As many as 10,000 people assembled on the Zocalo, the main square of Mexico City last Wednesday to celebrate another anniversary of the Chicago Haymarket Rebellion that ushered in the labor movement at the turn of the century. This year’s May Day in Mexico came after a sweeping reform in its Federal Labor Law enacted this past December. Unions participating mostly protested the reforms, which they call a threat to the future of their jobs and wages.
National and local unions representing teachers, electricians, truck drivers and other industries made up the bulk of the people flooding the plaza on May Day. Aside from large numbers of supporters and activists, the demonstrators were accompanied by a police presence of 5,150 units and 250 police vehicles, with surveillance helicopters flying above. The city government closed off access to traffic and pedestrians, suspended subway service, and cordoned off some historical monuments. A press release issued the day before by city police announced that these operatives were intended to “keep public order and prevent vandalism, seize any contraband and to regulate the flow of traffic and parking.”
“There’s no reason to celebrate!” Gustavo Ortega Bravo, Secretary of Political Affairs for the Alliance of Rail Workers of Mexico, stated in his speech–a phrase repeated often that day from the many of the speakers addressing the crowd. Later Bravo told Americas Updater that the labor reforms erode workers’ rights, likening the reform to the authoritarian policies of Mexico’s autocratic dictator at the turn of the century.
“The labor reform takes away job security,” Bravo said. “We are returning to the Porfirio Diaz era.”
The contested labor reform establishes a new legal framework for what could be a complete overhaul of the Mexican labor law. While it has expanded the definition of discrimination and now allows for more flexible maternity leave including for adoptions, the reforms set a legal framework for new labor practices which could, many fear, pave the way for longer hours at less pay. Although it still protects the 8 hour day for permanent work contracts, the reformed labor law now sanctions other kinds of labor relationships such as subcontracting, trial periods, training, temp work, and event work.
For Raul Romero Trejo, associate of the Labor and Social Security Law practice at Capín, Calderón, Ramirez y Guitérriez-Azpe, S.C., an international law firm in Mexico City, the labor reform is a harbinger of progress, with the potential of attracting more foreign investment to Mexico. “It was about time the labor law was reformed, as it has been unchanged since 1980,” Trejo said. He insists that the expansion of the labor reform to include other types of work relationships provides better protection against fraud and more stringent mechanisms for controlling labor violations. Trejo did not hesitate to point out how the new labor law adds more benefits for employers. “It provides alternatives like subcontracting without having to pay settlements for letting workers go,” he said.
He added his belief that employers can be held more accountable under the reforms, noting that “They’ve increased fines for non-compliance with labor law.”
Benedicto Martinez, Vice President of the National Union of Workers (UNT by its Spanish acronym), expressed an opposing view on the new subcontracting policies in an interview preceding the May Day events.
“The labor law reform cheapens the hiring and firing process,” Martinez said. He fears that employers will fire people more easily now and hire new staff under the new “trial period” or “casual work” contract terms so as not to pay the benefits and rights of permanent workers.
“Legalizing subcontract work does not solve the problem,” Martinez affirmed. He said that such workers are not unionized, and hiring more would decrease the number of organized employees. “The reform does not change the fact that whenever inspectors would come, the workers would be afraid of losing their jobs if they disclose their real status as subcontracted employees. This will foment fraud and social security evasions on the part of employers.” The union leader was referring to the common practice in Mexico of employers using subcontractors to hide employees on their rolls to avoid paying taxes.
Trejo agrees that the new labor law may be weak in preventing social security tax evasions.
“The law does attempt to combat fraud but it did not live up to our expectations. [The labor law] is neither clear nor precise,” he said.
Another point that both Trejo and Martinez agree on despite their differences is that the provisions added to protect both employers and employees against bullying and sexual harassment at the workplace do not have teeth. Trejo attributed the lack of enforceability of the anti-harassment clauses to differences between federal and state penal codes, while, according to Martinez, the anti-harassment provisions are only based on denunciation and therefore fail to address situations when employees might be afraid to speak out against employers who harass them because they don’t want to risk prolonged unemployment until a potentially lengthy proceeding is resolved.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist Jose Antonio Lugo, age 29, who attended the morning May Day rally, said he came because of the discrimination in the workplace.
“The LGBT community is confronted with oppression in the work environment because we are excluded. We cannot say we are gay at work, or we will be disregarded,” Lugo said. He added that if LGBT members are openly gay, lesbian, bi, or transgendered at work, they often face demotions.
“We are even fired sometimes. Just because we have a different sexual preference,” he said.
In Mexico City, the daily minimum wage is now $64.76 pesos per day, or $8 pesos (US $0.70) per hour. Consumer goods, which include basic groceries and basic household utilities, as a conservative estimate, can run over $140 pesos per day for a family of four (about US $11 per day), or more than twice the Mexico City minimum wage.
“It’s we workers who have to suffer the higher cost of living, the higher prices. It is unsustainable,” Bravo said, “Because of the high prices in gas, in electricity, and the steady increase in the cost of basic consumer goods.”
Martinez, who says he has read the new labor law from beginning to end, states, “There is nothing in the new law to guarantee a higher minimum wage and an improvement in standard of living in Mexico,” Martinez said.
The May Day speeches indicated a deeper problem than just the complicated terms of the new labor reform. Mexicans from many walks of life expressed uncertainty about basic issues including unemployment, job security, insufficient wages, and Mexico’s future.
Bravo expressed his view that low wages and job insecurity in Mexico are leading to increased social disintegration, even to the detriment of national security. “Organized crime is a result of the young people being excluded from the labor market, so they look for other ways to earn a living,” he said.
The union leader criticized the mass media for portraying protesters like him as rioters bent on disruption, rather than giving voice to Mexican workers’ concerns.
“Our discontentment has a reason,” Bravo emphasized. “It’s because of the reality that we see and feel. Ask a housewife if the money’s enough for the household and the kids.”
In Mexico City, May Day events proceeded nonviolently until later in the afternoon, when a dozen youth had a skirmish with police and threw paint balls at the nearby Mexican Stock Exchange. In other cities, not only in Mexico but all over the world, International Workers Day was celebrated this year as it is every year–with demonstrations, rallies, and parades, many marked by clashes. But no matter the mood, something happens on this historic date almost everywhere. Except for several thousand miles to the north of Mexico, in the country where May Day was born, where it is just another work day. Across the world´s most economically integrated border, the future of Mexican labor is being defined amid conflicting interests. Mexico’s changing labor standards will have a major impact on business, millions of workers and their families and on the U.S. economy.
Rebecca Ellis is currently working as a legal translator in Mexico City. She recently graduated from the Columbia Journalism School, where she was social media editor and contributing writer at The Brooklyn Ink. She has published over 40 multimedia headline-driven feature stories for newspapers and online publications including the Queens Chronicle, The Black Star News, Global Newsroom and CIP Americas Program. She also recently attended the Reynold’s Center Business Journalism seminar in Boston on how to track money in politics