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Mexico: Workers’ Rights at Risk Under Fox Plan

Mexican President Vicente Fox’s proposed labor reform package would deal a serious blow to workers’ human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Workers in Mexico already face unacceptable obstacles to exercising their rights to join independent unions, bargain collectively, and strike,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “President Fox’s reforms would make it next to impossible.”

The Fox administration’s proposal would create new mandatory procedures that workers must fulfill prior to exercising these fundamental human rights.

Before they could strike, compel their employers to bargain collectively, or call a vote to gain representational rights and supplant a pre-existing union, workers would have to obtain a variety of documents certifying union registration. But these papers are only available from authorities typically hostile to independent unions.

Official union registration documents can, in most cases, only be obtained from the Labor Ministry in federal matters and local Boards of Conciliation and Arbitration in local ones. Both the federal government and the Boards, however, are notoriously unsympathetic to independent unions and unlikely to readily turn over the needed papers.

The Boards are tripartite bodies, with business and government officials and labor representatives generally hailing from pro-government, pro-business unions that negotiate collective agreements or “protection contracts” generally without the consent, or even the knowledge, of the majority of workers.

“This is like requiring that a defendant give a plaintiff permission before his case goes forward,” said Vivanco. “It makes a mockery of workers’ rights to freedom of association and their ability to defend their interests.”

Furthermore, prior to striking or holding a vote for an independent union, workers would also have to present to the Board a document, containing their names and signatures, expressing their desire to exercise these rights.

But widespread retaliation against independent union members in Mexico makes workers reluctant to publicly declare their wish to join an independent union or to strike. Exclusion clauses in “protection contracts” that give pro-business unions the right to demand that certain workers be fired only exacerbate this climate of fear. These clauses are regularly cited to successfully call for the illegal dismissal of independent union sympathizers.

The reform would also impede workers’ rights to freedom of association by requiring authorities to process only one request to unseat a pre-existing union at a time. Thus, at the first sign of independent union activity, an employer could collude with a non-independent union to submit a bogus application to prevent a vote with an independent union challenger. Each request can take years to process, all but eliminating the chance of a legitimate union election.

President Fox is scheduled to unveil a National Human Rights Program on Friday, December 10. The Program provides a comprehensive agenda for addressing a wide range of human rights issues, including workers’ right to freedom of association.

“It is remarkable that President Fox is seeking to undermine his new human rights agenda by promoting a major assault on the basic rights of Mexican workers,” said Vivanco.

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