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By Daina Beth Solomon
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Workers at a Lear Corp autoparts plant in northern Mexico that saw the worst known coronavirus outbreak of any factory in the Americas are now bracing to be sent back to work.
They just don't know when, and some worry it still may not be safe just weeks after the pandemic struck factories in the industrial city of Ciudad Juarez, just across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas.
For many, it's an agonizing bind after the outbreak at Lear's Rio Bravo plant that Lear said has killed 18 employees.
Even though a return to their posts may be scary, most are desperate to recover their full salaries that Lear reduced when it shuttered the plant of about 3,000 workers. Part of a wider international supply chain crucial to the U.S. auto sector, they are also aware that pressures from beyond Mexico may factor into the timetable.
"When the United States opens the automotive industry, we have to go back," said Dagoberto Galindo, 42, one of ten Lear employees at the Rio Bravo industrial park Reuters has interviewed since mid-April. He has worked 14 years at the factory that makes car seat trim covers for Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz and Ford Motor Co's Mustangs and Explorers.
"I would go back for economic reasons, because I'm not going to have money left. But not because I'd feel safe," said Galindo, who said he is taking home just 65% of his salary while the plant is closed, making it harder to support his wife and six children.
Galindo is one of thousands of workers at various U.S.-owned factories known as "maquiladoras" along Mexico's northern border.
Corporate America has benefited from lower wages and laxer health, safety and environmental strictures at the maquiladoras for decades. And they rely heavily on intertwined supply chains between the two countries that fueled $614.5 billion in U.S.-Mexico trade last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That made Mexico the top U.S. trade partner, pushing past China, which has suffered from a bitter tariff conflict with U.S. President Donald Trump. But those benefits have come at a cost for Mexican workers, who earn less than U.S. counterparts and typically have weaker protections from unions.
Now with the Mexican infection curve several weeks behind the U.S. epidemic, experts say workers are right to be concerned about returning too quickly. As of Tuesday, Ciudad Juarez had the largest concentration of coronavirus in Chihuahua state, with 418 cases and 97 deaths.
"The maquiladora industry was a factor in the contagion," said human rights activist Cecilia Espinosa in Ciudad Juarez, urging health and labor authorities to inspect factories before allowing workers to return.
PROTESTS SOUTH OF THE BORDER
Multiple protests erupted in mid-April over safe working conditions following reported worker deaths at Honeywell International Inc and Lear, highlighting friction over which factories should remain open in the pandemic.
Ten workers at the Rio Bravo plant have since told Reuters that Lear took minimal protection measures there in the weeks before halting operations in late March - a month after Mexico detected its first coronavirus cases and as the U.S. death toll surpassed 1,000.
Lear, which employs 24,000 workers in 10 different plants in Ciudad Juarez, said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control did not recommend the wearing of masks for non COVID-19 positive people until early April.
The company said there was no sign of an uptick in visits to the factory's infirmary in the weeks before the closure, and that it learned of the first hospitalization on April 3.
"We are truly and deeply saddened by the situation," said Frank Orsini, a Lear executive vice president who oversees the seating business of the company that operates in 39 different countries. "We have not seen anything like this anywhere else in the world."
Orsini said the families told Lear that the official causes of deaths were pneumonia. Lear was not aware of any testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Orsini said, noting that testing in Mexico has been limited.
The company did an "extensive study" to look for links among the workers who died - including shifts, lunch breaks and busing - but did not find commonalities, Orsini said.
A lack of information is not helping ease some worker concerns about restarting factories. The ten workers interviewed by Reuters said the company never told them directly if some of their colleagues were sick from the coronavirus, or if any had died.
"We're a family, then from one minute to the next, they're not there anymore," said Lorenza Piña, 59, referring to her close-knit group of colleagues.
Orsini said Lear's human resources staff made an effort to check in with employees by phone, and told them there were infections and fatalities, without disclosing how many. Lear also acknowledged in statements to Reuters since mid-April that an unspecified number had become casualties of the virus.
'SAFE WORK PLAYBOOK'
Some Lear workers last week posted videos on social media of preparations to re-open the Rio Bravo plant. Tall cubicles now protect sewing machines, and a person in a white hazmat suit is shown spraying walls and floors with disinfectant spray with the words "safety is built step by step" emblazoned in large letters across a set of stairs.
Lear in recent weeks has promoted a detailed handbook to reopening factories safely, including instructions to install hand sanitizer floor stands in work areas per 50 employees, provide workers with masks and gloves and take their temperatures at the start of shifts.
Now in its second edition, the "Safe Work Playbook" of best practices has been downloaded from Lear's website some 18,000 times, the company said.
Orsini said Lear will re-open in Mexico only once "employees are comfortable with the precautions that we've taken," and government regulations allow it.
In a sign of the Trump administration's hunger for a quick ramp-up, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, has also called for restarting work there to coincide with the United States and Canada.
"I am doing everything I can to save the supply chains that were built over the past decades," he said on Twitter in late April. "It's possible and essential to take care of workers' health without destroying these chains. The economic integration of North America demands coordination."
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Editing by Christian Plumb, Dan Flynn and Edward Tobin)