Mexico’s labor law reform sparks massive protests
October 18, 2012
As the Mexican Senate tried to convene last week, unionists, youth protesters from the #YoSoy132 movement and social activists of every stripe blocked the chamber’s doors, trying to prevent legislators from meeting to consider the reforma laboral. On October 2, tens of thousands marched from the Tlatelolco (Plaza of Three Cultures), where hundreds of students were shot down by Mexican Army troops on the same date in 1968, to the Zocalo at the city center. Reverberating chants signaled an equally massive rejection of this deeply unpopular proposal.
The Mexican Senate has begun its 30-day consideration of a proposed reform of the country’s labor laws. Its provisions will have a profound effect on Mexico’s workers, changing the way they are hired, their rights at work, and their wages. Benedicto Martinez Orozco, co-president of one of the country’s most democratic unions, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), calls it “a monstrous law.”
The basic thrust of the reforma laboral is greater flexibility for employers. It would replace pay per day with pay by the hour. At Mexico’s current minimum wage of about 60 pesos per day, this would produce an hourly wage of 7.5 pesos, less than 60 cents. Employers would gain the legal right to hire workers indirectly through labor contractors. If workers are fired for protesting or organizing against the new regime, or for any other illegitimate reason, employers’ liability for back pay would end after a year.
In the ears of U.S. workers, the wages may sound low, but the kind of flexibility the reform envisions has been the norm in workplaces north of the border for decades. Not so in Mexico, however. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, and then in the radical upsurge that followed in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Mexican workers won a broad set of rights and protections. On paper, the rights of Mexican workers are far more extensive than those of their U.S. counterparts.
In the Federal Labor Law, which the reform would amend, the workday was officially set at 8 hours, and workers could only be hired by the day, not by the hour. Minimum wages were set as well. Employers had to give workers permanent employment status quickly, and hiring through contractors was prohibited. If workers were fired unjustly, they could collect back pay for the time they were out of work. If they were laid off, their employer had to pay severance based on their length of service. Companies had to declare their profits, and share them according to a set schedule.
Employers have never liked these laws, but the political offensive to change them grew much stronger as Mexico opened its economy to foreign investors. Over time those rights were eroded in fact, if not yet in law. As the maquiladora factories on the U.S./Mexico border grew to employ 2 million workers (before the current recession), the actual conditions of employment changed, despite what the law said. Workdays extended well past eight hours. Workers were routinely cheated out of profit sharing. When they tried to organize independent unions, their legal right to bargain and strike was violated with impunity by employers, the government and unions connected to Mexico’s old ruling party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party).