a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions, to bargain collectively, and to strike in both the public and private sectors; however, conflicting law, regulations, and practice restricted these rights.
The law requires a minimum of 20 workers to form a union. To receive government recognition, unions must file for registration with the appropriate conciliation and arbitration board (CAB) or the Ministry 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 ministry. CABs operated 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 due to the prevalence of representatives from “protection” unions on the boards. Protection unions and “protection contracts”–collective bargaining agreements signed by employers and these unions to circumvent meaningful negotiations and preclude labor disputes–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, however, a union must file a “notice to strike” with the appropriate CAB, which may find that the strike is “nonexistent” or, in other words, it may not proceed legally. 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 unfairly and the worker requests reinstatement; however, the law also provides for broad exemptions for employers from such reinstatement, including employees of confidence or 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 and strikes, undermined worker efforts to exercise freely their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
February 2017 labor justice revisions to the constitution replace the CABs with independent judicial bodies, which are intended to streamline the labor justice process, but require implementing legislation to reform federal labor law. Under the terms of the constitutional reform, CABs would continue to administer new and pending labor disputes until the judicial bodies are operational.
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.
Workers exercised their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining with difficulty. The process for registration of unions was politicized, and according to union organizers, the government, including the CABs, frequently used the process to reward political allies or punish political opponents. For example, the government rejected registration applications for locals of independent unions, and for unions, based on technicalities.
In September the Senate ratified the 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. Ratification also contributes, according to the independent unions, 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.
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 intimidating and manipulative practices were common, including dismissal of workers for labor activism. For example, a garment factory in Morelos failed to halt workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence and instead fired the whistleblowers who reported the problem to management.