Amazon Workers Who Commute Across the US-Mexico Border Every Day Are Organizing for Better Working Conditions

Workers say they have faced five-hour commutes to go just a couple miles—and have recently won shuttle bus service from the border through their organizing.

On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

OTAY MESA, CALIFORNIA—In late May, I drove a rental car down the California coast to Otay Mesa, the third busiest border crossing in the United States. The land port sits 20 miles south of San Diego and inland from the Pacific Ocean, and processes up to 55,000 vehicles, mostly semi-trucks, filled with agricultural and commercial products daily. In 2019, then-President Trump visited Otay Mesa to hold a press event at the construction site of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, calling a new design fortified by 18 and 30-feet walls running parallel to each other “virtually impenetrable.” 

Advertisement

Driving southbound on U.S. highway 805, a series of white and green signs—“GUNS ILLEGAL IN MEXICO” and “LAST USA EXIT”—indicated I was arriving at the border. I veered off the 805 onto a smaller highway, and my eyes locked on a monolithic block rising from the hillside. 

As I got closer, I could distinguish Amazon’s signature baby blue and white on the colossus. Baby blue Amazon-branded semi trucks barrelled down the road. I have visited a handful of Amazon warehouses elsewhere in the United States, but unlike those, where workers and visitors come and go freely, SAN3, as the warehouse is named after San Diego’s airport, is fortified by a metal fence and a guard house. A script painted on the entrance said: “Welcome/Bienvenidos SAN3.” 

At 3.3 million square feet, SAN3, which overlooks the walls that snake in unison demarcating the U.S.-Mexico border, is one of the largest of Amazon’s more than 150 California warehouses. It’s the size of 57 football fields. (By comparison, JFK8, New York City’s largest warehouse, is 800,000 square feet.) Seven days a week, hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers disappear into the facility during shift changes at 9:00 a.m, 6:00 p.m., and 2:30 a.m. Some workers carpool from around San Diego County. But the majority of SAN3’s workforce commute on foot from Tijuana, the sprawling neighboring Mexican border city of 1.9 million that abuts the United States. 

Image: Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Until recently, upon arriving on the U.S. side of the border, many associates who live in Tijuana paid “raiteros,” drivers who transport low-wage workers, waiting at the pedestrian border crossing, around $3 or $5 in cash for the two-mile ride to the Amazon warehouse. But in April, after workers delivered a petition to management signed by more than 600 associates demanding free transportation between the border and Amazon, and protested during lunch, the ecommerce giant announced that it would begin providing a free chartered bus service to the warehouse once workers arrived at the border. The workers who organized the petition, under the name Las Peticiones (the Petitioners), declared victory. 

“I was like ‘thank god,’” Leslie, a 24-year-old Otay Mesa worker who lives in an apartment in Tijuana less than a 10-minute walk from the border, told me. “I was scared sometimes riding in someone else’s car after dark.” Motherboard agreed to keep all of the SAN3 workers in this article pseudonymous because Amazon has retaliated against organizers in the past. 

Advertisement

Paul Flaningan, an Amazon spokesperson, told Motherboard that "through our engagement with employees, we learned that access to transportation was an ongoing challenge for them. We’re pleased to work directly with our employees to provide a temporary solution while we work with the city of San Diego to explore a more permanent one."

The Amazon warehouse in Otay Mesa is the latest example of a strategy long used by U.S. companies to capitalize on using workers from Mexico. “Companies like being around the border because they can employ workers who live in Mexico where cost of living is lower and that puts downward pressure on wages,” said Spencer Potiker, a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine who studies labor and the U.S.-Mexico border, noting that for workers who commute from Mexico, it’s a working class job, but with middle class wages. “If you’re commuting to San Diego, you can make 10 times as much as a worker in Tijuana.”

For the Amazon warehouse workers who commute from Tijuana, arriving to work on time is a crapshoot. As the bird flies, Leslie only lives a few miles from SAN3, but to make her 9:30 a.m shift, she arrives at the border at 7:30 a.m. and waits in line with thousands of other Tijuana residents who cross the border each day to work in San Diego resorts, restaurants, and factories. Leslie was born in central Mexico, spent much of her childhood and adolescence in Southern California, and recently relocated to Tijuana for the cheaper rent. Wait times for pedestrian crossers can fluctuate enormously, from a few minutes to more than several hours, depending on commuter flows and border patrol staffing. At times, the commute has taken Leslie five hours, and Amazon has deducted vacation time or unpaid time off (UPT) from her reserve of hours. Amazon deducts an hour of UPT when a worker is more than five minutes late, and automatically fires workers who run out of UPT. Multiple SAN3 workers told Motherboard that many workers who commute from Tijuana have lost their jobs after running out of unpaid time off. Last year, CBP said an increase in the arrival of non-citizens at the Tijuana border meant “increased wait times for the traveling public” because “officials must dedicate resources to securing the port of entry and processing these individuals.” 

