CHICAGO -- Many U.S. companies evade laws protecting workers from on-the-job hazards by exporting work to Mexico, a practice that pressures U.S. employers to curb health and safety programs, a report said Thursday.
In its annual Labor Day report on workplace hazards, the National Safe Workplace Institute painted a 'disturbing' picture of the working conditions routinely encountered in U.S.-owned assembly facilities -- known as 'maquila plants or maquiladoras -- that have sprung up in Mexico.
The rash of leveraged buyouts in the 1980s increased pressure on U.S. companies to maximize profits, and many responded by transferring some assembly operations to Mexico, where wages were lower and there was little regulation of working conditions, the report said.
Making these transfers more attractive were U.S. tariff schedule revisions that reduced import duties on U.S. goods shipped abroad for assembly and then shipped back to the United States.
Today, there are some 1,800 maquiladoras employing about 500,000 Mexican workers, 425,000 of them women. Many are exposed to various conditions in the workplace that would be far from acceptable under U.S. regulations.
'The occupational health risks faced by the maquiladoras' work force are considerable,' the National Safe Workplace Institute said. 'The most obvious health risks are the result of work pace, poor work station design and exposure to toxic substances.'
Specifically, Mexican assembly line employees work at a pace that is 25 percent faster than their American counterparts, while the Mexicans' work day is 50 percent longer.
'The maquiladoras' work force is composed mostly of women (85 percent) who are hired at about the age of 16 and are usually burnt out or crippled by the age of 25 by the frenetic work pace,' the report said.
'Workers are known to be routinely exposed to dangerous levels of lead, methylene chloride (a known carcinogen), thinner, acetone, alcohol and flux,' the institute said.
But this poses the danger of health risks being passed on to workers' children: 'An alarming number of retarded children have been born to mothers who worked in maquiladora plants during their pregnancies.'
Significantly, the institute predicted working conditions at maquila plants will get worse in the future, citing a trend among U.S. companies to move processes involving use of hazardous substances to plants south of the border.
'Not only is maquiladora disregard for employee health disturbing, but it is disconcerting that gains in U.S. occupational safety and health policy may be offset by a trade agreement with Mexico that allows and encourages negligent U.S. employers to move their operations to Mexico and still export goods to the United States,' the report said.
'Employers who have remained in the United States must then compete with the maquiladoras at an unfair disadvantage, thereby increasing the pressure on U.S. employers to cut costs, including those associated with (worker) health and safety.'
The report suggested the problem could be solved by legislation requiring that all goods sold in the United States 'be produced in safe work environments.'NEWLN: (