A Breath of Fresh Air?
Fans and other improvements at Deming-area agricultural plants.
They have fans now! Food processing plants in Deming now have huge fans that actually keep people cool. This is a major step in making them better places to work.
I remember working at Border Foods a decade ago and rolling down my rubber gloves to just below the first row of knuckles because it was so unbearably hot. I remember having the sweat flow down my back and onto my behind as I worked on la linea, the conveyor belt where they peel the skins off chile. The chile had just been boiled, making the summer air hotter than it already was and steamy, too.
What they have now is not true air conditioning, which would cost much more, but it really does keep workers cool, people who work there say.
When I first worked at Border Foods, I was put in a room irreverently called the "hot box," where people slapped together cardboard boxes by hand. Its name fit. But later they bought a computer that made boxes and put air conditioning there to maintain the computer.
When I was working in the next room over, a woman near me stepped through the door into what used to be the "hot box" to bathe blissfully in the air conditioning for a minute or so during some downtime on the machine. I told her what they had the air conditioning for, and I remember the way she gasped at the injustice of it.
At the Billy the Kid onion shed at a big curve on the old road to Lordsburg, they've made dramatic improvements over the previous plant that was there, in terms of both comfort and safety. (The Mexicans say they're working at "la curva" or at "Bili.")
A friend of mine, Yoli, who works there talks breathlessly about the cafeteria they have there, the fans, several bathrooms, and how she has cold water right near her that she can drink. A young supervisor near her says, "Yoli, cuidate (take care of yourself), don't fall."
The staff tells them to go rest whenever they have a headache and take some pills. They tell them they are ready to take them to the hospital if they are seriously sick. She says the company pays for lunch time and breaks.
This is in stark contrast to what the building was like about a decade ago when Yoli and I first met. It was a different company, with 15 or 20 workers. There wasn't even a table to sit at to eat — people ate outside on a rock or in their cars. There was one bathroom, and there was no drinking water — clearly a code violation.
The larger number of employees now, something like 100, is a major reason for the changes. But when I went to the Billy the Kid plant a few weeks ago, I asked a man in the entryway why they had air conditioning and so forth.
He was Anglo and looked like a managerial type. "It's because farmworkers in California have been having a lot of lawsuits," he said.
It's heartening to hear that activism can actually have an effect. The rule is that it's not likely managers would improve work conditions just out of the goodness of their heart.
This season at Billy the Kid, employees worked phenomenally long hours. They often put in 15 hours a day, which is just under the legal limit of 16 hours as stated on a FAQ sheet at the New Mexico Workforce Connection website. On at least one occasion they worked 22 hours. The legality of this is unclear. The question is whether onion-shed workers are "farm hands" as stated on the FAQ sheet.
But workers are basically excited to be making so much per day in Deming. When I asked one young man who worked there if anybody objected to working so long, he said, "There's always the door."
Border Foods now has Japanese owners, and I was told it is called Border Products, or Mizcan Foods. But it will be called Border Foods by a lot of people, including myself, for years. It's the largest chile plant in the US.
A lot has changed since I worked there, according to what I've heard. I think it's somewhat changed for the better.
There are the new fans, of course, although I was told by one man in the parking lot that there are still some rooms that are "very hot."
I've heard that they now give rubber boots to employees when they clean the floors at the end of their shift. It was a miserable, soggy job before.
Some dangerous machines that I worked on have been removed within the last couple of years. They had elevators that lifted pallets full of empty cans to a conveyor belt. Twice when I was working nearby, one of these accidentally slammed down to the floor in about half a second, which would have killed anyone underneath. Forklift operators now perform the same functions.
I've heard that what were called the "planchas" (irons) are still outside. These were machines that sealed cans, with a large, flat metal surface that presses down on top of them. When I worked there I heard that a man had had his head squeezed in one of these, and that he wasn't right mentally after that.
I regret I never investigated that case further, but know from experience that these people don't usually go around making up stories. Workers continue to have accidents at Mizcan, as I hear about anecdotally.
Some Mizcan Foods employees living in trailers north of town had some ideas on how things could be improved further.
A young, uneducated couple said that the video they watched before working showed a plant they weren't familiar with. They suggested the company should "take them [new employees] inside and show them what is dangerous."
The wife said the video showed some skull-and-crossbones symbols that were meant to warn of danger, but that they didn't see any of these at work. I have wondered myself if they could use that symbol to warn of dangerous places in the plant, for the sake of the many illiterate workers there. There are refrigerated rooms, floors slippery with chiles, and toxic chemicals to be wary of.
Another man, a Mexican civil engineer named Manuel Vargas, had the terrific idea that the staff could take a video camera around to all the work areas at Mizcan to teach new employees about the dangers. That wouldn't be hard to do.
"There's a lot more to do," Vargas says.
If these things get done, maybe the improvements will consist of more than just fans and other physical changes, and they'll have a workplace with a zero tolerance for accidents, too.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.