Advertisement

Flaningan told Motherboard that unpaid time off is "a self-managed attendance policy" and that all of its time management policies are "applied equally and consistently for employees at the site."

Image: Lauren Kaori Gurley

Yet, for the Tijuana residents who commute to SAN3, the benefits of working for Amazon outweigh the headache of crossing a national border to get to work. Amazon warehouse workers in the United States earn more in an hour than a worker in Tijuana earns in a day. The minimum wage in Tijuana is USD-equivalent of $13.28 per day. Meanwhile, Amazon pays its associates at SAN3 a starting wage of $15.75 an hour. Many of the workers at SAN3 who live in Tijuana are U.S. citizens or green card holders who live in Tijuana because the cost of living is much cheaper than San Diego. The median cost of rent in San Diego for a one-bedroom in December 2021 was $2,718, the highest average rental increase last year in California, according to data from Realtor.com; in Tijuana, an apartment costs a few hundred dollars a month. 

“I’m a U.S. citizen, and I’ve lived on both sides,” a warehouse worker who recently moved to Tijuana to save money told me. “But the rent is so high [in San Diego]. It’s impossible.” She noted that she has recently helped several Amazon coworkers who are single parents and live in San Diego sign up for food stamps. “They pay rent, they pay for gas, and then they don't have anything left.”

Advertisement

According to several workers from Tijuana, these workers register U.S. addresses with Amazon, but live in Mexico. Alejandra Mier y Teran, the director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce told Motherboard that she asked Amazon how many of its workers commute from Tijuana, and the company claimed that not many do on paper because green-card holders register U.S. addresses even if they live in Mexico, technically putting them out of compliance with the law, though it’s rarely enforced. 

“When I saw this Amazon warehouse pop up, I knew that the job was not meant for people that lived in San Diego,” said Jorge, a 22-year-old worker at the Amazon facility who grew up on the U.S. side of the border in San Ysidro, California. “It was meant to get people from Tijuana to come over here because it pays more and they get cheaper labor.” 

Flaningan, the Amazon spokesperson had no comment regarding workers' commute times and said that "our team’s home addresses are confidential and not something we normally share. That said, each employee at the San Diego site provides proof of their eligibility to work in the United States. We are proud of our diverse workforce, which reflects the communities we serve."

Amazon's closest neighbors in Otay Mesa are a series of international logistics companies, a California state prison, San Diego county’s largest jail, a juvenile detention center, and multi-jurisdictional firearms training facility used by Customs and Border Patrol and the FBI. 

Advertisement

On the day I visited Otay Mesa, I pulled my rental car over to the side of a dead end of a dusty road littered with soda cans and hamburger wrappers that looked out at SAN3 to the west and the border wall to the south. A trucker in faded blue jeans rinsed off the windows of the cab of his semi, which had the name “Sin Llorar” written in bold cursive on the rear window was named “Sin Llorar” (“No crying”). 

Helicopters roared overhead patrolling the border from above. Below, SUVs decorated with the green Customs and Border Patrol logo raced back and forth along the wall with their lights flashing red. 

The U.S.-Mexico border wall as seen from SAN3. Image: Lauren Kaori Gurley

When Amazon opened SAN3 in Otay Mesa in September 2021, the company quickly became the largest employer in the community, Mier y Teran, the executive director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce told me. The Otay Mesa business community welcomed Amazon with open arms. In early April, the chamber hosted its regular monthly breakfast at the Chula Vista Golf Course and the topic was Amazon. Three leaders of SAN3 spoke at the event. More than 100 chamber members showed up. “It was record attendance for a chamber event,” said Mier y Teran. “Everyone is excited that Amazon is here and it’s not like you can find their email and cold call them,” she said “People wanted to meet them and showcase what they do and see if there was a business opportunity they could provide Amazon like a meeting space or printing or cakes,” she said. 

Prior to Amazon’s arrival, the largest businesses in Otay Mesa were largely food processing and textiles companies that offer fewer benefits. Amazon told Motherboard that the site has roughly 3,000 employees. “We’re very happy Amazon is here,” Mier y Teran continued. “We’re an industrial community and they’re providing lots of jobs. I think the benefits make them really stand out.” 

