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Complaint accuses Mexican factories of labor abuse, tests new trade pact

WASHINGTON – The AFL-CIO and other groups plan to file a complaint with the Biden administration on Monday over allegations of labor law violations at a group of auto parts factories in Mexico, a move that will constitute a first test of the new North American trade agreement. and its labor protections.

The lawsuit concerns Tridonex auto parts factories in the town of Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. The AFL-CIO said workers there were harassed and fired because of their efforts to organize with an independent union, SNITIS, instead of a union controlled by the company. Susana Prieto Terrazas, a Mexican labor lawyer and leader of SNITIS, was arrested and jailed last year in an episode that received special attention.

The trade deal, the US-Mexico-Canada deal, was negotiated by the Trump administration to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement and came into effect last summer. Although negotiated by a Republican administration, the deal had a significant contribution from Congressional Democrats, who controlled the House and insisted on stricter labor and environmental standards in order to vote in favor of the pact, which required congressional approval.

The trade pact forced Mexico to make sweeping changes to its labor system, where sham collective agreements called protection contracts, which are imposed without employee participation and block low wages, prevailed.

The complaint is filed under a new “rapid response” mechanism in the trade agreement that allows a labor law violation complaint to be brought against an individual factory and sanctions against that factory. The complaint is expected to be filed by the AFL-CIO, the International Union of Service Employees, SNITIS and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

“The USMCA calls on Mexico to end the reign of protection unions and their corrupt agreements with employers,” said Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, in a statement, using the abbreviation of the trade agreement. “The continued harassment of Susana Prieto and members of SNITIS is a violation of the labor laws that Mexico is committed to respecting.”

The trade deal aims to improve working conditions and pay workers in Mexico, which supporters say would benefit American workers by dissuading factory owners from moving their operations to Mexico from the United States to the United States. search for cheaper labor. Enforcement of the pact is one of the main business challenges facing the Biden administration.

Tridonex is a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Cardone Industries controlled by Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management, the AFL-CIO said. In 2016, Cardone announced plans to move its brake division to Mexico and lay off more than 1,300 workers in Philadelphia, according to information and public records.

The complaint includes several charges of labor violations, including that workers were unable to elect their union leaders or ratify their collective agreement and that more than 600 workers were sacked by their employers in retaliation. He also accuses the state of Tamaulipas of denying the right of workers to choose the union that represents them.

“There couldn’t be a clearer case,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the International Union of Service Employees, which represents Cardone workers in Philadelphia.

In a statement, Cardone said he was “determined to adopt leading-edge working practices, foster constructive relations with employees and fully respect the universal principle of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.” .

“We are committed to fully complying with all applicable labor laws and regulations with respect to our Tridonex facilities in Matamoros, Mexico,” the statement read. “If an investigation were opened to discuss it further, we would welcome it and be transparent and responsive in responding to all requests for government information.”

The trade deal’s rapid response mechanism allows the United States to take action against an individual factory in Mexico if workers are denied their rights to free association and collective bargaining. This was one of the provisions Democrats highlighted as an improvement of the final deal over the original version of the Trump administration’s trade deal.

If the United States were to decide that there is sufficient evidence of the denial of workers’ rights, then it would ask Mexico to conduct a review of the claims. After this step, a panel could be established to investigate the matter. As part of the rapid response process, the plant could face sanctions, and repeat offenders could even have their goods banned from entering the United States.

Mexico approved an overhaul of its labor laws in 2019, but it is being phased in over several years, and the implementation of the changes remains a major question mark.

A report released in December by an independent council set up by the United States to monitor changes in the labor arena said Mexico had made progress but significant obstacles remained. The report noted that the protection contract system was still in place and that most unionized workers still could not democratically elect their leaders.

Ben Davis, director of international affairs for United Steelworkers and chairman of the board, said the complaint to be filed on Monday “contains all the elements of the structural problem we face with workers’ rights in Mexico.” The rapid response mechanism, he said, is one way to hold companies accountable.

“This is the first time we’ve had something like this in a trade deal,” he said, “and so we think it’s very important that it be used, that it is used. effectively and hopefully it is something we can apply. in other places. “

It remains to be seen how the Biden administration will respond to the complaint. An administration official said the administration would “carefully review” complaints about the rapid response mechanism.

United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai was previously the lead trade advisor to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. In this role, she played a key role in negotiations between House Democrats and the Trump administration over revisions to the trade agreement.

Ms Tai said implementing the deal was a priority, and the first meeting of the committee overseeing the pact – made up of Ms Tai and her counterparts from Canada and Mexico – is expected to take place next week, according to a spokeswoman. for the Mexican Embassy in Washington.

During a Senate hearing last month, Ms. Tai said there were “a number of concerns we have regarding Mexico’s performance of its USMCA commitments,” without giving details. .

“We have done our best to put in place the most effective enforcement tools that we know of,” she said at another point in the hearing. “And they might not be perfect, but we won’t know how effective they will be if we don’t use them.”

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