In 2001, Juan Tovar Santos was living in Acuña, Mexico. He and his wife, Arcelia had a two-room house made of concrete blocks. Their bed was in their kitchen.
Acuña is in northern Mexico on the Rio Grande River. The river is the border between the US and Mexico. There is a bridge at Acuña and, on the other side, is the American city of Del Rio.
Juan was working for a big American company called Alcoa. Alcoa had a factory in Acuña where they made electrical systems for automobiles. In 1996, Juan travelled to Pittsburgh in the northern United States to attend a meeting of the owners of Alcoa. The leader of the meeting was Paul H. O’Neill who later became Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. (In the US the Secretary of the Treasury is in charge of the country’s financial policies. )
At the time he attended the meeting, Juan was earning six dollars a day and Paul was earning $11,500 a day. After he had listened to Paul speaking about how much money Alcoa was making, Juan stood up and began speaking with the help of an interpreter. He told Paul that the managers of the factory were very ‘cheap’. As an example, he mentioned that a worker was always waiting at the door of the washrooms. His job was to hand out toilet paper; everyone was allowed three pieces every day. He also told the people at the meeting that more than a hundred workers had been taken to the hospital because gas had leaked into the factory.
When he heard this, Paul became angry. He said, “Our factories in Mexico are so clean you can eat off the floor.” Then Juan shouted, “That’s a lie!” and he showed Paul some newspaper stories about the gas leak. After the meeting, Paul found out that another executive at Alcoa had kept the leak a secret from him. He fired that executive. He also started to make improvements in the pay and working conditions at Juan’s factory and the seven other factories that Alcoa owned in Acuña.
Altogether there were sixty factories in Acuña. Even though Juan’s situation and the situation of other Alcoa workers improved after 1996, there were still many people in Acuña working for as little as $60US a week. An American economist, Ruth Rosenbaum, visited Acuña to find out how well a worker with a small family could live on that much money. To show how badly some Mexicans working for American companies are paid she gave this example: to get his son ready for school last autumn, a worker earning $60 a week would have had to work for nearly a whole week. It would have taken 16 hours’ work to buy the cheapest pair of children’s shoes, 12 hours to buy a book bag, nine hours to buy pants, three hours to buy a white shirt and four hours for a notebook and pencils.
A few months after Juan spoke at the meeting in Pittsburgh, workers at two of the Alcoa factories in Acuña went on strike. They were quickly surrounded by the police who shot tear gas at them. The strike spread and the company was forced to agree to some of worker’s demands. By November of last year, Juan’s daily pay had gone up to $6.70. Now the Mexicans who work for Alcoa in Acuña earn an average of $83US a week. The average weekly pay of for workers in Acuña is only $70US a week. Working conditions at his factory have improved too: the cafeterias are clean now and the workers wear eyeglasses.
But even if their salaries and living conditions were as good as those of American workers, the Mexicans working for American companies in Acuña would not have an easy life. That is because the public services there are very poor. The water in the city’s pipes is undrinkable because the filtering system was built forty years a go when Acuña was a small town. The streets are not properly paved. The fire department has no money, so when there is a fire in Acuña, fire engines have to be sent from Del Rio across the border in Texas. The hospital is sixty years old; it is outdated and overcrowded. (It has only 45 beds—a small fraction of what the city needs.) And the schools need drinking water, windows, toilets, and desks.
The main reason for these problems is that the city of Acuña doesn’t have enough money to pay for all these things. The city budget in 2000 was $60US per person. The city budget in Del Rio on the American side of the border was $777 per person. And the main reason Acuña had so little money is that Alcoa and companies like it were paying very low taxes. In fact they were paying no income tax, property tax or export tax at all.
-The New York Times, 01.02.15 (Sam Dillon)