Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The government continued its efforts to strengthen freedom of association protections, promote union democracy, and improve the ability of workers to bargain collectively. In May 2019 President Lopez Obrador signed into law the most comprehensive labor law reforms in more than 100 years. The reforms provide the right for workers freely and independently to elect union representatives and approve or reject collective bargaining agreements before they are registered. The reforms ban the registration of collective bargaining agreements known as “protection contracts,” which were often negotiated and signed without the knowledge of workers and undermined genuine collective bargaining. The reform calls for the creation of independent labor courts to replace the system of Conciliation and Arbitration Boards (CABs) that favor corporatist unions in the resolution of disputes and facilitated the registration of protection contracts. In addition to a more impartial and streamlined judicial process for labor disputes, the reform transfers the registration of unions and collective bargaining agreements from the CABs to an independent Federal Conciliation and Labor Registration Center. The Federal Center also is to carry out conciliation functions at the federal level, and local conciliation centers are to do so at the state level. The reform establishes a four-year timeline for implementation designed to end May 1, 2023. The government demonstrated its prioritization of labor reform through its commitment of budgetary resources, establishment of a rigorous internal implementation schedule, and regular issuance of implementing regulations to bring the new law into force.
The government announced it would implement the labor reforms in a phased manner, with the new entities scheduled to be fully operational in the first eight states by November 18. Phase two is scheduled to be completed by October 1, 2021, with 13 states, and phase three is to be concluded on May 1, 2022, for the remaining states. Unions began amending their statutes in August 2019 to require secret ballot elections to approve collective bargaining agreements and union leaders, as mandated under the reform. As of April, 12 percent of active unions under local jurisdiction had registered their amended statutes with the CABs, compared with 85 percent of unions with active federal registrations with the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare (STPS). Responsibility for registration of the amendments shifted to the Federal Conciliation and Labor Registration Center when it began operations on November 18. The deadline for unions to amend and register their statutes, originally set to expire in May, was suspended due to COVID-19. Once the STPS and CABs resume their registration function, unions were expected to have up to 45 days to amend their statutes.
The STPS also began the four-year process of having workers review and vote on existing collective bargaining agreements, following the procedures for free and fair elections in the new labor reform. Under the reform the Federal Center must verify these votes; however, the STPS is scheduled to carry out this function until May 2021, when the Federal Center is scheduled to begin verification operations. According to the STPS, there were almost 532,500 registered workers and more than 200,000 collective bargaining agreements in the country, although many of the latter were not active and would not undergo an approval process by workers. As of June workers had reviewed and voted on 168 collective bargaining agreements with the STPS. The secretariat worked to develop more robust complaint mechanisms due to allegations of unfair labor practices during the voting process.
Federal labor law requires a minimum of 20 workers to form a union. To receive government recognition, unions and their leaders must file for registration with the Federal Center. The Federal Center and the new federal labor courts are designed to handle all matters related to collective bargaining agreements. In the 24 states not in phase one of labor reform implementation, individual labor cases are expected to be handled by the CABs until their states transition to the new system. The CABs operate under a tripartite system with government, worker, and employer representatives. Outside observers continued to raise concerns that the boards did not adequately provide for inclusive worker representation and often perpetuated a bias against independent unions. Worker representation on the CABs was based on majority representation, which is held by entrenched or “protection” unions, nondemocratic unions that sign “protection” contracts with complicit employers to secure low wages for workers without their knowledge. “Protection” contracts made up the vast majority of all labor contracts.
By law a union may call for a strike or bargain collectively in accordance with its own statutes. Under the labor reform, to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, the union must first obtain a certificate of representativeness from the Federal Center demonstrating it has support from at least 30 percent of workers to be covered by the agreement. Before a strike may take place, a union must file a “notice to strike” with the appropriate CAB, or the appropriate labor court once they are operational. Workers, the employer, or an interested third party may request the CAB or court to rule on the legality of the strike, which may find the strike is “nonexistent” and therefore illegal. The law prohibits employers from intervening in union affairs or interfering with union activities, including through implicit or explicit reprisals against workers. The law allows for reinstatement of workers if the CAB finds the employer fired the worker without just cause and the worker requests reinstatement; however, the law also exempts broad categories of employees from this protection, including so-called employees of confidence and workers who have been in the job for less than a year.