Advertisement

In September, the same month that Amazon opened SAN3, it also debuted its first Tijuana fulfillment center, a $21 million warehouse. Striking images of the warehouse, which abuts a housing slum, made of cardboard, tarp, and wood scraps along the Río Tijuana, made national headlines in both the U.S. and Mexico. Workers at that warehouse likely do not have U.S. citizenship or permission to work in the United States. 

Since then, a Facebook group, “Amazon workers TJ-SD” for both warehouses has amassed more than 1,300 members, allowing workers to compare experiences across borders. “This group is for the entire Amazon community that lives in the Tijuana, Rosarito area,” a description says, noting that its purpose is to “to give each other reports of border wait times, share rides, and provide opportunities for workers to meet each other in line.” According to posts on the Facebook group, Amazon warehouse workers at the Tijuana fulfillment center, TIJ1, earn a fraction of the wages at SAN3. One worker said they’re paid $1,900 pesos a week, or $91.81 US dollars. 

The Amazon spokesperson did not say what the starting wage at TIJ1 is, but said it is "committed to be a good employer and, in each community where we operate, we continuously review our competitive wages and benefits, considering local economic and labor trends and ensuring we go beyond legal compliance. Our compensation can vary city to city, within a state and from country to country."

Advertisement

Operating an Amazon warehouse that depends on the labor of Mexican workers who live in tight-knit communities in Tijuana has begun to create problems for Amazon, a company that has long opposed unionization and worker organizing. Since SAN3’s grand opening, hundreds of workers have participated in several actions demanding a $2 raise, transportation from the border, limits on mandatory overtime, more break time, and onsite COVID testing. When Amazon did not listen to workers’ demands, delivered in a petition in March, more than 40 associates congregated in the warehouse basement during lunch to write their complaints on the warehouse’s internal messaging board. A week and a half later, the company passed out a flier with a new announcement: Amazon would charter a free bus service between the warehouse and the border. “The Tsunami shuttle has arrived!” it said. “SAN3 has heard your feedback and wants to help!” Since May 2, the shuttle has run between Amazon and the border for two hours periods three times a day. 

A handout passed around by Las Peticiones. Image: Lauren Kaori Gurley

In April, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island made national headlines when they voted for the first time in the company’s 28-year history to unionize. The victory sent off shockwaves around the country, as seemingly no one, but perhaps the workers themselves, expected a small, scrappy independent union to take on the country’s second largest employer and win. But the Amazon Labor Union is not the first worker-led group to organize an Amazon warehouse and challenge the company’s authority. Independent groups such as Amazonians United, which has chapters in New York City, Chicago, and Sacramento, and the Awood Center in Minnesota, have popped up around the country over the past two years. Following a series of walkouts, the Awood Center based in Minneapolis, which represents Amazon warehouse workers from the Somalian community, became the first group to successfully push Amazon to bargain over working conditions, such as prayer rooms for Muslim workers and reduced productivity quotas during Ramadan. The Amazon workers in Las Peticiones were inspired by this independent form of organizing, and have also taken it upon themselves to demand change at SAN3 without affiliating with a national union. 

After graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 2021, Jesse, a 23-year old global studies major who drives a pickup truck and surfs, moved home to San Diego and applied for a job at SAN3. Jesse had read about the walkouts led by an Amazonians United in Chicago and New York City, and felt inspired by the grassroots nature of their organizing model. Without the help of an established union, they had organized petition drives for raises, water stations, fans, and paid time off, and declared victory after victory when Amazon implemented changes. “It works!” Jesse told me of the Amazonians United organizing model when we met at the Starbucks drive-thru near the Otay Mesa border crossing in May. “They’ve won a lot.”

Advertisement

By early 2021, SAN3 workers already had a list of grievances. During peak season, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Amazon typically calls for mandatory 10-hour overtime shifts five days a week with only one 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute rest breaks. But at SAN3, Amazon continued to call mandatory overtime shifts into the new year. Every Wednesday at 3:00 p.m., workers received a notification that mandatory overtime would extend into the following week. (Those shifts extended until mid-February.)  “A lot of us were frustrated because it always felt like a last minute thing,” said Jorge, one of the warehouse workers. “And we would only get three breaks and our last break would be three hours before the end of our shift. That was really hard on everybody.” Jorge left a job at a juicery to work at Amazon because of the pay. He said that at night, he would unwind with his wife by binge watching TV and soothe his muscles with CBD cream. 

