Outlook dim for Mexican workers

July 13, 2012

In a speech earlier this week praising Nissan’s decision to open a second plant in Aguascalientes, Mexican President Felipe Calderon responded to critics who’ve flailed away at the soon-to-be ex-chief executive for falling far short of being the “jobs president” he promised to be during the 2006 election campaign.

Saying that two million formal jobs had been created since 2007, Calderon added that the job record was the “second highest period of formal employment generation” in his country’s recorded history. Further, the Mexican leader argued that had it not been for the inconvenient problem of the post-2008 economic crisis, Mexico would have undergone its biggest employment surge ever.

Although recent job gains have been registered in sectors like the auto industry, some observers and analysts are far less impressed by the employment trends.

In its 2012 Employment Outlook, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted that while Mexico’s official unemployment rate of 5.1 percent in the first quarter of 2012 was lower than the 5.8 percent registered at the height of the crisis in the third quarter of 2009, the latest jobless numbers are still more than one percent higher than they were prior to the crisis.

Importantly, young people experience unemployment at about twice the rate of the overall average, according to the OECD. Other issues, including the “high incidence of informal employment,” remain troubling concerns, the international organization contended.

Numbering in the millions, the legions of informal workers who sell everything from gum to flowers to maps are not enrolled in the social security system, don´t pay taxes and don’t enjoy benefits like sick days. Across Mexico, informal workers cram the sidewalks, jam the beaches and ham it up on the buses and metro systems. All to eat another day.

Receiving some play in the Mexican media, the OECD report also reveals that the average amount of time Mexican workers annually spent on their job grew from 2,242 hours in 2010 to 2,250 in 2011.

As for income, real salary growth in Mexico came in at 0.8 percent last year, lagging behind Chile at 2.5 percent and Brazil at 1.4 percent, the OECD reported.

In an interview with Frontera NorteSur, representatives of a leading Mexican labor advocacy organization also questioned the direction of employment trends and spotlighted the continued lack of basic rights possessed by many-if not most-workers. Felipe Burgueno, Guadalajara staff member of Cereal, said the increased use of outsourcing and temp workers characterizes many new jobs. “There is a lot of unemployment and more and more abuses like temporary contracts, as employers take advantage of the situation,” Burgueno said.

According to the labor rights activist, a production model based on precarious employment circumstances, low wages and the absence of free union association is unlikely to change with the coming political transition. “People still don’t realize the gravity of these problems,” Burgeuno added.

As an illustration of the problems confronting Mexican labor, Cereal staffer Sagrario Gutierrez spoke at some length about the electronics giant Foxconn and its two industrial sites in and around Ciudad Juarez, including the huge complex at San-Jeronimo/Santa Teresa on the border of Chihuahua and New Mexico.

On a recent visit to the border city, Gutierrez heard Foxconn workers complain about robberies on transport buses, successive temporary contracts, lack of union representation and retaliation for organizing or discussing better job assignments and pay.

“When (Foxconn) finds out that workers are organizing around any problem they have, they disperse them,” Gutierrez said. “They fire them or send them to different work areas and shifts.”

A member of the Electronics Industry Code of Conduct, Foxconn has written policies against retaliation and in support of free association.

According to the Taiwan-based firm’s website, audits are performed to ensure compliance with company and industry standards. Foxconn pledges to “uphold the human rights of workers, and to treat them with dignity and respect as understood by the international community and appropriate laws and regulations…”

But in Ciudad Juarez, labor rights are also compromised by the so-called narco war and the overall climate of violence that makes workers afraid to take a stand, Gutierrez said, adding that the city’s non-governmental organizations have largely withdrawn from direct organizing of factory workers because of threats and real fears of violence.

Gutierrez said Foxconn workers in Ciudad Juarez start making 78 pesos each day, or approximately six bucks, and then advance to 98 pesos after three months on the job. The pay is increased to 105-110 pesos after six months, she said. In comparison, electronic workers in Guadalajara average 116 pesos a day, even though the cost of living is higher in Ciudad Juarez, according to Cereal staff members.

The rising cost of living is a critical issue for Mexican workers. Cited in the daily La Jornada, the most recent study from the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Center for Multidisciplinary Analysis reported that the number of low-income workers increased during the last two years, with about half the country’s labor force, or about 21,300,000 workers, now earning in the neighborhood of ten dollars a day.

Many working families have “stopped buying with the same frequency and quantity various products, including meat, milk, eggs and other basics,” the authors of the report wrote.

Languishing in the Mexican Congress, a controversial labor reform is likely to be among the first matters tackled by the new crop of legislators when they convene in September, according to Cereal’s Felipe Burgueno. For the labor advocacy group, the right of free union representation is unmet in Mexico.

An ominous sign, Burgueno said, was the recent closure of the independent Worker Action Center in Puebla state, after staff suffered death threats and kidnapping.

Burgueno predicted the political transition will likely reinforce the power of the CTM and other unions affiliated with the PRI, reaffirming the old corporatist model in which the demands of workers are subservient to the government agenda. “They will ratify their priorities,” Burgueno said, “and their control over workers’ unions.”

For its part, the OECD urged Mexico to enact “measures to promote access to more jobs and better conditions for under-represented groups,” as well as to increase incentives for enrolling more workers in the social security system. Additionally, the OECD called for strengthening the enforcement capacities of labor inspectors and tax collectors.

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S. -Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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