CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – A spate of suspected coronavirus deaths among workers for U.S. companies operating along the border in Mexico has triggered multiple protests in recent days, highlighting friction over which factories should remain open in the pandemic.
On Thursday, dozens of protesters demanded a Honeywell assembly plant in Ciudad Juarez be closed to prevent the spread of the virus after a colleague died.
The company told Reuters one of the plant’s workers died this month after being sent to self-quarantine and receive medical attention.
Car seat maker Lear confirmed “several” of its workers had died in the city this month of respiratory illnesses, while technology company Poly, also known as Plantronics, told Reuters two workers in Tijuana died this week of unknown causes. Protesting workers in Tijuana said the deaths were related to the coronavirus.
Similar protests calling for safe conditions or shutdowns with full pay took place outside factories in border cities Mexicali, Matamoros and Reynosa in recent days after the Mexican government ordered non-essential industries to suspend operations.
“We want them to respect the quarantine,” said Mario Cesar Gonzalez outside the Honeywell factory, which he said makes smoke alarms. “The manager said that we are essential workers. I don’t think an alarm is essential.”
Honeywell said its Ademco factory in Ciudad Juarez, where the protest took place, makes heating and ventilation controls for critical infrastructures such as hospitals and laboratories.
Lockdowns aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus are beginning to disrupt supply chains in the $1.2 trillion North American Free Trade Agreement region, with governments and companies disagreeing about which industries should operate.
On Wednesday, the U.S. National Association of Manufacturers wrote to the Mexican president lobbying for changes to the country’s list of “essential” industries.
A report from labor rights group the Border Committee of Workers (CFO) on Wednesday said some companies sent employees home on half salaries. Mexico has not yet implemented a universal payment system for furloughed or laid-off workers, but gives some loan assistance.
The report also criticized conditions, saying some factories did not have soap in bathrooms or in dining hall sinks at the end of March.
Mexico’s coronavirus outbreak is well behind the U.S. epidemic, official data shows. However, the virus has killed more people per capita in several border cities than the Mexican average, government data analyzed by Reuters shows.
It was not immediately clear why.
“IN GREAT FEAR”
Although COVID-19 – the illness caused by the coronavirus – had not been confirmed as the cause of the death of its worker, Honeywell said the worker was turned away from work on April 2, after failing a medical screening.
The company did not give the date of the death, but said it closed the factory two days for cleaning after the worker went into quarantine.
Lear said in a statement to Reuters several employees at its Ciudad Juarez operations had died of complications from respiratory illness, but declined to say how many.
It said it halted all employee-related activities in the city by April 1.
That appeared to be in line with Mexico’s declaration of a health emergency on March 30, requiring companies to cease operations if their activities are deemed non-essential.
The government is investigating why 15% of companies with non-essential activities had refused to stop work, deputy health minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell said on Wednesday, warning that failure to comply could be a crime.
On Wednesday, workers protested outside an assembly factory in Ciudad Juarez run by Wisconsin-based Regal Beloit, which produces electric motors for household appliances, and demanded the plant close, saying a coworker had died.
Reuters was not able to confirm a death of a Regal worker. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
In Tijuana, a manufacturing hub across from San Diego that has registered 271 cases of coronavirus and is the region with the greatest viral transmission in Mexico, workers also protested this week after the Poly workers died.
Poly, a California-based maker of communications gear, told Reuters that the two deaths were from unknown causes and that one of the workers had not been at the plant in 30 days.
However, Poly said it had suspended operations at the plant for now. It said its products supplied essential government and healthcare businesses.
A 23-year-old Poly worker in Tijuana told Reuters that she was told to stay home this week, but that her husband keeps working at a different company that produces steel materials.
“There’s no use in me staying home, if he’s still putting himself at risk,” said the woman, who declined to be named, fearing retribution. “We’re having a really bad time. We’re going to work in great fear.”
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