The government’s common failure to enforce labor and other laws left workers with little recourse for violations of freedom of association, poor working conditions, and other labor problems in states that had not yet implemented the new labor justice aspects of the reform. The CABs’ frequent failures to administer and oversee procedures related to union activity impartially and transparently, such as union elections, registrations, and strikes, undermined worker efforts to exercise freely their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. This responsibility shifted to the Federal Center and the labor courts in November for the eight states in phase one.
Administrative penalties established under pre-2017 law for violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining were commensurate with those for other similar laws but were rarely enforced and subject to lengthy delays and appeals. The new labor courts began taking over these cases in the first part of a phased rollout in parts of the country in November.
According to several NGOs and unions, many workers faced violence and intimidation perpetrated by protection union leaders and employers supporting them, as well as other workers, union leaders, and vigilantes hired by a company to enforce a preference for a particular union in bargaining-rights elections. Some employers attempted to influence bargaining-rights elections through the illegal hiring of pseudo employees immediately prior to the election to vote for the company-controlled union. The CABs were widely alleged to administer these elections with a bias against new, independent unions, resulting in delays and other procedural obstacles that impacted the results and undermined workers’ right to organize. The labor reform is intended to address these matters.
Strikes regarding the integrity of union elections continued following the implementation of the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement in July. After a nine-month work stoppage in which workers at the San Rafael Mine in Cosala, Sinaloa, demanded health and safety improvements and an election to replace the company-supported union, a vote was scheduled for September. The Canadian company accused Los Mineros, the worker-preferred union, of extortion and threatened to terminate the union’s investment in the mine. Workers in the strike called on the government to guarantee the integrity of the union election. Los Mineros won the vote in September, but the company rejected the results, and the closure of the mine continued.
In February workers at a General Motors factory in Guanajuato accused union leaders of being illegitimate and factory management of intimidation tactics, violations of worker rights, and unjustified layoffs, in reprisal for the workers’ opposition to a collective bargaining agreement. Union leaders signed the collective bargaining agreement without the consent of the majority of the workers, according to press reports. Labor stakeholders in the country and the United States also raised concern about the arrest of and charges filed against labor activist Susana Prieto, allegedly in retaliation for her advocacy on behalf of maquiladora workers in Matamoros and Ciudad Juarez. In addition workers dismissed in 2018 for alleged union activism at the Goodyear plant in San Luis Potosi continued to seek reinstatement.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The constitution and law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. While penalties for conviction of forced labor were commensurate with those for similar crimes, very few cases were successfully prosecuted. More than 36 percent of labor inspectorates in prevention and detection of trafficking in persons in agriculture did not report cases, and more than half of labor authorities did not train inspectors in trafficking in persons.
Forced labor persisted in the domestic service, child care, manufacturing, mining, food processing, construction, tourism, begging, street vending, leather goods production, and agriculture sectors, especially in the production of chili peppers and tomatoes. Women and children were subjected to domestic servitude. Women, children, indigenous persons, persons with disabilities, LGBTI persons, and migrants (including men, women, and children) were the most vulnerable to forced labor (see section 7.c.).
Day laborers and their children were the primary victims of forced and child labor in the agricultural sector. In 2016, the most recent data available, the government’s federal statistics agency (INEGI) reported 44 percent of persons working in agriculture were day laborers. Of the day laborers, 33 percent received no financial compensation for their work. Three percent of agricultural day laborers had a formal written contract.
Indigenous persons in isolated regions reported incidents of forced labor, in which cartel members forced them to perform illicit activities or face death. Minors were recruited or forced by cartels to traffic persons, drugs, or other goods across the border. Migrants were also recruited by criminal organizations to conduct illicit activities.
Criminal groups became increasingly involved in the illegal timber trade in Chihuahua, which accounted for 70 percent of the wood consumed in the country. Drug traffickers involved in illegal logging recruited and kidnapped indigenous persons and children in isolated or displaced communities, withheld wages, forced them to conduct illicit activities, and often threatened death if they tried to leave.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The constitution and law prohibit children younger than age 15 from working and allow those ages 15 to 17 to work no more than six daytime hours in nonhazardous conditions daily, and only with parental permission and permission from the labor authority. The law requires children younger than 18 to complete compulsory basic education and to have a medical certificate to work. The minimum age for hazardous work, including all work in the agricultural sector, is 18. The law prohibits minors from working in a broad list of hazardous and unhealthy occupations.
