Mexican Senate Passes Labor Reform Bill, Weakening Worker Rights

[ Source – The Americas Blog]

The Mexican senate approved controversial new labor reforms yesterday, the AP reports. The bill, which has faced mounting public protests, would allow greater flexibility on the part of owners to hire and fire workers, among other changes.  While supporters claim it will generate thousands of jobs, critics contend that it will erode what little benefits workers do have. Alejandra Barrales, a senator from the Democratic Revolution Party, told Reuters, “What we’re doing here is annulling worker’s rights.”

Aspects of the bill that unions had advocated for; the right to a secret ballot and increasing transparency of union finances, were stripped in the lower house and not included in the Senate version. Those reforms were seen as key to diminishing the power of the PRI-backed, non-democratic unions and supporting the development of smaller more independent groups.  The PRD did manage to get Senate approval for two articles (388 and 390) that allow workers to choose which union they want based on majority vote and require unions to submit proposed contracts to union members.  Ultimately, these were left out of the labor reform bill and sent back to the lower house for discussion and approval.

These reforms would have been especially important in the Mexican context because often collective bargaining agreements are signed by ‘unions’ that are company-backed.  Without independence, these frequently fail to represent the interests of workers, many of whom are unaware that their labor group is essentially an extension of the company they work for.

Senator Manuel Bartlett told reporters Tuesday night that, “This law is an attack against social justice, and the only ones who will benefit are going to be the business owners.” For example, the law legalizes trial periods and initial training contracts, which allow employers options for offering more tenuous employment and paying lower wages with fewer benefits.  With respect to outsourcing, a practice already used but now formally sanctioned, the law allows employers even more ways to combine low wages with little or no health, housing, severance and profit-sharing benefits, according to the AP.

Labor leaders around the world have been following this case closely.  On September 21st of this year, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) sent a letter to the Mexican Congress that urged against voting for the ‘reform’ proposal.  The letter characterized the law as “extremely regressive” and out of compliance with “established international labor standards,” such as the ILO Conventions 87 and 98 on the Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining.  Other large labor groups also sent letters, including the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and the Canadian Labour Congress.

Also in September, 10 members of congress wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warning that “this legislation would seriously harm workers in Mexico and undermine their ability to organize.” The members note that the “move to weaken protections for worker rights in Mexico comes on the eve of the Mexican government officially joining negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement…The U.S. government should make it clear that weakening labor law just before joining the TPP negotiations is not acceptable.”

Despite the large protests against the bill in Mexico and the condemnation of it internationally, the Senate passed the bill by a 99-28 vote. The bill will now go to outgoing President Felipe Calderon, who is expected to sign it into law.