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Mexican peasants assembling steering wheels for North American cars have suffered mental impairment from the fumes they breathed, the Latin American Solidarity Committee was told Monday evening.

One of the companies is Custom Trim, which once employed 1,000 workers in St. Catharines, Ont., but now has just 300 there because most of its operation has moved to Mexico.

After attending a government hearing on the matter in San Antonio, Texas, Bill Jungels of Fredonia State College gave a briefing to about 45 people in the Network of Religious Communities Building at 1272 Delaware Ave.

"The Third World is not a fact of nature, but was created -- and now it is worsening with the globalization of the economy," said Jungels, who is chairman of the communications program at Fredonia State.

For the last three years, he has studied how Mexican workers have been affected by American corporations that have moved some of their operations across the Mexican border to exploit cheap labor. The components made in Mexico in these "maquiladora" operations are shipped to the United States and sold on the American market.

Jungels showed a video of a Mexican worker testifying recently during a hearing of the National Administrative Office, which is run out of the U.S. Department of Labor. The man worked in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, for Custom Trim, which, like Auto Trim, is now owned by Breed of Florida.

The man said he used to brush a yellow glue on each new steering wheel and wrap it with a leather covering, then dip his hands into a solvent to clean excess glue off the steering wheel.

"I was exposed for three to four hours a day to these chemicals," he said through an interpreter. "I think they fired me because I have lost my ability to work."

The man said he developed an "addiction" to the fumes, suffering withdrawal symptoms. "I felt despair," he said. "Nervousness and fear of fathering a baby with brain damage. I'd forget places and names of people I'd been introduced to. I had sleep disorders. I saw and imagined things that did not even exist. That scares me."

Other workers said their children were born with brain disorders because of the chemicals inhaled in one of the plants.

Some said they were fired for complaining or trying to start a union.

Jungels said the hearings can be meaningless. "Three years later," he said, "they will announce their decision and say: 'You're right. You were wrongly fired. Yes, you deserve to be reinstated. But Custom Trim doesn't exist anymore. Now it's Breed, and they're not responsible for what happened.' "

Asked whether he found anything positive during his research, Jungels said the New York State Coalition for Religion-Labor is building a school for children of "maquiladora" workers and has raised $20,000 for a child needing medical treatment because of a birth defect.

He added that a letter-writing campaign has been started by another group, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a task force of the Western New York Peace Center.

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