(IPS) – Since the 1960s, maquiladoras or export assembly plants have been the cornerstone of Mexico’s strategy to attract foreign direct investment and boost exports. But the environmental and social costs have been high.
Maquiladoras, which in Mexico mainly produce clothing, cars and electronic equipment, consume huge volumes of water, generate hazardous waste products like alcohols, benzene, acetone, acids and plastic and metal debris, and emit polluting gases.
The plants, which take advantage of Mexico’s low wages, tax exemptions, and flexible labour laws while in return providing jobs, cause significant environmental damages.
“Government oversight is poor. There aren’t enough inspectors. There is no obligatory inspection scheme, only a voluntary one, and inspections are arranged in advance, with no surprise visits,” Magdalena Cerda, the Tijuana representative for the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), told IPS. “We have seen gradual deterioration in the urban communities where the factories are located.”
About 3,000 maquiladoras operate in free trade zones in Mexico, employing some 1.5 million people, according to the National Council of the Maquiladora Export Industry (CNIMME). Most are located in the northern cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, on the U.S. border.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which entered into force between Canada, Mexico and the United States in 1994, prompted the installation of dozens of maquiladoras in Mexico to supply the U.S. market and profit from the Latin American country’s low labour costs.
Average monthly wages in maquiladoras in the border zone are between 500 and 600 dollars.
NAFTA includes provisions on labour conditions and environmental protection, but these have not been enforced with sufficient rigour to correct harmful employment and environmental practices, experts say.
In 1983, the Mexican and U.S. governments signed the Border Environment Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on the management of toxic substances, with provisions for monitoring and preventing pollution in the border area.
But NAFTA eliminated the BECA requirement that foreign companies return toxic waste to their countries of origin, because Mexican environmental law permitted companies to store their hazardous waste material.
The maquiladora sector, however, is willing to change its practices if it can continue to turn a profit, Francisco López, the head of Valle Verde Ecoempresas, a consultancy advising companies on environmental responsibility, told IPS.
The Valle Verde consultancy emerged from a process that began in 2009 and involved academics, business executives and government officials working together to come up with measures the manufacturing sector could use to save electricity and boost energy efficiency.
In March, Valle Verde launched a programme based on environmental education and energy efficiency, and promoted it among some 50 electronic assembly factories.
Maquiladoras have been criticised for their use of dangerous substances. For instance, in order to increase smoothness and strength in fabrics for making clothes, they are treated with chemicals such as formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulphuric acid, bromine and sulphamide, all of which are health hazards, according the U.S. Organic Consumers Association.
The industrial processes of cleaning, spinning, weaving or knitting and finishing an item of apparel generate an average of 1.4 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, according to The Story of Stuff Project, developed by U.S. author and web host Annie Leonard.
Producing one computer chip takes 20 litres of water, 45 grams of chemicals and 1.8 kilowatt-hours of electricity, and spews out 17 kg of liquid residues and 7.8 kg of solid waste, according to the United Nations University.
Computers contain dangerous heavy metals and other elements, including barium, lead, mercury, beryllium and cadmium.
“Mexico cannot afford to regulate this sector adequately; we lack methods for solving these issues. Investment in clean technology reduces the profit margin, but we know that it is more expensive to remediate pollution,” said EHC’s Cerda.
The EHC and the citizens of Tijuana notched up a success in 2004, when they forced the Mexican government to clean up an abandoned factory called Metales y Derivados, where over 23,000 tons of waste were warehoused. The remediation work lasted until 2008, when the results of a final inspection satisfied environmentalists.
Many companies already recycle materials and treat their liquid waste, but these measures have not completely achieved the greening of the maquiladoras.
Silvia Balderas, a student at the state Colegio de la Frontera Norte (North Border College), recommends the design and implementation of energy saving and waste reduction programmes and better waste management practices, in her thesis for a master’s degree in comprehensive environmental administration.
“The actions that can be taken immediately are those requiring the fewest resources, particularly in terms of funding,” she says in her 2010 thesis titled “Diseño de un modelo de producción limpia para la industria de ensamble de electrónicos” (Design of a Clean Production Model for the Electronic Assembly Industry).
“In the first place, a starting-point is energy savings and waste management programmes, since their implementation depends only on a decision by the company administrator or owner,” Balderas says.
The Tijuana Maquiladora and Export Industry Association has an agreement with PROFEPA, Mexico’s federal agency for environmental protection, to promote clean industry certification. This year, only eight certifications have been issued.
“We are trying to persuade the maquiladora sector that sustainability can be achieved through education and efficiency savings, and the savings themselves can pay for sustainability measures. The first steps could be taken this year,” said Valle Verde’s López.
The Pollutant Release and Transfer Registry (RETC), a department of Mexico’s environment ministry, reported in 2007 that 212 million tons of pollutants were released into the environment, 99 percent of them into the atmosphere.
This year the RETC aims to monitor 267 pollutants.
As an outcome of the 1983 BECA agreement, the Mexican and U.S. governments drew up a collaborative environmental health programme known as Border 2012, aimed at reducing soil, air and water pollution, improving environmental health and ensuring emergency preparedness along the Mexico-U.S. border.