Mexican Factories Accused of Labor Abuses, Testing U.S.M.C.A.

WASHINGTON – The AFL-CIO and other groups on Monday filed a complaint with the Biden government over alleged labor law violations at a group of auto parts factories in Mexico. This will be an early test of the new North American trade agreement and its deals with OSH.

The complaint is focused on the Tridonex auto parts factories in the town of Matamoros, just across the border with Brownsville, Texas. The AFL-CIO said workers there had been harassed and fired for their efforts to organize with an independent union, SNITIS, instead of a company-controlled union. Susana Prieto Terrazas, a Mexican labor lawyer and SNITIS leader, was arrested and jailed last year in an episode that received a lot of attention.

The trade deal, the deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada, was negotiated by the Trump administration to replace the North American free trade agreement and went into effect last summer. While negotiated by a Republican government, the deal had significant input from Congressional Democrats, who controlled the House and insisted on stricter labor and environmental standards to vote for the pact, which required Congressional approval.

The trade pact called on Mexico to make profound changes to its work system, where bogus collective bargaining agreements, so-called protection agreements, concluded with no worker involvement and with low wages, were prevalent.

The complaint is placed under the trade agreement under a novel “rapid response” mechanism that enables complaints of labor violations to be filed against an individual factory and penalties to be imposed on that factory. The complaint was made by the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, SNITIS, and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

“USMCA is asking Mexico to end the protection union government and its corrupt dealings with employers,” said Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, in a statement using the acronym for the trade deal. “The ongoing harassment of Susana Prieto and SNITIS members is a textbook violation of the labor laws that Mexico is committed to complying with.”

The trade deal aims to improve working conditions and pay workers in Mexico, which proponents say would benefit American workers by discouraging factory owners from moving operations from the US to Mexico in search of cheaper labor. Enforcing the pact is one of the greatest trade challenges facing the Biden government.

Tridonex is a Philadelphia-based subsidiary of Cardone Industries and controlled by Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management, the AFL-CIO said. In 2016, Cardone announced plans to move its brakes division to Mexico and lay off more than 1,300 workers in Philadelphia. This is evident from news and public records.

The complaint contains several allegations of labor violations, including that workers were unable to elect their union leaders or ratify their collective agreement, and that more than 600 workers were dismissed by their employer for retaliation. She also accuses Tamaulipas State of denying workers the right to vote for the union they represent.

“There couldn’t be a clearer case,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents Cardone employees in Philadelphia.

In a statement, Cardone said it was “obliged to conduct labor practices, cultivate constructive relationships with workers and fully respect the universal principle of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining”.

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“We are committed to fully complying with all applicable labor laws and regulations regarding our Tridonex facilities in Matamoros, Mexico,” the statement said. “Should an investigation be initiated to discuss this further, we would appreciate it and be fully transparent and responsive in handling all government information requests.”

The quick response mechanism in the trade agreement enables the United States to take action against a single factory in Mexico if workers there are denied the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. It was one of the provisions that the Democrats highlighted as an improvement on the final deal over the original version of the Trump administration’s trade deal.

If the United States decides there is enough evidence that workers’ rights are being denied, it would urge Mexico to conduct a review of the allegations. After this step, a panel could be set up to investigate the matter. As part of the quick response process, the factory could face fines and repeat offenders could even prevent their goods from entering the US.

Mexico approved a revision of its labor laws in 2019, but it will be rolled out gradually over several years, and implementation of the changes remains a major question mark.

A report released in December by an independent committee set up by the United States to monitor job changes said Mexico has made progress but significant obstacles remain. The report found that the protection contract system was still in place and that most unionized workers were still unable to democratically elect their leaders.

United Steelworkers’ director of international affairs and chairman of the board, Ben Davis, said the complaint filed Monday had “all elements of the structural problem we are facing over labor rights in Mexico.” The quick response mechanism is a way to hold companies accountable.

‘This is the first time we have had something like this in a trade agreement,’ he said, ‘and so we think it’s pretty important that it’s used, used effectively and hopefully something that we can apply. ” in other places. “

Democrats in Congress welcomed the complaint. “We expect and urge the Biden administration to use all available resources to take aggressive enforcement action in this case,” said Richard E. Neal from Massachusetts, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Earl Blumenauer from Oregon , Chairman of the panel’s trade subcommittee, said in a statement.

It remains to be seen how the Biden administration will react to the complaint. One administration official said the administration would “carefully examine” complaints about quick response mechanisms.

United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai was previously the chief trade adviser to the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In this post, she played a key role in the negotiations between the House Democrats and the Trump administration over the revision of the trade deal.

Ms. Tai has said enforcement of the agreement is a priority and the first meeting of the commission overseeing the pact – made up of Ms. Tai and her colleagues from Canada and Mexico – is due to take place next week for the Mexican embassy in Washington, according to a spokeswoman .

At a Senate hearing last month, Ms. Tai said there were “a number of concerns about Mexico’s compliance with USMCA commitments,” without giving details.

“We have done our best to use the most effective enforcement tools we know,” she said at another point in the hearing. “And they might not be perfect, but we won’t know how effective they’ll be if we don’t use them.”

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