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Maquiladoras Expanding in Mexico; Global System of Prison Factories Envisioned

U.S. businessman Joe Robertson has a dream: A global system of foreign-owned factories employing prisoners and their families for low wages and with few benefits. But for now his sights are set on Mexico, where he hopes to establish maquiladoras both inside and outside the prison gates.

Maquiladoras--foreign-owned companies that assemble products for export--are already operating in Mexican prisons (see PLN, October 2002 and 2003). But Robertson, a nationalized Mexican citizen originally from North Carolina, has a two-pronged approach to fully exploit cheap Mexican labor. The idea is to build a twin plant just outside the prison gates to employ prisoners wives as well as the prisoners themselves upon release.

Robertson, a former textile worker, began manufacturing hotel products in Las Vegas in 1975. He later operated plants in Dallas and Orlando before moving to Mexico in 1997, laying off 600 workers in the process.

Robertson is associated with two Mexican companies, Ceinre and JoeVilla. In November 2005, negotiations were underway with Tijuana-based Ceinre to establish maquiladoras in Chihuahua state prisons. Officials were reviewing initial plans to employ 500 prisoners in Chihuahua City, Parral, and Ciudad Juarez. The prisoners would make room furnishings for the international hotel industry.

Robertsons companies already run maquiladoras, or plan to, in Quintana Roo, Baja California, Yucatan, and Chihuahua. In September 2005 a factory began operating at the Quintana Roo state prison, where about 50 prisoners are assembling blankets and other hotel furnishings. Robertsons Mexican sweatshops have also been awarded the exclusive supplier contract for Marriotts Latin American hotels.

In a recent interview with the Mexican media (reported by on November 14, 2005), Robertson outlined his plans to put factories in virtually every Mexican prison, employing tens of thousands of prisoners. Robertson and prison officials claim that employing prisoners helps rehabilitate them. We want to motivate the prisoner to help his family and reintegrate into society with honor and integrity so he can recover his self-esteem, which is one of the biggest problems inmates have, said Robertson. We want prisoners who are close to release not to return.

While these sentiments are certainly laudable, they paint a misleading picture. Employers also seek out prison labor for a variety of less charitable reasons. For one, prisoners are unable to unionize or change jobs, while benefits such as health insurance and retirement are virtually nonexistent. Whats more, companies face little regulation, and mistreatment is routinely overlooked--especially in countries like Mexico which has little governmental oversight and a record of human rights abuses in its prisons. And finally, labor costs are low for companies employing prisoners, who typically work long hours for a nominal wage.

Prisoners employed by Robertsons concern, for example, will be paid just $4 a day, a third of which will go to the prison administration. The remainder will be divided equally between the prisoner and his family. This is a little lower than Mexicos minimum daily wage.

For Robertson and company, Mexico is just a stepping stone on the way to world domination of the prison slave labor market: Investors currently have plans to open prison sweatshops in Canada, Spain, Latin America, and Indonesia. While about 2,700 United States prisoners are employed by private companies manufacturing a variety of low skill, labor intensive products, some of which are exported to other countries; the United States criminalizes the importation of prisoner made goods from other countries. With no sense of irony or hypocrisy, the United States routinely criticizes governments such as that of China for using prison labor in exported goods.


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