September 5, 2003

The absurd road to justice

Workers fight for compensation from Industria Fronteriza

By Mariana Martinez

My name is Margarita Avalos Salas, I used to work for Industria Fronteriza, an industry that made pantyhose, underwear and sportswear. I started working there in 2000. In 2002 the company stole our profit share. We tried to find a way to get what was lawfully ours. On June 5th we asked for legal advice from the Work and Social Development Agency so they could tell us what we could do to have justice. Our bosses got so mad they fired three of us the next day and one more on the 7th of June. We were on the street; no salary, no wages, no profit share -of course- no paid vacations, nothing.

That’s how Margarita’s saga began. When she, like thousands of people every year, arrive at Tijuana from their native Puebla, and the very next day they are at work at a local maquila. Industria Fronteriza is a 37-year-old company, one of the oldest ones in town, owned by American business family, Sagal Modelvsky.

Margarita Avalos Salas.

Human and labor rights activists say the personnel in this company worked under unsanitary, unsafe conditions; spoiled food at the cafeteria, yelling and cursing while the almost a thousand workers dyed, washed and iron the fabrics, among leaking vapor hoses, extreme noise and foul smells. Sadly these are not uncommon conditions in today’s Tijuana factories so many of the workers look it as “part of the job hazards”.

When I worked for Industria Fronteriza, I was also taking some human and labor rights workshops at Factor X Woman’s House; they where the ones who taught me about such thinks as labor laws, that’s why me and other workers got encouraged to fight for our rights, and we got fired as a result.

With the help of Woman’s House and the Workers Information Center (CITTAC), Margarita and the rest of the workers sued the company.

After they sued, the paperwork “got lost” in the Board offices, giving Industria Fronteriza owners the chance to run to their Chula Vista home.

The workers meet the governor and he told them to work with State Labor Secretary Rafael Ayala López, and on January 17 they gave a copy of the paperwork to President Fox during one of his visits: No one has given them an answer.

The first hearing was set for June 24, 2002, but was canceled twice because the authorities “couldn’t notify the company owners.”

A new date was set for Monday, September 1, 2003: but that’s was the day of the State of the Union Address by President Fox and all federal workers had the day off, including those from the labor board. The workers, who took a day off their new jobs (without pay), showed up for the hearing only to find the doors closed. The company owners didn’t show up, they had been notified about the delay.

We asked the Labor Board president Ms. Celina Tostado if they where going to work that day and she said yes. We even called her last week to confirm the date…and now we are here and we find this sign saying the Board is closed, and we, the workers are pissed off because we clearly see the government, the board and prosecutor are all accomplices of the company.

Why is the process taking so long if the law says the worker must have an answer 15 days after his claim? “The process is long term because they have a lot of work and a high number of trials taking place and administrative procedures by the Board --Romero explains-- The law is clear about short terms, but no Board around the country works like that…. it is not logical for those terms to be set.”

According to lawyer Jaime Cota CITTAC counselor, the case got complicated when a “ghost labor union”, one that is not confirmed by the workers and no one knows about until a labor dispute arises, showed up and goes on strike. This allowed the company owners the opportunity to close the plant, claiming bankruptcy, and refusing to pay the employees the monies owed. According to Cota the Sagal Modelvsky family found a way to evade Mexican laws mainly because they live in Chula Vista and are not Mexican, and this overlaps with inefficient Mexican bureaucrats.

But that’s not all, once the suit was made, advocates learned there was a contract-law for textile workers nationwide that set salaries (varying by what they do) between 9 and 7 dollars a day, while Margarita, her cousin Rocío, Manuel Gil and Miguel Angel Rodríguez (the four workers who got fired back in 2002) where making just 5 dollars a day for at least two years. The charges for lost wages will now add up in the lawsuit.

It is really unfair what they are doing: we have been fighting for 15 months now and we are going to keep fighting, no matter how long it takes, we are sure we will win because we are asking for what’s lawfully ours.

Margarita’s voice trembles at the megaphone, while her eyelashes cover her pitch black eyes full of tiresome disgust. Behind her, people from the Workers from Industria Fronteriza Coalition give her their support; Woman’s House Factor X, Ejido Chilpancingo environmental justice and the San Diego Support group for Maquila workers back her up, and latter this day they will go down to the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, in search of justice and answers.

Just a day after the fired Industria Fronteriza workers where to have their first hearing at the Labor Board but the one that was canceled because federal workers had the day off. Board Director Celina Tostado threatens that the legal demand of the workers vs. the company will be nullified in three days.

This is an absolute transgression of the Mexican labor laws and workers’ rights, because the Federal Workers Law requires that employers who unjustifiably fire a worker pay a severance package in an amount that is clearly defined by the law. This same law requires that the Labor Board hear the requests and find a solution for any fired worker who files a complaint against any business in a quick and expedient manner.Workers have been waiting for their first hearing for 15 months, even though the law states waiting periods of 15 days to start the lawsuit process

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