IMLEB report on labor law reform in Mexico

Published on March 2, 2024

In a March 2023 report to Congress and the Interagency Labor Committee, the Independent Mexico Labor Expert Board, established by Section 731 of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement Implementation Act, examined the state of Mexico’s compliance with the USMCA’s labor reform mandates. Specifically, the Board, which includes labor experts selected by congressional leaders and the Labor Advisory Committee, focuses on the final phase of Mexico’s transition to full reform implementation.

This phase is defined by the process of legitimation that all unions were required to complete by May 1, 2023. During this process, unions were required to hold votes seeking worker approval of their collective bargaining agreements. The policy was set in place to terminate contracts formulated between corporations and protection unions without worker consent. According to the Board, a major shortcoming of this policy is that incumbent unions were authorized to conduct these votes themselves without much oversight from government officials. Furthermore, the unions were allowed to select and pay for their own notaries, who would affirm that a vote was conducted fairly. This has empowered corporations to use violence and intimidation, among other tactics, to force workers to approve their existing contract. 

Despite the implementation of a new system that granted Mexico’s Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare (STPS) and, subsequently, the Federal Center for Conciliation and Labor Registry more powers to ensure vote fairness, the process continues to face scrutiny from the Board which laments that workers are largely responsible for filing complaints. Even assuming that workers know how to file a complaint, the filing process includes a short deadline that diminishes the worker’s ability to create a substantive case. This flawed legitimation system seems to have led to a higher than expected approval rate  for existing agreements. As of March 19, 2023, the day before the report’s publication, 13,659 agreements had been approved while only 211 agreements had been rejected from a grand total of 139,000 agreements. These numbers starkly contrast to initial estimates that had projected that 80 to 85 percent of existing agreements would not be legitimate.

The Rapid Response Labor Mechanism (RRLM) is a tool that allows officials and unions from all three signing members of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement to file a complaint against a facility which they suspect of violating their workers’ rights to free association and collective bargaining. The Board has found the mechanism to be effective in its ability to protect labor rights and even help workers obtain better benefits. However, workers trying to access the RRLM are plagued by similar issues found in the legitimation process. On top of facing threats of violence, workers and union representatives must work tirelessly alongside activists, lawyers, advisors, and government officials to gather evidence and file their case under the RRLM’s parameters. This had led to a low number of cases actually being filed. According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Labor, only 17 requests have been successfully filed under the RRLM as of November 20, 2023. 

To conclude their report, the Board states that, while they cannot make the determination that Mexico is not compliant with the USMCA, they are concerned that the translation to full implementation will end with a significant number of existing collective bargaining agreements still in place. This would signify that Mexico’s newly reformed labor system would have failed to provide Mexican workers with new legitimate contracts. To help facilitate the transition to full implementation and address the issues cited in the report, the Board includes a selection of recommendations directed at the recipients of their report, Congress and the Interagency Labor Committee (ILC). One recommendation states that Congress and the ILC should insist that Mexico further reform the legitimation process so that votes are only administered and monitored by government officials from the Federal Center and STPS. The Board adds that Mexican labor officials should consider scheduling votes based on economic sectors and even setting clear penalties for companies that interfere with votes. 

The Board also proposes that Mexico should consider increasing staffing at the Federal Center. This includes hiring labor inspectors and notaries that will monitor votes and credibly verify that they were run fairly. To fund these new hires, the Board recommends that the U.S. government provide Mexico with money from the Inter-American Development Bank. These inspectors would potentially help workers by speeding up the rate in which complaints are reviewed and investigated. Additionally, it will remove the burden placed on workers to file their own complaints. Furthermore, the Board recommends that workers should be given access to documents that clearly state their rights, the parameters of their collective bargaining agreement, and vital union information. This information would definitely work as they try to build a case under the RRLM.

Ultimately, the Independent Mexico Labor Expert Board’s most recent report into Mexico’s compliance with the USMCA finds a newly reformed labor  system that has improved access to labor rights, but continues to be plagued by problems. Congress and the Interagency Labor Committee must take action to ensure that the Mexican government is able to live up to its labor reform commitments. Without such support, there is a real possibility that Mexican workers will be stuck under the control of their existing collective bargaining agreements.

By Jesus Sanchez