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Use Your Buying Power to Promote Ethics

November 05, 2000|SUZANNE DARWEESH | Suzanne Darweesh writes from Fullerton

Recently, with BorderLinks, an ecumenical faith-based educational organization committed to understanding and improving border issues, I visited a maquiladora in Agua Prieta, Mexico, and we talked with workers in that town. We toured a Border Patrol station in Douglas, Ariz. We were invited into two homes of Mexican workers.

The factory was neat, well-lit, freshly painted and included clean restrooms and a cafeteria where lunch is served. This factory manufactured electronic parts. The young lady who guided our group informed us that workers earn $4 for a 10-hour day, with 30 minutes for lunch.

We also visited a supermarket where we priced the basic commodities: rice, oil, sugar, beans, eggs, milk, etc. Surprisingly, prices were almost equal to those in Southern California.

One of the homes I visited resembled a typical U.S. lower-middle-class home. There was electricity and running water, although the street was unpaved. The other, in Nogales, had a wooden frame, a tin roof, cardboard and tar-paper walls, a dirt floor, no electricity, no running water.

Our visit to the Border Patrol coincided with the arrival of a bus from which 79 people, mostly men, a few women and children, descended to be fingerprinted, identified and held in a crowded cage until they were reloaded on the bus to be deposited across the border. Border Patrol agents are mostly too overwhelmed to prosecute these detainees in formal deportation proceedings. Border Patrol agents, caught in a Catch-22 situation, like to portray themselves as the good guys, rescuing those found in the desert and mountains half dead from heat or cold.

One of our group compared it to starting a fire, burning a house, and then rescuing the inhabitants. You might say, "They're only doing their job," and you would be right.

Their orders come from Washington, and the origin of the problem lies even deeper. What forces people to risk their lives, everything they own, to leave their families and everything dear and familiar and seek employment in the United States?

To find a solution one has to look at the international debt crisis, the Mexican economy, and the lack of regulations and enforcement governing minimum wages, working conditions, and the environment at maquiladoras in Mexico.

It is tempting to speak of corporate greed. Why else would manufacturers go south to take advantage of cheap labor and lax regulation? When comparing the salaries of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to entry-level workers, one cannot help but wonder about the vagaries of economic justice. Should there not be some regulation over the transnational corporations that are responsible to no one? The competition to be profitable forces corporations into unsafe and unethical conduct.

We need to be better informed, to be more selective in our purchases, to buy only from those companies that choose to oversee their contractors and the conditions under which their products are manufactured.

The American people were told that NAFTA and free trade would be good for everyone. From my vantage point, it has been mostly good for the factory owners.

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