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. On May 1, President Lopez Obrador signed a labor reform law aimed at ensuring workers may freely and independently elect union representatives and approve or reject collective bargaining agreements before they are implemented. Revisions to the constitution in 2017 envisioned independent labor courts to replace the system of conciliation and arbitration boards (CABs) and streamline the judicial process for labor disputes. The labor reforms passed during the year provide the implementing legislation for this new labor justice system and establish a four-year timeline for transfer. The government demonstrated its prioritization of labor reform through its commitment of budgetary resources and its regular issuance of implementing regulations to bring the new laws into force.
The government announced it would implement the labor reforms in a phased manner, beginning at the federal level and in 10 states in October 2020. In August unions began registering updated bylaws with the Secretariat of Labor and Social Protection and holding leadership elections under the terms of the labor reform. The registration process was scheduled to conclude in May 2020. The secretariat also began the process of having workers review and vote on the collective bargaining agreements under which they work following the procedures for free and fair elections under the new labor reform.
In September 2018 the Senate ratified International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 98 on collective bargaining. By ratifying the convention, the government subjects itself to the convention’s oversight and reporting procedures. According to the independent unions, ratification also contributes to ensuring the institutions established as a result of the labor justice reform are, in law and practice, independent, transparent, objective, and impartial, with workers having recourse to the ILO’s oversight bodies to complain of any failure.
Federal labor law requires a minimum of 20 workers to form a union. To receive government recognition, unions must file for registration with the appropriate CAB or the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare. For the union to be able to function legally, its leadership must also register with the appropriate CAB or the secretariat. CABs operate under a tripartite system with government, worker, and employer representatives. Outside observers raised concerns that the boards did not adequately provide for inclusive worker representation and often perpetuated a bias against independent unions, in part because worker representation on the CABs was based on majority representation, which is held by “protection” unions. Protection unions and “protection contracts” were common in all sectors.
By law a union may call for a strike or bargain collectively in accordance with its own bylaws. Before a strike may be considered legal, a union must file a “notice to strike” with the appropriate CAB, 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, including the CABs, did not consistently protect worker rights. 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. The CABs’ frequent failure to impartially and transparently administer and oversee procedures related to union activity, such as union elections, registrations and strikes, undermined worker efforts to exercise freely their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. For example, the government rejected registration applications for locals of independent unions, and for unions, based on technicalities.
Penalties for violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining laws were rarely applied and were insufficient to deter violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.
According to several NGOs and unions, many workers faced violence and intimidation around bargaining-rights elections 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. 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. 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.
Other intimidation and manipulative practices were common, including dismissal of workers for labor activism. For example, 57 workers at a Goodyear factory in San Luis Potosi alleged they were fired after striking in April 2018 to demand better working conditions, wages, and authentic union representation. The workers claimed that because of their independent strike, a corporatist union had blackballed them from working in other factories.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The constitution and the 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 sufficient to deter violations, very few cases reached the court system or were successfully prosecuted.
Forced labor persisted in the industrial and agricultural sectors, especially in the production of chili peppers and tomatoes, as well as in the informal sector. Women and children were subject to domestic servitude. Women, children, indigenous persons, and migrants (including men, women, and children) were the most vulnerable to forced labor. In July 2018 authorities identified 50 forced agricultural workers on three commercial tomato farms in Coahuila. Authorities in Coahuila freed an additional 25 forced agricultural workers–including nine children–from a chili pepper and tomato farm in August 2018. In both cases the victims reportedly lived in unsanitary conditions, worked excessive hours under the threat of dismissal, and received subminimum wage payments or no payment at all.
Day laborers and their children were the primary victims of forced and child labor in the agricultural sector. In 2016 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. Only 3 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. In July authorities in Chihuahua rescued 21 men who had been kidnapped and forced to grow marijuana and poppies, allegedly by the Sinaloa Cartel. Migrants were also recruited by criminal organizations to conduct illicit activities.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The constitution and the law prohibit children younger than age 15 from working and allows 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.
The government was reasonably effective in enforcing child labor laws 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 and in agriculture and construction, and nearly absent in the informal sector, in which most child laborers worked. In January the newspaper El Universal reported as many as 400 children were working on tomato and chili pepper farms near Coahuayana, Michoacan, receiving little education and earning very low wages.
