María Lourdes Zea: "We managed to ensure that the reforms to labour law in Mexico were not so harmful"

In this interview, Mexican trade union leader and member of the World Women's Committee (WOC) of Public Services International (PSI) discusses several issues including the struggle of independent trade unionism in her country against the loss of workers' rights resulting from the renewed trade agreement with Canada and the USA, protection of workers’ rights in the context of teleworking, the need for an increase in the minimum wage and trade union action in defence of women.

In addition to being a member of WOC, Zea is the Administrative Secretary of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (STUNAM) Workers' Union and vice-president of the Confederation of University Workers of the Americas (CONTUA).

Read the interview below:

What were the main changes to labour law in 2019, and how is implementation going in 2020?

Mexican Labour Law at the national level was about a hundred years old. Modifications to social security, labour protection, and other social benefits were made over time, but in the final year of President Enrique Peña Nieto's term [2012-2018] 11 large structural reforms were carried out. Some of the most important reforms were made in the areas of finance, energy, education, and labour. The original text for the labour reforms would have eliminated all of the improvements that we had made over time. However, independent trade unionists fought back through various mobilisations, marches, rallies and meetings with deputies and senators to advance our perspective. The intent of these reforms was to prepare for signing of the renewed NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] agreement.

María Lourdes Zea. Photo: Carlos Verdugo
María Lourdes Zea. Photo: Carlos Verdugo

We managed to ensure that the labour reform was less harmful than the original proposals, even on the issue of outsourcing. Trade unions have proposed the elimination of outsourcing, because the consequent violations of basic workers' rights. Many workers are offered temporary contracts of one month, two months, three months, six months, one year, without social benefits, without generating seniority and employers hardly offer any social security rights. This will be discussed in the Senate in February. Profit sharing is also being discussed right now. Employers want to eliminate the current legal requirement of 30% profit sharing for workers. They are trying to limit this to a maximum of 10%, paid once per year. In addition to these fights, my union submitted a formal complaint to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), because the Peña Nieto government allowed the existence of employer protection contracts, that is, there were companies where there are a unions without members, only a general secretary with a few others, and, well, they seem to be unions in favour of the employer and not workers. We were able to include Mexico on the ILO short list, to be discussed at the annual conference. A clear call was made to the Mexican government to avoid this type of contract that harms workers, given that it imposes unfavourable working conditions.

Telework legislation was passed in January. As a result of the pandemic, approximately 40% of workers are working from home. We raised 12 issues to be incorporated in the law, with nine of them being taken up: receiving the necessary equipment; reimbursement of costs associated with teleworking including internet and electricity; the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining; correct treatment of the information and data used; the right to disconnect outside of work hours; social security; training and support for adaptation to telework, continuous learning and appropriate use of technologies; having a balanced employment relationship in order to enjoy decent and dignified work; and the gender perspective that allows reconciling professional and personal life. The truth is that we, in general terms, are satisfied because nine of the twelve proposals we made were incorporated. The next step is for each union to incorporate these concepts into their collective bargaining agreements.

Trade unions have proposed the elimination of outsourcing, because the consequent violations of basic workers' rights

Well, we continue to fight, because our aspiration was that NAFTA would not be ratified, but it happened even though we made every effort to the contrary. Of the three countries, we have the lowest minimum wage. In Canada, it is 14 dollars an hour, in the United States, it is between 7 and 14 dollars an hour, depending on what state we are talking about. We were at 61 cents an hour until December last year. That's why former US President Donald Trump said that we were the ones who benefited the most from NAFTA, because many companies were coming to Mexico. However, what Trump did not say was that they were coming but paying minimal wages. One of the speakers at a recent virtual demonstration said that as a result of NAFTA, Mexico has already lost 80% of the purchasing power of wages.

We have fought for increasing the minimum wage. We promoted it through a wage recovery programme that we proposed at national level. We promoted and presented this proposal in the Chamber of Deputies, and that is how it was taken seriously. For the last year or so minimum wages have started to increase. But not ours, which are negotiated as part of collective agreements. This is a second fight that we are engaged in.

You mentioned the crisis that came as a result of the pandemic. What consequences did it have for workers?

As a result of the pandemic there has been significant unemployment. Estimates are that by the end of December we would have 15 million unemployed. Many jobs disappeared, and the companies that have closed down are not giving severance pay to workers because they no longer have the capital. A lot of people don’t have work, 47% or so of employment was informal and has grown a lot. Many people are desperate because they can't find work. The little work that exists is poorly paid and we don't know how long it will take to recover from this pandemic. The handling of the pandemic in Mexico was not the most appropriate. The population is advised not to go out on the streets, but the problem is that our own president [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] doesn't wear a mask. And he has been infected by Covid.

How are you working with women, who are disproportionately affected by unemployment and teleworking?

Before the pandemic, we already had a very serious problem with feminicide, and the rates have increased because stress and family violence have increased

The Vice-President for Gender Equality of my union participates in various feminist collectives. In fact, on March 8th last year, Mexico took to the streets as never before. In the 32 states we were able to organise the mobilisation, and the one in Mexico City was the largest ever seen in history. That motivated us a lot. But then came the pandemic. Unfortunately, the pandemic was followed by the austerity that the government imposed. Several areas have suffered cuts. Childcare was completely eliminated from the budget. Some money has been given directly to the mothers, to avoid corruption. The problem is that today this money is used for food, for other things, and nobody takes care of the children. The budget for violence against women was also cut. Before the pandemic, we already had a very serious problem with feminicide, and the rates have increased because stress and family violence have increased. As a society we have become dehumanised. Today the news is just numbers and accept feminicide as something normal.

We are campaigning very strongly against this gender violence and its related issues including employment. One piece of good news that I can share on this issue is that the Mexican Congress recently approved the recognition of the issue of care. It has been officially recognised that women care for children, the home, the sick, the elderly more than men. We now have to work on specific laws, but this was one step in the struggle we have been engaged in to highlight the situation of women.