Mexico: Governing party exploits refugees and migrants in T-shirt factory

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
May 6, 2017

At the same time as President Enrique Pena Nieto deports undocumented migrants trying to enter or pass through Mexico, his own party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is under-paying migrants and refugees in its T-shirt factory.

Political parties in Mexico will often hand out T-shirts, caps and other paraphernalia with their logos for political campaigns. In one case last year, during a football match, fans threw back the PRI T-shirts they had been given, yelling “Out, out!”.

“We were paid less than the Mexicans,” Honduran migrant Olvin Lopez Castillo told us — activists supporting migrants through a shelter called Tochan.

Lopez had been working at a series of PRI printing factories. “One night they only gave us [migrants and refugees] a quarter of what we were owed. We were taken from one of the factories to another, where we were to put logos on umbrellas.

“Then they told us there wasn’t enough work and we should go back to the T-shirt factory. It was midnight though, and the metro was already closed … In the end, the three Mexicans who were with us were paid the full night's shift, 200 pesos [US$11], and we were only paid 80 pesos.”

“It's racism,” Lopez said.

According to official data, 143,226 Central Americans were deported from Mexico last year. Only 6.7% of Central American migrants were allowed to stay in the country.

Some of these migrants would have been heading to the United States. However, many prefer to stay in Mexico, where wages, though low, are higher than in their own countries. And while some leave their families and homelands due to high unemployment and poverty rates, many of the undocumented migrants are refugees, fleeing rampant gang violence in countries such as Honduras and El Salvador.

The PRI is far from the only organisation or company behind workplace exploitation and discrimination against undocumented migrants.

Another refugee, who preferred to remain anonymous, described how his employer refused to pay overtime. Working in a packaging factory, he said he would be paid 850 pesos a week ($47). However, after working from 7am to 5pm each day, he was only paid an additional 75 pesos in overtime for the week.

“They take advantage of us because we don’t have documents,” he said. “You can’t complain though, because you need the work, so you do the overtime.”

Another migrant, “Erico”, was paid 120 pesos ($6.60) a day to wash dishes from 7am to 6pm.

Another anonymous migrant described the conditions at the PRI factory. He said that none of the workers were allowed to stop during their shift, they had to work standing up, and they didn’t receive any training: they learned how to do their tasks by watching others.

He also said that while he was promised 250 pesos a day ($13.80), he only received 320 pesos ($17.70) for three days work.

Sixty percent of Mexicans work in the informal sector, which means that like undocumented migrants who work in the country, they have no social security or health benefits, and no paid holidays or sick days.

A 2014 OECD report found that working conditions in the country are harsh, even for Mexican citizens. The country ranked last for OECD countries in terms of low levels of average earnings, and third last for earnings inequality.

Undocumented migrants tend to cop the worst of these conditions — and more.

“Working conditions for migrants in Mexico are deplorable,” stated the Mexico City Human Rights Commission. “Each year there is an increase in the violation of their human rights as workers.

“The main violations … are in relation to unstable jobs, low salaries, gruelling work days, unhealthy and risky conditions in terms of the workplace and the activities performed, lack of social security and therefore lack of access to healthcare, low quality food and malnutrition, and lack of access to training services.”

[Written with Tochan migrant activists. Tamara Pearson is a Latin America-based journalist who also works with undocumented migrants in Mexico. She is the author of The Butterfly Prison.]

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