Deaths Prompt Questions About Covid-19 Safety in Mexico Factories

Date: Thursday, June 11, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Workers and families say companies are resisting closing plants to protect employees amid the pandemic

As the coronavirus spread across Mexico in early April, a line operator at a factory in northern Mexico, Francisco Montoya, died in a public hospital after having trouble breathing.

Days later, on April 15, workers at the factory, called Compañía Armadora SA, walked off the job, saying the U.S. company that owns the plant hadn’t notified them of the death of Mr. Montoya, who was in his 50s, or of the potential that they had been exposed to the virus at work.

Two more workers died later that week. The following week, three more died.

Now, employees at the factory, known locally as CASA, are back on the job in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, a manufacturing hub across from El Paso, Texas, where nearly 300,000 factory workers are employed. Workers and their families say that some employees felt pressured by the company to come back to work before they were comfortable returning.

It is a drama being played out at factories in many of Mexico’s border cities, where thousands of plants that assemble products for export to the U.S. are trying to keep their operations running amid the pandemic.

“It’s hard to put into words the fear, or the panic you feel,” said one employee at CASA who asked not to be named. “I guess the right word is that we felt extremely perturbed, very anxious. Then it becomes hysteria. You think, ‘I’m going to die too!’ ”

Managers at CASA, which makes commercial motors used in medical and industrial equipment, began calling and texting workers in early May urging them to return to work. On May 8, workers received a recorded audio message on their cellphones from a top executive at Regal Beloit Corp., the American manufacturer that owns the plant.

“Each day, we are losing your customers you worked so hard for,” said Scott Brown, Regal’s group president for commercial systems, in a recording that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Protect CASA by winning back your customers by coming back to work starting Monday to minimize the permanent layoffs we will have to do.”

Regal Beloit declined to answer a series of questions sent by email or to make Mr. Brown available for an interview, but a spokesman for the Wisconsin-based company said “the health and safety of our employees is our top priority, and the passing of associates who worked at CASA has been extremely saddening for all of us at Regal.”

The spokesman said it was difficult to inform workers about the first Covid-19 death because “all of CASA was finding out about Mr. Montoya’s passing at the same time.” The company has complied with Mexican government requirements to send home high-risk workers and those with symptoms, and has traced contacts between those who may have been infected to ensure there is “no discernible path for contagion to others in the plant,” he said. The company denies that there was an outbreak at the plant.

The spokesman said Mexican government inspectors had visited the plant and deemed it essential because it produces motors used in hospital equipment, food production and other services. The company also said it began distributing face masks and antibacterial gel to employees on April 6.

Workers and families say that many of the maquiladoras, as the border-city factories are known, aren’t being forthcoming about workers who have been infected and are resisting shutting down plants.

In late April, the labor minister of Chihuahua, the state where Ciudad Juárez is located, said that 28 maquiladoras involved in nonessential activities had remained open despite government guidance to close.

At least 17 workers at maquiladoras have died from Covid-19, said Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, a public-health official with the state government. But he said that is likely an undercount because of a lack of testing kits and many people dying in their homes.

Workers and unions have tallied more than 200 deaths of factory workers from fast-moving respiratory infections. They said 20 workers have died since April at one factory alone, Lear Corp. ’s Rio Bravo plant, on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, which makes seat covers for Ford and BMW.

Lear declined to confirm how many employees at the plant had died. A Lear spokesman said that worker health and safety was the company’s first priority and that the company had offered to cover the cost of Covid-19 tests for workers.

At CASA, workers have tallied 10 coworkers and three of their family members who have died shortly after experiencing extreme respiratory distress, although not all of them received tests to confirm whether the illness was Covid-19.

José Salas Galvan, a quality-control manager at the CASA plant, fell ill in the third week of April and was admitted to a hospital on April 17, where he was put on a ventilator a day later, according to his sister, Lili Salas Galvan. He died April 23 at age 49 after testing positive for Covid-19, leaving behind three children and a wife, who also worked at the plant.


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