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AMATEX in Juarez By Paul Sweeney Juarez, El Paso Dirt-cheap labor may be the main attraction that leads American manufacturers to set up shop in the crowded shantytowns of Mexico’s northern border cities, but it isn’t the only one. There’s also the lure of immunity from U.S. workplace safety laws. Take the Juarez factory operated by American Asbestos Textile Corporation nia, for instance. Situated safely out of reach of U.S. laws in a crumbling slum about 15 miles southeast of downtown El Paso, the 80-employee facility was opened by AMATEX in 1974just as Congress, the courts, and regulatory agencies began a long-overdue crackdown on asbestos fiber manufacturers for exposing their American employees to severe health hazards. Long before, federal health officials had traced a high incidence of certain fatal diseases among American asbestos workers to the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Workers tended yarn-making machinery that filled the air inside many workplaces with asbestos dust; because they couldn’t help but breathe the stuff, one in five could expect to die of lung cancer, and one in 12 of either asbestosis thelioma \(an otherwise rare cancer that attacks the membranes enclosing the But despite their awareness of such data, American regulators were slow to intervene. As late as 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was proposing a fine of $210 for “insufficient dust control” at the notorious Pittsburgh-Corning plant in Tyler, where inspectors had found ventilators so clogged with asbestos fibers that they were rendered useless, and where employees reported asbestos dust so thick they couldn’t see across the building. In effect, the U.S. government conceded its culpability in the matter four months ago when it agreed to pay 445 former Pittsburgh-Corning workers $5.75 million rather than contest their claim that federal authorities failed to enforce health regulations at the Tyler plant before it was shut down in 1972. It was after the Tyler episode that Congress gave environmental agencies more control over hazardous manufacturing processes and OSHA sharply lowered the levels of asbestos fiber it would permit in the workplace atmosphere, from five million fibers per cubic meter in 1972 to two million in 1976. A further reduction to a half million per cubic meter is now in the works, and the Environmental Protection Agency has meanwhile targeted asbestos as one of the 15 most dangerous substances against which it will take regulatory action. Some companies have responded by investing heavily in safer fiber-making technology. Others delayed compliance as long as they could, in spite of the possibility of employee lawsuits like the one that forced firms implicated in the Tyler affair to part with $14 million in out-ofcourt settlements. AMATEX has found itself among the corporations getting bad marks after 1972 from OSHA investigators, who recorded fiber counts as high as 20 million per cubic meter \(ten company’s dilapidated New Hampshire factory before it finally came into compliance in 1977. However, AMATEX has also successfully pioneered the alternative approach of simply shifting a large part of its asbestos yarn productionand its workplace dangersto Mexico. Since the company closed its newest mill in the U.S. in 1973, its workforce in Juarez \(and at another plant in Agua Prieta, just across the border from Douglas, Arizo fourth of the asbestos textiles annually imported into the U.S. \(amounting to three million pounds of fireproof asbesAs recently as 1967, Mexico exported no asbestos textiles at all to the U.S., so the current production figures for the company’s Mexican operations are “pretty amazing,” in the judgment of Barry Castleman, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental researcher who keeps track of the movement of what he terms “runaway hazardous shops.” Says Castleman of the plants in Mexico: “They don’t have any raw materials there. They’re getting it From Canada. There isn’t any market for asbestos textiles in the deserts of northern Mexico. It’s easy to see what’s going on.” The move has certainly produced significant competitive advantages for the Pennsylvania firm. Its Juarez workers get the Mexican minimum wage for the border region$1.04 per hour gross, 68 cents per hour net. More to the point, AMATEX can go about its business in Mexico unhindered by aggressive regulation. The Mexican government lacks not only the technicians and equipment required to monitor workplace health hazards effectively, but also the inclination. Economic planners in Mexico City have waged an ambitious campaign to attract foreign industry to the urban centers of their country’s northern borderlands, where unemployment runs as high as 40 percent. They’re not about to jeopardize the fruits of that effort, such as the 80 jobs AMATEX brought to Juarez, by permitting imposition of costly hazard controls. Corporations that cross the border can also forget their fear of employee lawsuits for job-related injury and disease, according to the sales pitch made by Bill Mitchell, an El Paso promoter who en 8 JUNE 9, 1978