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Mexican Sweatshops Go Behind Bars

For years U.S. citizens have screamed about losing jobs to cheap overseas labor. Now it seems that U.S. prisoners are in danger of losing jobs to even cheaper prison labor in Mexico. In an effort to stimulate its economy, Mexico is allowing maquiladoras to open up shop in its prisons.

Maquiladoras are foreign owned manufacturing plants in Mexico that assemble imported parts into products for export. With no unions, employees typically work long hours for ridiculously low pay in unsafe conditions. They are part of the worldwide system of low wage sweatshops that feed U.S. markets.

With the recent economic downturn, many maquilas were closing down. Moving their operations to prisons lowers labor costs even further, allowing them to remain profitable.

The current initiative of placing manufacturing plants in Mexican prisons comes under the guise of reforming prisoners. "We are initiating a new type of reform" said Manuel del Riego de los Santos, prison director for the state of Tamaulipas. However, Mexican prisons are noted for human rights abuses such as mistreatment of prisoners and poor living conditions.

De los Santos recently met with the mayor of Reynosa, just across the border from McAllen, Texas, to sign a formal agreement allowing maquiladoras to operate inside Tamaulipas' 13 prisons. Prison administrator Cervantes Jiminez says the idea was conceived by Tamaulipas' Gov. Tomas Yarrington. According to Cervantes, nothing like this has been done before although it has always been allowed by the Mexican constitution.

Currently, Central Empresarial del Noreste, an association of maquiladoras, represents 78 companies in both Mexico and the U.S. Association director Jesus Vallejo Tamez says that five companies, two of which are American, have shown interest in opening manufacturing plants in El Centro de Readaptacion Social (CERESCO), the Mexican prison system. "And we hope to interest more maquilas with these types of agreements," said de los Santos. This is not surprising considering the implications.

Placing manufacturing plants in Tamaulipas, prisons is a winwin situation for both the local economies and the businesses. The local economies benefit from the additional revenue. Moreover, prison industries incorporate the insulation of an unsympathetic public; abuse is easily overlooked. This makes it easier for businesses to sidestep, or in some cases, totally circumvent minimal Mexican government regulations such as those governing workmen's compensation, workplace conditions, shift lengths, and vacation time. Furthermore, they employ a captive workforce. Prison laborers cannot seek other employment, and since they can be fired for the smallest infractionor for no reason at allthey are reluctant to voice any grievances.

Additionally, just like in the U.S., prison laborers in Mexico are paid a fraction of what freeworld employees make. Prison administrator Cervantes Jiminez asserts that prisoner wages will be fair. However, the wages are not under any governmental regulation; maquiladoras in prison will be free to set their own salaries.

Lower wages and less regulation are making Mexican prisons attractive to U.S. manufacturers as well. The entire scenario is not much different from what happened in the late 70's and early 80's. After the Great Depression, the U.S. government enacted laws to protect the general public from losing jobs to cheap prison labor. But during the deregulatory and businessfriendly Reagan administration the tide turned and never came back in. Now, with the help of bigbusiness, it has ebbed to a new low.

Global capital moves constantly seeking the lowest labor costs, which unfortunately is provided by the world's most oppressed workers. Having gone to Mexico for cheap labor in the first place, it is no surprise that businesses are now going to Mexican prisons for even cheaper labor. On the bright side, the largest prison industry in the U.S. will not be affected; Texas prisoners are not paid anyway.

Sources: Daily Texas via UWire University Wire Run, The Associated Press State &Local Wire

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