It's been 25 days and 24 nights that more than a dozen people have taken turns camping out in front of a recently closed U.S.-owned factory in Nogales, Sonora, making sure nobody tries to take the machinery left inside the building -- one of their last hopes of getting paid.
On Feb. 1, 134 employees left Legacy de Mexico at about 3 p.m. for a long weekend. When they returned the following Tuesday, the door locks had been changed and a manager was there to tell them the company had shut down, workers said.
The unexpected closure affected everyone from operators to maintenance workers to supervisors and engineers. Among them are people who had worked for the company since it opened in 1996 and those who had been hired six months ago.
Since the closure, small groups spend their days and nights in makeshift tents set outside the glass doors of the main entrance, next to the big block metal letters, "L-E-G-A-C-Y." Some go out to try to find jobs, but most watch television and talk among themselves, trying to kill time.
"Once you are over 40, it becomes a lot harder to get a job," said Aureliano Flores, 59, who worked as a maintenance supervisor and had been with the company almost 14 years.
The Nogales municipal government gave them tarps, blankets, small mattresses and food, and provided them with a portable bathroom. Other elected officials and people who support their cause sometimes help with bags of rice, beans and oil.
The workers were offered a month's pay, the workers said. But under Mexican law, the owner is responsible for a 90-day severance package.
"They were offering us less than 20 percent of what they owe us," said Flores, who earned about $44 a day and was the breadwinner at his household.
The group estimates it would take about $600,000 to pay about 115 workers off. The 15 others were contractors and aren't part of the suit.
Meanwhile, a legal battle against Legacy is advancing. Representatives for the factory, owned by Denver-based Legacy Imaging, which makes printer cartridges, didn't show up to the first hearing Thursday regarding a labor suit its former employees have filed with Sonora's mediation entity in Nogales, according to the workers. The president of the entity confirmed there had been a hearing, but he said he couldn't provide additional information over the phone.
Multiple calls and emails to Michael Frothingham, listed as Legacy Imaging's chief executive officer on the company's website, weren't returned.
"The closure took everyone by surprise," said Manuel Hopkins, economic development director for the municipal government of Nogales.
"First and foremost, it's important to act in a responsible manner. We are aware that businesses aren't always successful, but there's always room to negotiate," he said. "This shouldn't be happening, and we will continue to work to prevent this type of situation and raise awareness."
The municipal government and the Maquiladora Association of Sonora in Nogales are collaborating to help displaced employees find jobs.
"Under the current circumstances, it's imperative the employees get what's most important: a job," said Rene Moreno, vice president of the maquiladora association in Nogales.
Legacy was not a member of the association, he said.
"We were told one of our members will have about 70 jobs available in the upcoming weeks, and we've invited the employees to come to us for information on where they can apply for these jobs," he said. Moreno recalls one or two similar incidents in the last decade, where a company left without paying its workers, but he said it's not common.
"This is something very isolated," he said. "It also affects smaller businesses, but it's less obvious to the public because they hire less people."
Cirila Quintero is a researcher who specializes in maquiladoras and labor with the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tamaulipas, and she says this has been an ongoing problem since the 1960s and '70s.
"This practice became less common as the maquiladora industry started to be regulated, but it still exists," she said.
It especially happens in times of crisis and is more prevalent in factories that don't have many ties to the community or those that don't work with a lot of equipment, such as textiles, she said.
The legal process is a long and arduous one, Quintero said, and many times workers give up. Other times there's not enough money to compensate the workers because the embargoed machinery is old or there aren't many buyers interested in the equipment, she said. "What would help Mexico would be to have a sort of deposit the companies pay to help cover the workers' wages in cases where they close and leave."
Meanwhile, Legacy's former employees, who consider each other to be like family, will continue the vigil until they hear from the owner or something gets resolved.
"We'll stay here as long as it's needed," said Lilia Ruiz, 58, who worked as an operator for almost nine years, earning $7 a day. "It's not fair that they've abandoned us this way."
"First and foremost, it's important to act in a responsible manner. We are aware that businesses aren't always successful, but there's always room to negotiate. This shouldn't be happening, and we will continue to work to prevent this type of situation and raise awareness."
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