11. Labor Policies and Practices
Mexican labor law requires at least 90 percent of a company’s employees be Mexican nationals. Employers can hire foreign workers in specialized positions as long as foreigners do not exceed 10 percent of all workers in that specialized category. Mexico’s 56 percent rate of informality remains higher than countries with similar GDP per capita levels. High informality, defined as those working in unregistered firms or without social security protection, distorts labor market dynamics, contributes to persistent wage depression, drags overall productivity, and slows economic growth. In the formal economy, there exist large labor shortages due to a system that incentivizes informality. Manufacturing companies, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border and in the states of Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Querétaro, report labor shortages and an inability to retain staff due to wages sometimes being less that what can be earned in the informal economy, although the recent increases in the minimum wage are leading to increases in entry level wages which are attracting more workers. Shortages of skilled workers and engineers continue due to a mismatch between industry needs and what schools teach. Mexico has one of the lowest female labor participation rates in the OECD, 45 percent to a 76 percent male participation rate among people legally allowed to work (15 years or older). Barriers for female workers include the culturally assigned role for them as caretakers of children and the elderly. Most Mexican workers work for a micro business (41 percent) and 59 percent earn between USD 8.6 and USD 17 per day. The unemployment rate in Mexico has maintained a stable path ranging from 3.5 percent to 4.9 percent (its highest peak during the pandemic). This rate, however, masks the high level of underemployment (14.8 percent) in Mexico (those working part time or in the informal sector when they want full time, formal sector jobs). For 2020 the informal economy accounted for 22 percent of total Mexican GDP according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. Informal businesses span across all economic activities from agriculture to manufacturing. In Mexico labor informality also spans across all economic activities with formal businesses employing both formal and informal workers to reduce their labor costs.
On May 1, 2019, Lopez Obrador signed into law a sweeping reform of Mexico’s labor law, implementing a constitutional change and focusing on the labor justice system. The reform replaces tripartite dispute resolution entities (Conciliation and Arbitration Boards) with independent judicial bodies and conciliation centers. In terms of labor dispute resolution mechanisms, the Conciliation and Arbitration Boards (CABs) previously adjudicated all individual and collective labor conflicts. Under the reform, collective bargaining agreements will now be adjudicated by federal labor conciliation centers and federal labor courts.
Labor experts predict the labor reform will result in a greater level of labor action stemming from more inter-union and intra-union competition. The Secretariat of Labor, working closely with Mexico’s federal judiciary, as well as state governments and courts, created an ambitious state-by-state implementation agenda for the reforms, which started November 18, 2020, and will end during the second semester of 2022. On November 18, 2020 the first phase of the labor reform implementation began in eight states: Durango, State of Mexico, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, and Hidalgo. On November 3, 2021 the second phase started in 13 additional states, and the third phase will start during 2022 in 11 states. Further details on labor reform implementation can be found at: www.reformalaboral.stps.gob.mx .
Mexico’s labor relations system has been widely criticized as skewed to represent the interests of employers and the government at the expense of workers. Mexico’s legal framework governing collective bargaining created the possibility of negotiation and registration of initial collective bargaining agreements without the support or knowledge of the covered workers. These agreements are commonly known as protection contracts and constitute a gap in practice with international labor standards regarding freedom of association. The percentage of the economy covered by collective bargaining agreements is between five and 10 percent, of which more than half are believed to be protection contracts. As of March 7, 2022, 3,267 collective bargaining contracts have been legitimized (reviewed and voted on by the workers covered by them), according to the Secretariat of Labor. The reform requires all collective bargaining agreements to be submitted to a free, fair, and secret vote every two years with the objective of getting existing protectionist contracts voted out. The increasingly permissive political and legal environment for independent unions is already changing the way established unions manage disputes with employers, prompting more authentic collective bargaining. As independent unions compete with corporatist unions to represent worker interests, workers are likely to be further emboldened in demanding higher wages.
The USMCA’s labor chapter (Chapter 23) contains specific commitments on union democracy and labor justice which relate directly to Mexico’s 2019 labor reform and its implementation. In addition, the USMCA’s dispute settlement chapter (Chapter 31) includes a facility-specific labor rapid response mechanism to address labor rights issues and creates the ability to impose facility specific remedies to ensure remediation of such situations.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), government enforcement was reasonably effective in enforcing labor laws in large and medium-sized companies, especially in factories run by U.S. companies and in other industries under federal jurisdiction. Enforcement was inadequate in many small companies and in the agriculture and construction sectors, and it was nearly absent in the informal sector. Workers organizations have made numerous complaints of poor working conditions in maquiladoras and in the agricultural production industry. Low wages, poor labor conditions, long work hours, unjustified dismissals, lack of social security benefits and safety in the workplace, and lack of freedom of association were among the most common complaints.