David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Han Young - A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen
by David Bacon

TIJUANA (3/2/98) -- Garrett Brown calls the working conditions at Han Young "a catastrophe waiting to happen."

He should know. In his day job, Brown is a health and safety inspector for the California Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

For the last four years, in his private life, this soft-spoken industrial hygienist has traveled the border, from Tijuana to Brownsville, holding classes for Mexican workers, teaching them how to recognize health and safety dangers at work. In the wake of highly-publicized exposures of bad working conditions in the border plants, other health and safety activists have joined him to form the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network.

As industrial turmoil boiled over at Han Young last fall, Brown began surveying conditions in the plant, through interviews with dozens of its workers. That survey became the basis of the first health-and-safety complaint under NAFTA's labor side agreement. All the previous NAO complaints alleged that Mexico was not enforcing its laws protecting workers' rights to form unions. The Han Young complaint says it doesn't enforce health and safety laws either.

That could become a very expensive failure. While there is essentially no punishment for governments which don't protect union rights, there is one, at least on the books, for failing to enforce workplace safety. The potential fine is the equivalent of .007% of the value of Mexico's trade with the U.S., or about $50 million.

When two dozen workers testified in San Diego in February in support of the complaint, they opened a window, illuminating a scene of horrifying and grotesque working conditions in the maquiladoras.

  • Overhead cranes carry truck chassis weighing a ton or more through the plant. Their controls repeatedly malfunction. A crane dropped a chassis in January, narrowly missing workers below.
  • Pools of water 1-2" deep, described by a Mexican safety inspector as "lagunas" or lakes, covered the floor in some departments during this winter's torrential rains. Heavy cables carrying 480 volts, some with frayed insulation, snake through the water to industrial arc-welders.
  • There is no ventilation in the plant, and some workers suffer from "metal fume fever," a condition caused by metal fumes from welding. Ozone and ultraviolet light, which can damage lungs and eyes, are other welding byproducts.
  • An inspection report described the bathrooms as in "bad conditon and very dirty." One toilet stall door had fallen off. There was no toilet paper or hot water, and the sinks worked so pooly that they "generate many biological and pathogenic microorganisms," according to the same report.

Han Young plant manager Pablo Kang says that "a lot of liars" testified in San Diego. He pointed to the corner store near the plant, saying that "even they've been robbed once or twice. So every company has its own set of problems."

At the hearing, the company showed off a table piled high with health and safety equipment they said was used in the factory. Brown says it all looked new, as though it had never been used.

While the conditions workers describe paint a terrible picture, they're not illegal under NAFTA. What made the complaint possible was that the plant had been inspected eleven times in five years. Each time, inspectors from the federal government's Secretariat for Labor and Social Benefits (STPS) compiled long lists of illegal conditions. In July, for instance, just weeks after workers struck two days to win an independent union, an inspection detailed 44 illegal conditions. Han Young was given 20 days to remedy 22 of them.

STPS waited until September to send inspectors back in. They found that most of the conditions hadn't been fixed at all.

The company got more time.

Although workers had won a company health and safety committee, mandated by Mexican law, in the June strike, by October its three members had been fired.

No one came back from STPS to check at all until workers struck again in January, after the crane incident. Once again, inspectors found that the company had failed to remedy the most serious conditions, many of which they were cited for back in June. They included the lack of ventilation, leaking roofs, poor maintenence on the cranes, a malfunctioning crane, and no written health and safety program, among many others.

Mexican law requires fines for almost all of these conditions, especially for repeat violations. No fine was ever assessed against Han Young until the day after the San Diego hearing, when the Secretary of the STPS fined the company $9,000.

"It's clear that the inspectors tried to document the violations," Brown says. "But the government failed to actually enforce the law and protect the health and safety of Mexican workers."

Brown believes that efforts by the Mexican government to encourage foreign investment, and maintain an economic austerity policy to please the International Monetary Fund, "undermine its political will to enforce regulations against transnational corporations generating hard currency desperately needed to pay off foreign bankers."

In his travels along the border, workers have described the same conditions over and over again. "There are 3800 maquiladoras in Mexico, employing a million workers," he says. "Han Young is far from being an exception."

Top of Page


photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

website by DigIt Designs © 1999