With shifts extending late into the night and early into the morning on the shortest days of the year, transportation between the border and the warehouse became a serious concern, in particular for women who worked at the warehouse and had to pay cars for rides or walk close to two miles of desolate roads.  

Another Amazon associate, Ana, who lives in Tijuana but grew up in San Diego, told Motherboard her commute takes hours. She paid raiteros $20, for rides from the San Ysidro port of entry to the west of Otay Mesa to get to Amazon. During the holidays when Amazon invoked 10-hour mandatory overtime shifts, Ana had to wake up at 3:15 a.m. to make her 7:30 a.m. shift. “Sometimes I’m waiting three-and-a-half hours.”

Advertisement

In January, Jesse and two coworkers typed up a petition with a list of seven demands in Spanish and English. As part of their petition, workers also demanded an additional 15 minute break on mandatory 10-hour overtime shifts. “These breaks must be added with no increase to our total hours worked,” they wrote. “We work hard for Amazon, but Amazon hasn’t been doing the same for us.” 

For the next two months, Jesse and his coworkers gathered signatures in the break rooms during lunch and outside the entrance to SAN3 at the end of their shifts. One worker with extensive ties to workers who live in Tijuana took up the cause, shouting in Spanish outside the warehouse during shift change, as Jesse passed around a clipboard. “She got a majority of the people who signed,” Ana who was also involved in the petition drive and pays $225 a month for an apartment in Tijuana told me. “She was screaming at the top of her lungs. And they did it for like three weeks straight until a manager came out and told them that they couldn't be doing that.” By early March, roughly 630 workers had signed the document with their full names, shifts, and phone numbers. 

Flaningan, the spokesperson for Amazon claimed the number of signatures on the petition Amazon received was “far lower” than 630. “Regardless, we engaged with a number of our employees directly to understand and address their concerns,” he said. 

A handout given to workers by Amazon about the Tsunami bus. Image: Lauren Kaori Gurley

During their lunch break on March 31, a group of 25 workers marched up to management in the break room and delivered the petition. They spoke about each of their demands and asked to meet as a group with warehouse leaders, but managers refused, saying they would only meet with workers individually. “They told me everyone has a different issue and a different situation,” Jorge said. 

Management responded swiftly to the petition. In April, they called groups of 20 workers into mandatory meetings to discuss how they could improve their working conditions, as well as one-on-ones, where workers raised concerns, such as getting medical benefits they could use in Mexico. And they flew in professional labor consultants to lead the sessions, including Erasmo “Eddie” Navarro, a former CBS news host, and Trey Kovaks, a right-wing labor policy consultant who has appeared on Fox News and contributed articles to ALEC, the conservative non-profit that lobbies on behalf of corporate interests, including the Koch Industries and the National Rifle Association. According to the website of his former employer, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Kovaks researched the “adverse effects of public-sector unions on workplace choice” and “private-sector labor relations.”

Advertisement

But the workers did not relent. On April 7, a group of 20 workers returned to the hallway outside the main office for management asking to meet to discuss their demands. “The moment they saw us in the hallway they ran right back into the main office,” said Jorge, one of the workers involved in the petition drive.“Me and Jesse were standing there and we kept asking them to come out to speak as a group and they just refused.” So, workers wrote up a new flier to pass out during shift change. “We’re more than a login,” it said. “We gave management our petition with our 600 signatures. They refused to give us respect with a response. Join us on Thursday April 14.” 

Flaningan, the Amazon spokesperson said in a statement that it did not refuse to meet with workers and said "All employees were invited to engage with leaders, including voluntary roundtables and one-on-one floor meetings. Site leaders used their feedback to make improvements." The company also said it "provides a number of ways for employees and managers to communicate directly with each other, including our open-door policy, one-on-ones, and voluntary roundtable meetings. SAN3 leaders and employees used each of those voluntary avenues to discuss employee concerns, and afterward developed and implemented action plans based on employee feedback.”

Advertisement

On April 13, JaNiece Ford, the general manager of SAN3, circulated a detailed response to workers’ concerns, calling workers wages “attractive,” but acknowledging the need for transportation. “Thank you all for the questions and comments,” she wrote. “I know it’s important for you to feel like your voice is heard and respected.” The letter goes on to promise to address whether Amazon could provide healthcare benefits in Mexico and work with San Diego’s transportation authority to establish a public bus route between the Otay Mesa border crossing and SAN3. “We believe this will be a tremendous time-saving benefit for many,” Ford wrote.   

