Prosperity? At what price?
Amid all the uncertainty over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has anyone given a thought to the thousands of people newly employed in the so-called “maquiladoras,” the factories that assemble imported parts, then export them back across the border into the United States? These factories are a product of Mexico’s automotive resurgence over the last few years, since, in fact, the signing of the NAFTA agreement.
US President Donald Trump has called NAFTA “the worst trade deal in the history of the world.” Whether or not it is for the American economy is a moot point. It is a view which is unlikely to be shared by the workers for whom it has provided an escape from the unremitting labour as field hands on sweltering Mexican farms.
The average hourly wage for these workers is $2.30. That is around a tenth of what their counterparts in the US make. How many of us could survive and raise a family on such earnings? And yet the jobs in the maquiladoras are much sought-after and many people move themselves and their families hundreds of miles in order to secure one. Needless to say, there is no government-mandated minimum wage in Mexico, something the Trump administration is arguing for in order to bring greater parity between the two countries.
It reminds me of when I was an expatriate in West Africa in the eighties. Like most other expats I benefited from the services of local house staff, a houseboy, a cook, a maid and a night watchman. To all of these people I paid wages well in excess of the government-stipulated rate for the job. In return I received unstinting loyalty. One day in Nairobi airport, Kenya, I fell into conversation with a British tourist. On learning of my household, he proceeded to berate me in the strongest terms, asking why I felt I should have “servants,” how demeaning it was for them, and generally making me out to be some kind of latter-day slave owner.
In fact, of course, my staff worked in an air-conditioned villa, were supplied with uniforms and a place to shower and were paid more than most of their unfortunate countrymen. Believe me, you wouldn’t have heard any of them complain.
Nor, I dare say, would the workers in the maquiladoras who, although poorly paid by our standards, still count themselves fortunate, firstly to have a job at all and also to have escaped from fieldwork. It is these people who will be the first to suffer if Trump has his way.
Simon Duval Smith
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