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Protection contracts wide spread in Mexico’s electronics sector

November 5, 2013

(Photo: CETIEN)

In August, the Centre for Reflection and Labour Action (CEREAL in Spanish) in Guadalajara, Mexico released its 2012 report on labour issues and cases of worker rights violations in the country's electronics manufacturing industry.

The report highlights the problem of employer protection contracts signed between hundreds of electronics manufacturing firms and unelected union leaders.

In one case profiled in the report, a worker at a Foxconn factory said she was threatened and later fired for petitioning for the right of the workers at her plant to elect their union delegates.

In cases like this "the unions, far from fulfilling their role as mediators between workers and employers, become passive accomplices of the company," says the report.

According to the report, "virtually all of the workers in the electronics industry in Guadalajara belong to a union, but hardly any of them know it." It notes that there were 481 registered workplace unions in Guadalajara and surrounding communities in the state of Jalisco at the end of 2012, but those unions had signed collective agreements with 35,674 companies.

CEREAL found that one individual, Enrique Torres Ibarra, was registered as the leader of two workplace unions, but had signed collective agreements with 466

The report also profiles the growing problem of precarious work associated with the use of short-term employment contracts and third-party employment agencies. Between February and June 2012, Nokia dismissed 780 workers. By the end of the year, 50 percent of those workers were rehired, either on six-month contracts or through the third-party employment agency, Manpower.

"I was fired in late June 2012, and on July 30 Human Resources called me to ask if I wanted to go back to work, but hired through Manpower," said one worker. "I know workmates who have already been called and they are going to take them into account to hire them on seven-day contracts with lower wages and fewer benefits."

A unique experiment
CEREAL's annual reports are part of a unique experiment in which the Jesuit-sponsored NGO has negotiated an "accord" with electronics manufacturers and brands mandating it to receive and investigate complaints from workers about alleged violations of their rights in electronics factories in the Guadalajara area, Mexico's "silicon valley."

The accord is a dispute resolution mechanism with four stages. In the first stage, a worker can bring a complaint of a labour rights violation directly to management of his/her firm. If the issue is not resolved at that stage, the worker can bring the complaint to CEREAL, which investigates the case before bringing its findings to management's attention.

If CEREAL and the employer cannot agree on a resolution to the issue at the second stage, the case can be brought to the local industry association. If there isn't satisfactory resolution at stage three, CEREAL has the option to bring the case to the attention of the brand buyers whose products are made at the factory.

If there is no acceptable resolution at this final stage, CEREAL can publicize the case in its annual reports and to the media.

According to Jorge Barajas of CEREAL, "the accord has served to find resolutions to specific cases, but to date it hasn't been able to achieve solutions to underlying systemic issues, such as the lack of freedom of association."

Electronics workers develop skills to engage with companies
In September, 41 members of the Coalition of Workers and Former Workers of the National Electronics Industry (CETIEN in Spanish) gathered in Guadalajara for a three-day workshop on how to effectively engage with companies on worker rights issues.

The majority of workers who participated in the workshop came from the Guadalajara area, although there was also representation from Monterey, Reynosa and Mexicali. Staff from CEREAL and MSN acted as workshop facilitators.

The workshop was co-sponsored by CETIEN and CEREAL-Guadalajara, who adapted a workshop methodology and materials developed by MSN for a similar workshop, held in May in San Salvador, with women leaders of trade unions
and women's organizations working with maquila workers in Central America and Mexico.

Participants in the Guadalajara workshop mapped the Mexican electronics industry, identifying the major brands and their links to Mexican suppliers in their regions. They learned how to document specific cases of worker rights abuses, and role-played meetings with company HR staff in which they attempted to use that information to convince the companies to take corrective action to eliminate the abuses.

These exercises were organized around three hypothetical cases of worker rights abuses that are common in the electronics sector in Mexico:

• hiring workers on a series of short-term employment contracts in order to deny them seniority rights and social benefits provided to permanent employees;
• failing to provide child care facilities at the workplace as required by law; and
• changing the terms and conditions of employment of a group of directly-hired workers to transform them into employees of a third-party employment agency.

Rather than attempting to organize workplace by workplace, CETIEN brings together workers from a number of electronics factories, not only from Guadalajara, but also from other electronics hubs in other states.

Because of the institutional barriers to the formation of independent, democratic unions in Mexico, including the existence of employer protection contracts in most of the electronics factories, workers have often had to develop alternative organizational strategies and structures in order to put forward demands and engage in dialogue with employers and brand buyers.

On October 15, CETIEN members staged a protest outside the Jabil electronics factory to denounce the arbitrary dismissal of 500 workers and the employer's failure to provide them full severance pay. The staff reductions were reportedly caused by the economic difficulties suffered by the company's main client, Canadian smart phone brand, Blackberry.

The protestors, who wore white masks to protect their identities, also denounced arbitrary changes in the terms of their employment, including salary reductions and shift changes, pressure to sign resignation letters and other unknown documents, and the shifting of production to other plants located outside the city.

Following the protest, a commission of the workers and staff from CEREAL entered the plant, accompanied by representatives of the state department of labour and Jabil management, in an attempt to negotiate a resolution to the conflict.

Click here to access report.

To read a more in-depth description of CEREAL's dispute resolution process click here