Mexican congress in heated debate on labor reform

AP News
Posted: Sep 28, 2012 11:48 PM
Mexican congress in heated debate on labor reform

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Leftist legislators mounted a heated but largely fruitless battle in Mexico's lower house of congress Friday trying to block the passage of legislation that would loosen the country's 1970's-era labor laws.

The measure originally would have democratized Mexico's autocratic unions, but those clauses were largely watered down or left out in the version put to a vote on the floor of congress.

Congress voted to approve the general precepts of the bill by 351 votes to 130, but some of the most hotly contested points had to be voted on one by one. Almost all of the disputed points discussed were being approved as debate extended late into the night. With the end of voting, the measure would go to the Senate for consideration.

What angered the left the most are provisions that would allow part-time work, hourly wages, probationary and training periods, and outsourcing of jobs. Supporters say that will give business more flexibility and encourage hiring, but the opposition Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) said it would create low-wage, temporary jobs with few or no benefits.

The bill weakens seniority provisions and makes it easier to fire employees.

Currently, most salaried Mexican workers are paid by the day, based on a 5 ½-day work week. Mexican workers earn as little as 60 pesos ($5) a day but have long counted on health, housing and severance benefits to compensate somewhat for their low wages. About one-fifth of salaried workers in Mexico are unionized.

The bill's supporters noted that current regulations allow outsourcing and pay by the hour, and that the reforms seek to better regulate those practices.

Legislators from the leftist PRD and other smaller parties rushed the speaker's platform at one point, standing in ranks before the podium with banners calling the legislation a betrayal of workers' rights.

The lawmakers later left the podium, having forced congressional leaders into leading the session from a spectators' gallery for some time.

Advocates say the reform will help Mexico create the million new jobs each year needed for young people and migrants returning from the United States.

Some critics of the legislation have complained that President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, stripped out requirements for external audits of union finances and secret ballots for union elections. Those were part of the original bill submitted by outgoing President Felipe Calderon.

Pena Nieto, who takes office Dec. 1, supports loosening labor laws, but the PRI counts some of Mexico's most antiquated, autocratic unions among its strongest supporters, leading to speculation the old guard pressured the party to leave out the union controls. That would weaken Pena Nieto's claims that the PRI has left behind the political favoritism and corruption that marked its 71 years of repressive rule, from 1929 to 2000.

Mexican unions are so undemocratic that, when opening new factories, employers sometimes select a docile union for the new facility, and the first workers enter with a contract already signed behind their backs. Many workers don't even know the name of the union that supposedly represents them, and takes their dues.