At the federal level, the Secretariat of Social Development, Prosecutor General’s Office, and National System for Integral Family Development share responsibility for inspections to enforce child labor law and to intervene in cases in which employers violate such laws. The STPS is responsible for carrying out child labor inspections and refers cases of child labor to the Prosecutor General’s Office for sanctions. Penalties were commensurate with other similar laws but rarely enforced.
During 2019 the government obtained convictions in 12 cases of child trafficking, established a Commission for the Protection of Migrant Children, and drafted the Plan of Action to Combat Child Labor 2019-24. The government was reasonably effective in enforcing child labor law in large and medium-sized companies, especially in the export-oriented factory (maquiladora) sector and other industries under federal jurisdiction.
Enforcement was inadequate in many small companies, agriculture, and construction, and nearly absent in the informal sector, in which most child laborers worked. Because nearly 60 percent of employment occurred in the informal sector, inspectors could not adequately investigate and deter child labor. Inspectors generally were permitted to examine the informal sector only in response to complaints. Social programs did not address all sectors of child labor. Children performed dangerous tasks in agriculture in the production of beans, coffee, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, onions, and tobacco, and forced child labor was present in the production of chili peppers and tomatoes. Children also produced garments, leather goods, and illicit crops, such as opium poppies, and engaged in illicit activities, such as the production and trafficking of drugs, and sexual exploitation, often as a result of human trafficking.
Underage children in urban areas throughout the country earned money by begging, washing windshields, selling small items, or performing in public places. In April 2019 authorities in Sinaloa announced they had identified 312 children who had worked in the streets of various cities. Authorities found the children had no relatives in the area and were possibly victims of human trafficking.
According to a 2017 INEGI survey, the number of employed children ages five to 17 was 3.2 million, or approximately 11 percent of children in the country. This represented a decrease from 12.4 percent of children in the 2015 INEGI survey. Of these children, 7.1 percent were younger than the minimum age of work or worked under conditions that violated federal labor law, such as performing hazardous work.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution and law prohibit discrimination with respect to employment or occupation. Federal law specifically proscribes discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, disability, social status, health, religion, immigration status, political opinion, sexual preference, marital status, or pregnancy. The government did not effectively enforce the law or regulations. A 2019 reform law allows all discrimination cases, including sexual harassment, to bypass formerly mandatory conciliation and proceed directly to the labor courts.
Penalties for violations of the law were commensurate with those for other similar laws. Discrimination in employment or occupation occurred against women, indigenous groups, persons with disabilities, LGBTI individuals, and migrant workers. According to a 2017 INEGI survey, 12 percent of women were illegally asked to take a pregnancy test as a prerequisite to being hired. Job announcements specifying desired gender, age, marital status, and parental status were common. INEGI reported in 2017 that 23 percent of working women experienced violence in the workplace within the past 12 months and that 6 percent experienced sexual violence. The CNDH reported, however, 1 percent of cases resulted in a sanction for the perpetrator.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The tripartite National Minimum Wage Commission is responsible for establishing minimum salaries. In January the government raised the minimum wage. The new wage applied to all sectors and allowed an earner to reach or exceed the poverty line. Most formal-sector workers received between one and three times the minimum wage.
Federal law sets six eight-hour days and 48 hours per week as the legal workweek. Any work in excess of eight hours in a day is considered overtime, for which a worker is to receive double pay. After accumulating nine hours of overtime in a week, a worker earns triple the hourly wage. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. The law provides for eight paid public holidays and one week of paid annual leave after completing one year of work. The law requires employers to observe occupational safety and health (OSH) regulations, issued jointly by the STPS and Institute for Social Security. Legally mandated joint management and labor committees set standards and are responsible for overseeing workplace standards in plants and offices. Individual employees or unions may complain directly to inspectors or safety and health officials. By law workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The STPS has the authority to order labor inspections at any time in the event of labor law violations, imminent risk to employees, or workplace accidents. The number of labor inspections was not sufficient to secure compliance. Sixty percent of labor authorities at the state level had fewer than 10 inspectors. Criminal cases related to such violations were rarely carried out. Penalties for law violations regarding OSH, hours, and minimum wage were commensurate with those for other similar laws but were rarely enforced.
