Fridges in Mexico are empty of beer because production has ceased in this industry deemed non-essential amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, United States-owned company Constellation Brands is defying local orders and forcing Mexican workers to continue producing its Corona and Modelo beers for export to US consumers.
The company is just one of thousands of US-owned brands operating on the Mexican side of the border so they can plunder Mexican resources and take advantage of extremely low Mexican and migrant wages, while sending all the goods north.
Together, these companies form vast factory-scapes of cities where they hog the water and leave locals without. The operations of these companies take on an even more sinister tone in a country where deaths due to the pandemic are only continuing to increase amid poverty and insufficient healthcare.
Constellation Brands, beyond producing beer, is also using the cover of COVID-19 to continue construction of another brewery in Mexicali, near the border, according to activist Diana Aranguré. A member of Mexicali Resiste, which has spent years campaigning against the new brewery, Aranguré told me the company is ignoring orders from Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador to halt construction, following a local vote against it.
The consultation process took place in March this year after years of protest by locals who argued that the brewery would use 25% of water reserves in the drought-stricken region. Constellation Brands had spent US$700 million on the project by March.
“Two friends went (to the site) and saw that they are drilling,” Aranguré said. However, she noted that people working there were prohibited from talking to the public, making gathering more detailed information difficult.
“All the companies here … do what they want with us,” she said. “It’s like we’re a market and the politicians are saying, ‘Come here, have what you like.’”
Constellation Brands did not respond to my request for more information about the clandestine brewery construction. However, they have been open about continuing production despite Mexico suspending non-essential services, and have made it clear their commitment is to US consumers. They also pulled a public relations stunt, donating $500,000 to the Red Cross in Mexico ‒ peanuts compared with their US$8 billion in sales last year.
By April, there had already been two COVID-19 cases in the company’s brewery in Nava, but spokespeople claimed the workers had been infected outside the factory. They didn’t support their claim with proof.
Mexico pressured to put US interests first
Last month, Obrador made the strange move of declaring that construction, mining and the auto industry would be considered essential. The move followed weeks of pressure from the US, with Ellen Lord, US under secretary of defence for acquisition and sustainment, saying it was important that Mexico reopen its maquiladoras (the foreign-owned export factories) to protect the supply and production of US military contractors.
On April 30, Lord said she had already “seen positive results”. Military giants such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell and Textron rely on factories based in Mexico.
Car factories in the US also depend on a supply chain of parts produced in Mexico. They had been reopening around the US in early May, so it was no coincidence that Mexico then announced on May 12 that the auto industry would also reopen.
Mexican workers are getting sick, dying
“All the companies here [in Mexicali] are running,” said Aranguré. “At the start, a lot closed and others operated clandestinely, but now they are all running. They give the workers face masks … but that isn’t sufficient.
“We (at Mexicali Resiste) have received many reports from workers about mistreatment. For example, one person had COVID-19 and the area where they worked just kept on going. Those who fight for their rights will get fired.”
At Clover Wireless, a phone repair subsidiary of the US corporation Clover Technologies Group, two workers died of COVID-19. The company shut down for one shift, then resumed operations.
Workers testified that many factories in Mexicali were saying that they had closed and put padlocks on their front entrances, while taking workers in around the back.
In Tijuana, Margarita Ávalos, a former maquiladora worker who now campaigns for workers’ rights through the collective Ollin Calli, reported that exploitation levels have worsened during the pandemic.
She said companies such as Parker ‒ a US tech corporation with three factories in Tijuana ‒ were supplying workers with one disposable face mask, telling them to wash the mask every second day and that it had to last three months.
She said workers were travelling to the factories in public or company-owned buses, which often had black curtains on the windows to hide how overcrowded they were.
Baja California, home to Mexicali and Tijuana, has just 3.3 million people, but 1600 reported deaths from COVID-19 as of June 23, making it one of the most affected regions.
The real figure is likely at least ten times higher however, as health authorities in the region recognise that many deaths have not been tested for COVID-19 and that hospitals are at their limits. They estimated 12,000 deaths for the state more than a month ago.
Mexico’s national emergency line has also noted that many people are dying at home and that, according to the calls they receive, the real death figures for Mexico City are about three times the official numbers.
Mexican and migrant worker lives are worth very little to US corporations. At Lear, a US auto parts company with 45 factories in Mexico, families of workers who die from COVID-19 receive just US$2800 and one year’s wage, according to Izquierda Diario.
Talking to the independent journal Raíchali about her fellow workers who had died at Regal Beloit, a US-owned electric motor company, Monica said, “You feel hysteria, fear, sadness. They were workmates that we spent time with. They started to die and to be infected in various areas (of the factory).”
She said workers protested and demanded paid time off, but were forced to resume working under the threat of losing their contract if they didn’t. More and more workers confessed through WhatsApp groups that they had symptoms, but the company forced them to go in on crowded company transport and get permission slips for leave.
Ismael Blanco worked at the company while suffering severe COVID-19 symptoms until he collapsed. He later died, as did his wife.
Scott Brown, a Regal company executive in the US, spoke to workers in English and was translated. He told them it was the US government that decided when the factory opened, not the Mexican government.
Sacrificing poor countries
The pressure from the US government and the abuse by US corporations is taking place when Mexico’s deaths from COVID-19 are still rising, hospitals are unable to function, and millions more are being sunk into poverty.
Aranguré got through her own ordeal with COVID-19 with support from fellow activists. But she said it felt like authorities didn’t care. “They told me when my oxygen level got down to 85%, they would provide me with oxygen,” she said. However, a level of 88% is already quite dangerous.
“People are dying, while being transported to hospital. There are no tests, there are no follow ups, and there’s lots of disinformation,” she said.
Mexico has 121,435 beds nationally, for all hospital types. That compares with 924,107 beds in the US, with just over double the population. Mexico has just a few thousand ventilators, while the US has an estimated 200,000.
Mexicans also often live in smaller spaces with larger family groups and many lack any or regular access to running water.
According to a survey by the Institute for Research for Development with Equity (EQUIDE), the pandemic could sink 95 million people, or 76% of the population, into poverty.
About 65% of homes are already reporting a reduced income since the lockdown began. Two out of three jobs lost so far are of informal workers, meaning largely women and poorer people are being affected. A quarter of homes are already experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity.
Extreme levels of global inequality are already showing themselves in confirmed COVID-19 case numbers, which are rising in almost all poor countries, while dropping or stabilising in the wealthier countries. Expecting poorer countries to continue sacrificing lives, health and resources to keep the rich people’s economy going is unacceptable.
[Tamara Pearson is a long-time journalist based in Latin America and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog, Resistance Words.]