety.
Lear floor assembly workers, supervisors and managers, were among those who got sick. Raul Rosales, 57, a supervisor at Lear’s Rio Bravo assembly plant, died from Covid-19 complications in April at a hospital in El Paso after first being treated at a hospital in Juarez, according to published accounts. In the beginning, Mexico’s federal government was slow to react to the threat of the pandemic and finally reacted when people began dying and reports of infections multiplied. The government then ordered non-essential businesses to shut down, and that’s when chaos at border plants ensued.
Some plants, deeming themselves essential, continued operating, and workers fearful of catching the virus because they lacked safety equipment protested. Then, workers at another plant agreed to return to work with the promise of additional pay. Then, the U.S. began pressuring Mexico to allow the maquiladoras – these plants exist all along the border as well as in Mexico’s interior.
U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau reasoned in a Twitter campaign to reopen the automotive plants that "The destruction of the economy is also a health threat." The companies, of course, said they would do everything needed to keep the workers safe. The situation for workers and businesses will continue to be unstable, as long as the mysterious Covid-19 continues its comet-like trek around the globe. The ambassador’s statement pretty much sums up the priority, keeping the economy engine running.
Nations should have learned lessons from the Great Recession of 2008, but it seems that once again, the ones with the most to lose are your rank-and-file workers, in every part of the world. They are vulnerable, not only to Covid-19’s raging economic fallout, which is still in free fall, but also to their chances of staying alive. What will happen to maquiladora workers – Juarez alone has more than 300,000 people that depend on these meager-salaried jobs for the livelihoods – if viral outbreaks continue?
People desperate for work may opt to continue their employment even if it means a strong possibility that they will catch the virus. At meat-packing plants in the heart of the First World – the United States – the virus spread like wildfire and many employees were left jobless when the plants closed. A large percent of these workers were migrants, a population that operates as an invisible force in the host country. The meat-processing companies are now under pressure to reopen.
Across the board, news reports on how Covid-19 is affecting workers revealed that workers remain vulnerable, perhaps more so than during the 2008 recession, which slowed investment in the border region. Many families continue to live paycheck to paycheck. At least the 2008 crisis was not caused by something that kills people. Some U.S. border residents believe that closing the border with Mexico will halt the virus, but health experts know that pathogens move across nations with ease regardless of border controls.
The U.S. and other national governments, the ones with the resources, hoping to deter social unrest from jobless citizens, moved quickly to issue “stimulus” payments. It was also a rapid-fire way to reinject money into their economies, but it was not a long-term fix. Residents in Tripoli, Lebanon, where more than half of working-age people are unemployed, took to the streets on account of their dire conditions, according to a Human Rights Watch report. One of the protesters clashing with armed forces on April 27 died from a bullet wound. He and the others complained about the lack of access to food during the lockdown for the pandemic.
In some cases, Covid-19 has led to permanent business closures in this region and elsewhere. What will happen once communities and entire countries lift their lockdowns and people return to jobs with drastically reduced pay or to no jobs at all? The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), renowned for its conflict-scenario analyses, recently uploaded its “Covid-19 Disorder Tracker,” which will give us an idea in real time “of the pandemic’s impact on political violence and protest around the world,” according to the ACLED’s website.
There was time after 2008 to prepare the society for a new crisis, but it did not happen. We were also warned about potential pandemics like the current one. What if we experience another shock before the Covid-19 disaster winds down? Imagine another huge unexpected event, including a subsequent serious pathogen, landing in the United States within the next two years. Without some strategic planning, the few quality-of-life advances achieved in our border region could evaporate. And, as in every pandemic of the past, we will be left without the contributions of our border citizens that Covid-19 took from us.