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As Juárez COVID-19 death toll reaches 29, a maquiladora worker’s family shares his fight for life

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As he struggled to breathe in a Ciudad Juárez hospital, Raul Rosales and his wife Claudia exchanged messages saying good-bye. Their daughter Monica texted heart emojis and photos of his grandson Matias.

“My baby is 14 months old. He loved him and he always laughed with him,” Monica Rosales said.

Raul Rosales, 57, is a quality control supervisor at Juárez maquiladora who has tested positive for COVID-19. “He’s not breathing by himself. He’s with a ventilator. He’s very sick,” Monica Rosales said in an interview about her father.

 In a frantic effort to save his life, Raul Rosales’ family  had him transported by ambulance to an El Paso hospital on April 11. He is a legal permanent resident of the United States. His family lives in El Paso.

“He was doing his job and now his life is at risk,” said Monica Rosales, who’s among a growing number of people who believe her father’s employer, Michigan-based Lear Corporation, did not do enough to help workers stay safe. The role of Lear and other multinational manufacturers in the spread of COVID-19 in Ciudad Juárez has come under increasing scrutiny as the death toll mounts in the border city.

The Fortune 500 company based in Michigan, with $21 billion in sales in 2018, has repeatedly declined to provide an exact number of employees who have died or been sickened by COVID-19.

 “We are saddened that several employees at our Juárez City operations, who were receiving-medical treatment for presumed cases of COVID-19, have passed away due to complications of respiratory illness…” according to a statement issued by the company last week. Lear said the company is working to provide the necessary support, including grief counseling and medical care” to the employees’ families and coworkers. 

Lear Corporation has 10 manufacturing plants in Ciudad Juárez that make automotive seating and other car parts. (Photo by Valeria Olivares)

So far, Lear’s contact with her family has been limited to the human resources office in Ciudad Juárez, which provided a phone number to a psychologist for counseling,  Monica Rosales said. 

Lear has 271 production facilities in 39 countries, from Europe to China’s Hubei province, where the COVID-19 outbreak was first reported. Lear has 42 plants in Mexico, 10 of them in Juárez. The company makes automotive seating and electrical systems. 

Workers falling ill

Raul Rosales has worked at the Lear Rio Bravo plant for eight years.  He told his family he was in contact with a sick employee on the job. “He said she was checked but not sent home,” Monica Rosales said.

On March 26, Raul Rosales, feeling ill, decided to self-quarantine and on April 5 he was admitted to a private hospital in Juárez, she said. 

Rosales said her father also warned her “stay home” and told her there were six other Lear supervisors and managers in the same hospital also being treated for COVID-19. 

He also texted a disturbing allegation on April 8 that the number of COVID-19 deaths at the plant where he worked was much higher than reported, according to his daughter

He texted “that the government was lying” and “there were about 20 people at his plant” who had died, Monica Rosale said.

On April 7,  health state authorities were reporting four confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Ciudad Juárez. On April 14, Chihuahua state health authorities confirmed at least 11 maquiladora workers in Juárez had died of COVID-19.

Ciudad Juárez death toll reaches 29

In a press conference Sunday, health authorities reported 29 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Ciudad Juárez. After repeated questions, Dr. Valenzuela said state authorities could only confirm nine are maquiladora worker deaths because they are waiting for medical records for four patients from the IMSS, the Mexican Social Security Institute hospital. That would bring the total to 13 maquiladora worker deaths.

It is not clear if all the Lear employees are included in the COVID-19 death tally since that count consists of people who tested positive for the virus. Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, Chihuahua state health authority for Ciudad Juárez, acknowledged last week the actual number may be higher because if patients have “pneumonia or a grave respiratory illness, it’s probably COVID.”

Under state guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, only those factories doing “essential” work are allowed to remain open in Ciudad Juárez.  Lear stopped operations on April 1.

Amid growing public pressure, Chihuahua state labor secretary  Ana Luisa Herrera Laso said Friday that the government will “invite” employers that are not essential to close or face sanctions.

She also said employees who remain on the job should follow company instructions for preventing COVID-19 outbreaks. “Workers also should take responsibility to prevent contagion and don’t leave it up to other people,” Herrera Laso said.

‘Traveling on a death train’

 Susana Prieto, an attorney and labor rights activist who works with maquiladora employees, said “Mexican workers are traveling on a death train.”

“Those who’ve lost loved ones to COVID-19 should demand companies take responsibility,” Prieto said.

The Lear Corp. website has a COVID-19 section that touts the company’s precautions at its global manufacturing facilities. “Lear’s global management team meets every day with the objective of overcoming this very challenging situation – region by region, location by location,” according to a letter from Ray Scott, president, CEO and director.

Lear also created a “work safe playbook,” available for other companies and organizations to download “to proactively address the unique challenges of resuming our operations, when it is safe to do so.”

Monica Rosales said she’s concerned about the company trying to reopen in Ciudad Juárez .

“They need to take responsibility for the lives that have been lost, for those who are sick and in danger of losing their lives. And don’t put more people at risk,” she said.

Rosales said her father, like so many Lear employees in Ciudad Juárez, was proud to work for the company. 

He wore a shirt with the Lear logo stitched on it to his wife’s 50th birthday dinner in December.  

“He did a lot for Lear Corp,” she said.

Cover photo: Raul Rosales wore a shirt with a Lear logo at his wife Claudia’s 50th birthday celebration dinner in December. Rosales is a quality control supervisor, at the Ciudad Juárez plant who tested positive for COVID-19 and is on a ventilator. (Photo courtesy of Monica Rosales)

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Angela Kocherga

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners. She previously served as Mexico City and Border Bureau Chief for a group of television stations. She also serves as news director at public radio KTEP. You can listen to stories by her on air at 88.5 FM and online at KTEP.org.

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