Underage children in urban areas throughout the country earned money by begging, washing windshields, selling small items, or performing in public places for gratuities. In April authorities in Sinaloa announced they had identified 312 children who had been working in the streets of various cities. In the same month, two children from Chiapas were identified in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, while begging in the streets dressed as clowns. Authorities found the children had no relatives in the area and were possibly victims of human trafficking. In October 2018 authorities identified 63 persons, including 56 children, who had been forced to work in the streets of Oaxaca, and arrested 11 individuals on charges of human trafficking.
At the federal level, the Secretariat of Social Development, Attorney General’s Office, and National System for Integral Family Development share responsibility for inspections to enforce child labor laws and to intervene in cases in which employers violated such laws. The Secretariat of Labor is responsible for carrying out child labor inspections. Penalties for violations were not sufficiently enforced to deter violations.
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 laws, such as performing hazardous work. Child labor was most common in the agricultural sector; children worked in the harvest of beans, chili peppers, coffee, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, onions, tobacco, and tomatoes, as well as in the production of illicit crops such as opium poppies. Other sectors with significant child labor included services, retail sales, manufacturing, and construction.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution and the law prohibit discrimination with respect to employment or occupation. The federal labor law specifically proscribes discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, handicap (or challenged capacity), social status, health, religion, immigration status, political opinion, sexual preference, marital status, or pregnancy. The government did not effectively enforce the law or regulations. According to a 2017 INEGI survey, 12 percent of women had been 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 6 percent experienced sexual violence.
Penalties for violations of the law included administrative remedies, such as reinstatement, payment of back wages, and fines (often calculated based on the employee’s wages), and were not generally considered sufficient to deter violations. Discrimination in employment or occupation occurred against women, indigenous groups, persons with disabilities, LGBTI individuals, and migrant workers.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The tripartite National Minimum Wage Commission is responsible for establishing minimum salaries. In December 2018 it unanimously approved the largest general minimum wage increase (16 percent) in 23 years and a doubling of the minimum wage in the economic zone along the border with the United States. Wages had stagnated since 1994, with the country’s minimum wage declining almost 20 percent in real terms. Despite the minimum wage increase, the real general minimum wage fell once again below the official poverty line. Nonetheless, most formal-sector workers received between one and three times the minimum wage. The minimum wage increase set off major strikes by unionized workers in Matamoros, who demanded employers honor contractual employment clauses unique to the city requiring all wages to go up by a factor of any minimum wage increase. According to reports, manufacturing executives in the northern border region colluded with one another to keep wages artificially low. As a result of the strikes in Matamoros, most of the manufacturing plants agreed to worker demands, a general wage increase of 20 percent and a bonus of 32,000 pesos ($1,600).
The federal labor 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 regulations, issued jointly by the Secretariat of Labor and the 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 Secretariat of Labor is responsible for enforcing labor laws and inspecting workplaces. Neither the number of labor inspections nor the penalties for violations of labor law were sufficient to secure compliance with labor law. A chemical spill on July 9 by the mining company Grupo Mexico called widespread public attention to that company’s long record of safety and environmental violations, leading President Lopez Obrador to call for talks with union leaders and Grupo Mexico’s ownership to resolve the miners’ grievances. Through its DECLARALAB self-evaluation tool, the secretariat provided technical assistance to almost 4,000 registered workplaces to help them meet occupational safety and health regulations.
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 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 informally, using subcontracting regimes or by submitting falsified payroll records to the Mexican Social Security Institute. INEGI estimated 57 percent of the workforce was engaged in the informal economy during the year. Of the 30 million informal workers, approximately one-quarter (7.6 million) were employed by formal businesses or organizations, often 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 that employers in export-oriented supply chains were increasingly using 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 labor law and restricted worker’s 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, limiting their ability to seek redress of labor grievances.
Citizens hoping to secure 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 Secretariat of Labor, there is no enforcement mechanism, and only a handful of recruiters complied. During the year the secretariat’s National Employment Service began reviewing ways to enforce the foreign recruitment registration law.
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 pay them 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 childcare, many workers brought their children to work in the fields. Due to alleged corruption and opacity, in January the federal government eliminated the Program of Care for Agricultural Day Labors, which was intended to reduce the vulnerability of agricultural migrant workers.
News reports indicated there were 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. Most maquiladoras hired employees through outsourcing with few benefits.
In April the Senate unanimously approved legislation intended to improve working conditions for the 2.4 million domestic workers, 90 percent of whom were women, by making it possible for 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 2018 there were 201,310 workplace accidents, resulting in 303 deaths. In June an accident involving an industrial press in Nuevo Leon caused the partial amputation of four workers’ arms. In August an accident at a silver and gold mine in Oaxaca killed a contractor who was operating heavy machinery.