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MEXICO: Int’l Tribunal ‘Scandalised’ by Denials of Workers’ Rights

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Oct 29 2009 (IPS) - On the day his trade union section held elections for officials, “our offices were occupied, damaged and ransacked” by thugs from the executive committee of the National Teachers Union (SNTE), said Mexican teacher Gerardo Cruz, a leader in the CNTE, a dissident caucus seeking reform within the union.

The complaint lodged by Cruz, who is the ideological orientation secretary for the CNTE (National Teachers Coordinating Committee), with the International Tribunal on Freedom of Association, holding its maiden session in Mexico, highlighted the CNTE’s struggle to obtain official legal recognition from the Mexican national authorities.

The tribunal was jointly created by more than 30 Mexican and foreign civil society organisations. In sessions held Monday and Tuesday in Mexico City, it heard testimony and received documents from 16 cases brought by trade unions, that were eloquent about the parlous state of freedom of association in this country.

“I have seen the problems Mexican unions have because the Labour Ministry often does not recognise their representatives. This means the authorities have control over union activities,” Hugo Barreto, a Uruguayan professor of labour law at the state University of the Republic in Montevideo, told IPS.

Barreto is a member of the tribunal, the first of its kind in the world, together with another 15 members from eight different countries. They will analyse the information received, continue to receive further complaints, and issue verdicts in April 2010. They may also hold further sessions to examine the situation in other countries.

The authorities’ refusal to officially approve and recognise elected union leaders, through a procedure known as “toma de nota” (taking note), triggered a conflict between the administration of conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón and the powerful Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) in the latest round of disputes between the government and workers’ organisations.

Without legally recognised officials, unions cannot engage in contract negotiations or other activities.

In July the SME, which groups workers of the state Central Light and Power company (LFC), held elections for its secretary general. The candidates were the present secretary general, Martín Esparza, and the leader of a dissident sector within the SME, Alejandro Muñoz.

After the ballots were counted, the union’s election officials declared the winner to be Esparza, who has occupied the post since August 2005. However, Muñoz complained to the labour court that there were anomalies in the voting.

In fact, the number of votes cast were 3,827 in excess of the electoral roll, which listed 8,527 affiliated members. As a result, the Labour Ministry refused to endorse Esparza’s victory.

Faced with what looked like a lengthy conflict ahead, on Oct. 9 the Calderón administration closed down the LFC power utility, which automatically dissolved the union, and announced an indemnity plan for the company’s 44,000 workers. Security forces seized LFC plants.

The “toma de nota” mechanism is a legacy from the seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed the country until 2000. The procedure was used to officially recognise the legitimacy of unions, and the governing National Action Party (PAN) has not seen fit to change it.

“The state of trade union freedom in Mexico has worsened. State control and government interference have grown alarmingly in recent times,” Kjeld Jakobsen, the Brazilian head of the non-governmental Social Observatory Institute in Florianópolis, Brazil and a member of the tribunal, told IPS.

“We are concerned, surprised and even scandalised by the gravity of labour rights violations and the violence against workers that is occurring in Mexico,” the tribunal declared in a preliminary announcement.

The unions allege that the Mexican state has violated International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 87, on freedom of association and the right to organise, and Convention 98, on the right to collective bargaining. The Labour Ministry, as an accused party, was invited to attend the public hearings, but did not do so.

“We have ascertained the absence of labour justice, apart from exceptions which do not affect the general trend,” Luis Pérez, the secretary general of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and a member of the tribunal, told a press conference on Wednesday.

The ILO has received several complaints from Mexican unions about the state being in breach of international conventions to which it is a signatory. The SME has already announced that it will take its case to the international organisation.

Paradoxically, Mexico, which has some 19,000 workers’ unions and federations, is a member of the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association for the 2008-2011 period. The Committee examines complaints from union organisations about violations of ILO conventions with a view to ensuring compliance by the states concerned.

Mexico has five active complaints against it before the Committee on Freedom of Association, and 43 closed cases. The most recent was presented Sept. 9 by the lumber workers union and the metal workers union, both based in Mexico City.

The Calderón administration maintains ambivalent relations with trade unions, depending on their political alignment.

For instance, the government has carried on a running feud with the National Union of Mineworkers whose leader, Napoleón Gómez, has been living in Canada since 2006 because he faces criminal charges in Mexico for allegedly misappropriating 55 million dollars from a union trust fund.

The Labour Ministry has repeatedly refused to grant Gómez recognition by “toma de nota”, although he has been reelected to the union’s top position five consecutive times; the latest occasion was in his absence, in 2008.

But its handling of the SNTE, which with 1.4 million affiliated members is the largest union in Latin America, is very different: the teachers’ union has been showered with special favours, including the denial of official legal recognition for the dissident CNTE caucus.

A frequent practice in labour relations is the use of Collective Contracts for Company Protection, agreements signed by union and employer representatives without being discussed or approved by the majority of the workers affected – sometimes even without their knowledge – and that do not protect labour rights.

A study sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany found that about 9,000 such contracts were signed between 1970 and 2008, particularly in the construction industry.

“These contracts shelter company owners from an organised workforce and thwart any possibility of collective bargaining,” Alonso Bouzas, an academic at the state National Autonomous University of Mexico and an author of the study, told IPS.

Mexico has refused to sign ILO Convention 154 on collective bargaining.

“It’s our duty to communicate the international tribunal’s findings to every inter-governmental body that monitors human rights, and to the ILO,” Pérez concluded.

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