Mexico says no to border plants’ offer to pay for COVID-19 vaccines for workers

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U.S.-run plants want to ensure labor force won't succumb to outbreaks, production can get back to normal

Operators of a maquiladora factory arrive to work at an industrial park in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on August 10, 2017.
Many workers had arrived in the city -more than 10 years ago- to be maquila workers, an economic system which symbolizes the impact of NAFTA on Mexican society. The NAFTA will be renegotiated this week and negotiators are optimistic about achieving a profitable outcome. (HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Border manufacturing plants have weathered the ebb and flow of the COVID-19 pandemic by adjusting shifts, testing employees and placing assembly lines in cafeterias to maintain social distancing.

But leery of outbreaks that could disrupt production and exports of critical components to the United States, managers at many of these maquiladoras are pushing for the Mexican government to allow them to buy vaccines for their workers.

“Even the smallest maquiladora employs 800 to 1,000 workers. If they have a chance to vaccinate their employees and their families, they don’t need to worry about outbreaks, absenteeism or any interruption to production,” said Thor Salayandia, president of the Juarez Chamber of Industry and Manufacturing.

The business leader said at least 200,000 maquiladora workers in Juarez are engaged in the production of components or products designated as essential in both countries. That includes medical equipment, automobiles, helicopters and airplanes, computers and cellphones.

“Once the workers are immunized, (the plants) can once again make optimal use of their buildings and it’s cheaper for them to buy the vaccine than to be constantly testing employees,” Salayandia said. “A vaccine guarantees production. It will help boost investors’ trust and get the plants back to normal operations. It would be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Borderplex Alliance in El Paso supports the idea.

“The supply chains we have between Mexico and the United States are very critical to the production of medical devices and health-related products. It’s absolutely critical that we have essential workers vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Jon Barela, CEO of the nonprofit that promotes binational business and economic development.

The problem is that only the Mexican government can directly buy the vaccines from major providers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia or China. And right now, barely this week it began to make them available to its senior citizens on the border.

“You need an emergency license to purchase the vaccines (from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, etc.). Only governments are getting those licenses now, so for the moment, businesses cannot buy vaccines,” said Dr. Wendy Avila, deputy director of preventive health services for the state of Chihuahua.

That means that even if businesses tried to make the payments directly to the Mexican government, they would have to wait for the country’s 10 million-plus senior citizens and all front-line health workers to be vaccinated first.

The most likely scenario is for Mexico to designate adults working in essential businesses eligible for COVID-19 vaccines — whenever the country gets enough of them.

“Hopefully, the Mexican government will allow the maquilas to begin vaccinating its own employees in a very expeditious manner,” Barela said.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

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