May Face NAFTA Sanctions
for Not Protecting Workers' Rights
By ANTHONY DePALMA
TORONTO -- Mexican officials have acknowledged that their labor
laws do not adequately protect the rights of Mexican workers,
according to documents obtained by Canadian union officials who have
filed a complaint against Mexico under the North American Free Trade
complaint involves conditions at an automobile brake plant
outside Mexico City that is owned by Dana Corp. of Toledo, Ohio, and
follows a similar action taken in the United States earlier this year.
If both complaints
determine that Mexico did not adequately enforce its
labor laws, it could lead to the first sanction applied since NAFTA went
into effect in January 1994.
office of the United Steelworkers of America and 40 labor
and human rights organizations from Canada, Mexico and the United
States contend that workers at the plant were intimidated and in some
cases beaten when they tried to switch unions in 1997.
the complaint, workers at the brake plant, which operates
under the name Itapsa, wanted to organize an independent union because
wages were stuck at $5 a day and there were dangerous levels of
union, the Confederation of Mexican Workers, has strong
links to the government and reportedly ignored worker complaints. On
Sept. 9, 1997, Itapsa workers voted on switching to an independent
union, but they said they did so in the presence of outsiders carrying sticks
and pipes. They also were forced to declare their vote at an open meeting
in front of plant supervisors.
Under the labor
side agreement to NAFTA, each of the three countries in
the accord has established an administrative office to receive such
In April, the
Canadian office received the complaint about the union vote
and the safety conditions at the Itapsa plant. In September, the head of
the Canadian office, May Morpaw, traveled to Mexico to meet with her
counterpart, Rafael Aranda, and officials from the Mexican Labor
In the notes
of the meeting, which were obtained by the steelworkers
union, Mexican labor officials acknowledged that union representation
elections usually are not conducted in secret, even though workers can be
dismissed if they vote for the losing union.
The Mexican officials
also said they were not concerned that the lack of
secrecy had made it inevitable that employers would know how a worker
had voted. The Mexican officials said such elections were free and open,
but they could not guarantee that coercion did not occur outside the
voting site, according to the document.
In response to
calls over several days seeking comment, the Mexican
Labor Department sent a one-page summary of the complaint by fax but
did not elaborate on the contents of Ms. Morpaw's notes.
office in the United States issued a report in July
supporting most of the accusations in the complaint about Itapsa filed
there. The office sent the complaint to the next stage in the regulatory
process, which is direct consultations among the labor ministers of the
Ms. Morpaw of
the Canadian office said a vote on whether to make a
similar reference was scheduled for early December.
concerning free association for union members can only
be taken up in talks among the labor ministers. But if two of the three
labor ministers are sufficiently convinced that asbestos levels prove
worker safety laws were not enforced at the plants, the issue could result
in the first labor sanctions against Mexico.