But the workers felt Ford’s response fell short of the changes they had demanded. The next day, a group of more than 40 workers continued to escalate. They gathered in the break room during lunch, marched to the basement, and wrote a list of demands and complaints on Amazon’s internal Voice of Associate board. Meanwhile, a WhatsApp group for organizing and discussing working conditions at SAN3 had swelled to close to 100 members. 

Twelve days later, on April 26, Ford sent out a follow up letter, announcing that Amazon would run a free shuttle service, while they negotiated with the city over a public bus route, had explored partnering with healthcare providers in Mexico, and planned “to expedite a review of market conditions” to explore a potential a wage increase. “The entire leadership team wants to thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving us the opportunity to find solutions to your concerns,” wrote Ford. (The workers have yet to receive a wage increase.)

Some warehouse workers at SAN3 made a direct connection between the petition and their new benefits, and thanked their coworkers. Rumors circulated that Jesse, one of a small contingent of white warehouse workers at SAN3, had secured the victory because he was related to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. 

“A lot of people were saying that if we got the things on the petition that maybe Jesse was related to Mr. Bezos,” said Ana, one of the workers who lives in Tijuana. “I don't think they were joking either.”

Fresh off their victory, Las Peticiones have been meeting regularly on Zoom to discuss next steps, and they’re still awaiting news about whether they’ll receive a raise. “We’re in a building phase, so things have been going well,” Jesse said. “Amazon is hoping that people who are the driving force behind the changes have forgotten or left. It’s always going to be a challenge, but there’s been people who were hired and two days later signed the petition.”

During my trip to Otay Mesa, I decided to test out the commute myself by walking on a pedestrian footpath that runs parallel to vehicle crossing at Otay Mesa. It took me about five minutes to walk from the U.S. side into Mexico. Once in Tijuana, I made a giant loop and began down a small street called Josefina Rendón Parra, past storefronts advertising haircuts, tortillas, and a knockoff Amazon logo that seemed to suggest Amazon products for sale. The line extended hundreds of feet down the road. Little kids rapped and asked for spare change, Christian missionaries passed out fliers, and scrawny teenagers and men in wheelchairs sold trinkets, sweet bread, and candies. 

When I arrived at the customs house, a border patrol officer scanned my enhanced New York state driver’s license, looked up to confirm my photo matched my face, and without speaking a word, ushered me through. Returning back to the United States at around 11:00 a.m., after the majority of rush hour traffic had passed, took me about 50 minutes.

Since the bus service began on May 2, Amazon warehouse workers arrive each day near the Jack in the Box on the U.S. side of the Otay Mesa border crossing. They are distinguishable by their clear backpacks (a requirement to pass security at all Amazon warehouses around the country) and blue Amazon badges. Often they stop into Jack N’ the Box for an iced coffee or a sandwich, and then they board Amazon’s chartered buses.

Earlier that day, around 9:00 a.m. I had accidentally bumped into Leslie at Jack in the Box with several other women clutching clear backpacks, headphones, and giant iced coffees who had just arrived from Tijuana. 

“How long did it take to cross just now?” I asked Leslie. 

“One and a half hours,” she said.

We walked across the parking lot of a 76 gas station, navigating between rigs, toward the Otay Mesa Transit Center. A tall white bus with the orange Sun Diego logo pulled up to the curb, the women and I parted ways, and they boarded the bus to Amazon. As the driver began inching forward to leave, an Amazon worker with a large bag hanging off one shoulder came flying around a corner on a scooter. I thought he might miss the bus, but he hopped off and jumped aboard in the knick of time. 

Tagged:

On the Clock, immigration, labor, worldnews

More
like this
'I'm Drowning:' Amazon Contractors Are Paying the Price for the Labor Shortage
ALB1 Workers Will Not Join the Amazon Labor Union
Amazon Workers Occupy HR Office in Spontaneous Strike After Warehouse Fire
Amazon Workers at California Air Hub Are Ready to Strike
Amazon Tells Drivers to Look Out for ‘Four-Legged Customers’ Day After Driver Is Mauled By Dogs, Dies
Amazon Is Refusing to Comply with a Federal Judge’s Order, Emails Show
This Is the Third Amazon Warehouse to Catch Fire This Week
Amazon Labor Union Alleges ‘Coercive, Threatening and Retaliatory Conduct’ Resulted in Failed Union Vote