May 6, 2020 / 10:02 AM / 23 days ago

FOCUS-As U.S. auto supply chain revs up, worker safety fears linger in Mexico

    By Daina Beth Solomon
    MEXICO CITY, May 6 (Reuters) - Workers at a Lear Corp
        autoparts plant in northern Mexico that saw the worst
known coronavirus outbreak of any factory in the Americas are
now bracing to be sent back to work.
    They just don't know when, and some worry it still may not
be safe just weeks after the pandemic struck factories in the
industrial city of Ciudad Juarez, just across the U.S. border
from El Paso, Texas. 
    For many, it's an agonizing bind after the outbreak at
Lear's Rio Bravo plant that Lear said has killed 18 employees. 
    Even though a return to their posts may be scary, most are
desperate to recover their full salaries that Lear reduced when
it shuttered the plant of about 3,000 workers. Part of a wider
international supply chain crucial to the U.S. auto sector, they
are also aware that pressures from beyond Mexico may factor into
the timetable.
    "When the United States opens the automotive industry, we
have to go back," said Dagoberto Galindo, 42, one of ten Lear
employees at the Rio Bravo industrial park Reuters has
interviewed since mid-April. He has worked 14 years at the
factory that makes car seat trim covers for Daimler AG's
           Mercedes-Benz and Ford Motor Co's       Mustangs and
Explorers. 
    "I would go back for economic reasons, because I'm not going
to have money left. But not because I'd feel safe," said
Galindo, who said he is taking home just 65% of his salary while
the plant is closed, making it harder to support his wife and
six children.    
    Galindo is one of thousands of workers at various U.S.-owned
factories known as "maquiladoras" along Mexico's northern
border. 
    Corporate America has benefited from lower wages and laxer
health, safety and environmental strictures at the maquiladoras
for decades. And they rely heavily on intertwined supply chains
between the two countries that fueled $614.5 billion in
U.S.-Mexico trade last year, according to the U.S. Census
Bureau.
    That made Mexico the top U.S. trade partner, pushing past
China, which has suffered from a bitter tariff conflict with
U.S. President Donald Trump. But those benefits have come at a
cost for Mexican workers, who earn less than U.S. counterparts
and typically have weaker protections from unions.
    Now with the Mexican infection curve several weeks behind
the U.S. epidemic, experts say workers are right to be concerned
about returning too quickly. As of Tuesday, Ciudad Juarez had
the largest concentration of coronavirus in Chihuahua state,
with 418 cases and 97 deaths.
    "The maquiladora industry was a factor in the contagion,"
said human rights activist Cecilia Espinosa in Ciudad Juarez,
urging health and labor authorities to inspect factories before
allowing workers to return.
    
    PROTESTS SOUTH OF THE BORDER
    Multiple protests erupted in mid-April over safe working
conditions following reported worker deaths at Honeywell
International Inc         and Lear, highlighting friction over
which factories should remain open in the pandemic.             
    Ten workers at the Rio Bravo plant have since told Reuters
that Lear took minimal protection measures there in the weeks
before halting operations in late March - a month after Mexico
detected its first coronavirus cases and as the U.S. death toll
surpassed 1,000.
    Lear, which employs 24,000 workers in 10 different plants in
Ciudad Juarez, said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
did not recommend the wearing of masks for non COVID-19 positive
people until early April. 
    The company said there was no sign of an uptick in visits to
the factory's infirmary in the weeks before the closure, and
that it learned of the first hospitalization on April 3.
    "We are truly and deeply saddened by the situation," said
Frank Orsini, a Lear executive vice president who oversees the
seating business of the company that operates in 39 different
countries. "We have not seen anything like this anywhere else in
the world."
    Orsini said the families told Lear that the official causes
of deaths were pneumonia. Lear was not aware of any testing for
COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Orsini said,
noting that testing in Mexico has been limited.     
    The company did an "extensive study" to look for links among
the workers who died - including shifts, lunch breaks and busing
- but did not find commonalities, Orsini said.
    A lack of information is not helping ease some worker
concerns about restarting factories. The ten workers interviewed
by Reuters said the company never told them directly if some of
their colleagues were sick from the coronavirus, or if any had
died.
    "We're a family, then from one minute to the next, they're
not there anymore," said Lorenza Piña, 59, referring to her
close-knit group of colleagues. 
    Orsini said Lear's human resources staff made an effort to
check in with employees by phone, and told them there were
infections and fatalities, without disclosing how many. Lear
also acknowledged in statements to Reuters since mid-April that
an unspecified number had become casualties of the virus.
    
    'SAFE WORK PLAYBOOK'       
    Some Lear workers last week posted videos on social media of
preparations to re-open the Rio Bravo plant. Tall cubicles now
protect sewing machines, and a person in a white hazmat suit is
shown spraying walls and floors with disinfectant spray with the
words "safety is built step by step" emblazoned in large letters
across a set of stairs.
    Lear in recent weeks has promoted a detailed handbook to
reopening factories safely, including instructions to install
hand sanitizer floor stands in work areas per 50 employees,
provide workers with masks and gloves and take their
temperatures at the start of shifts.     
    Now in its second edition, the "Safe Work Playbook" of best
practices has been downloaded from Lear's website some 18,000
times, the company said.
    Orsini said Lear will re-open in Mexico only once "employees
are comfortable with the precautions that we've taken," and
government regulations allow it.   
    In a sign of the Trump administration's hunger for a quick
ramp-up, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, has
also called for restarting work there to coincide with the
United States and Canada.
    "I am doing everything I can to save the supply chains that
were built over the past decades," he said on Twitter in late
April. "It's possible and essential to take care of workers'
health without destroying these chains. The economic integration
of North America demands coordination."

    
 (Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Editing by
Christian Plumb, Dan Flynn and Edward Tobin)
  
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