According to labor rights NGOs, employers in all sectors sometimes used the illegal “hours bank” approach–requiring long hours when the workload is heavy and cutting down hours when it is light–to avoid compensating workers for overtime. This was a common practice in the maquiladora sector, in which employers forced workers to take leave at low moments in the production cycle and obliged them to work in peak seasons, including the Christmas holiday period, without the corresponding triple pay mandated by law for voluntary overtime on national holidays. Additionally, many companies evaded taxes and social security payments by employing workers through subcontracting regimes or by submitting falsified payroll records to the Mexican Social Security Institute. From September 2019 to June, federal labor inspectors carried out targeted inspections at 4,709 workplaces suspected of unlawful subcontracting practices and initiated sanction proceedings in 1,200 cases. As of October, INEGI estimated 56 percent of the workforce was engaged in the informal economy, which was an increase from May, when COVID-19 forced many persons into informal labor situations. Approximately one quarter (7.6 million persons) were employed by formal businesses or organizations but paid in cash off the books to evade taxes and social security payments.
Observers from grassroots labor rights groups, international NGOs, and multinational apparel brands reported employers in export-oriented supply chains increasingly used hiring methods that lessened job security. For example, manufacturers commonly hired workers on one- to three-month contracts, and then waited a period of days before rehiring them on another short-term contract, to avoid paying severance and to prevent workers from accruing seniority. This practice violated federal law and restricted workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Observers noted it also increased the likelihood of work-related illness and injury. Outsourcing practices made it difficult for workers to identify their legally registered employer, thus limiting their ability to seek redress of labor grievances.
Citizens hoping to obtain temporary, legal employment in the United States and other countries frequently paid recruiters hundreds or thousands of dollars in prohibited fees to secure jobs, and many prospective workers were promised jobs that did not exist. Allegations of abusive and fraudulent recruitment practices rarely were investigated. Although the law requires entities recruiting for overseas employment to register with the STPS, there is no enforcement mechanism, and only a handful of recruiters complied.
The situation of agricultural workers remained particularly precarious, with similar patterns of exploitation throughout the sector. Labor recruiters enticed families to work during harvests with verbal promises of decent wages and a good standard of living. Rather than receiving daily wages once a week, as mandated by law, day laborers had to meet certain harvest quotas to receive the promised wage. Wages may be illegally withheld until the end of the harvest to ensure the workers do not leave, and civil society organizations alleged workers were prohibited from leaving by threats of violence or by nonpayment of wages. Workers had to buy food and other items at the company store at high markups, at times leaving them with no money at the end of the harvest after settling debts. Civil society groups reported families living in inhuman conditions, with inadequate and cramped housing, no access to clean water or bathrooms, insufficient food, and without medical care. With no access to schools or child care, many workers took their children to work in the fields.
On August 7, indigenous agricultural workers accused agribusiness Empacadora Xipehua in Guanajuato of not paying workers their wages for six weeks, according to press reports.
News reports indicated poor working conditions in some maquiladoras. These included low wages, contentious labor management, long work hours, unjustified dismissals, a lack of social security benefits, unsafe workplaces, and no freedom of association. Many women working in the industry reported suffering some form of abuse.
In April 2019 the Senate unanimously approved legislation requiring paid vacation and annual bonuses for the 2.4 million domestic workers, 90 percent of whom were women. The law permits them to enroll in social security, thereby gaining access to benefits such as medical services, child care, and maternity leave.
According to data from the Mexican Social Security Institute, in 2019 there were approximately 200,500 workplace accidents, resulting in 285 deaths.
During the year hundreds of thousands of workers continued to work in foreign-owned factories, mainly in northern border states, producing electronics, medical equipment, and auto parts. Several outbreaks of COVID-19 resulted in multiple deaths. Some companies reportedly did not implement effective protective measures for employees, and one factory, owned by Eaton Corporation in Baja California, was operating illegally and was closed after it placed chains on its doors to prevent 800 workers from leaving.