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Complaint accuses Mexican factories of labor abuses, testing new trade pact

A man rode a bicycle on an international bridge between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros., Mexico. Labor violations have been charged at an auto parts factory in Matamoros, where work has been shifted across the border from the United States in search of cheap labor.
A man rode a bicycle on an international bridge between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros., Mexico. Labor violations have been charged at an auto parts factory in Matamoros, where work has been shifted across the border from the United States in search of cheap labor.Sergio Flores/For The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The AFL-CIO and other groups filed a complaint with the Biden administration Monday over claims of labor violations at a group of auto parts factories in Mexico, a move that will pose an early test of the new North American trade deal and its labor protections.

The complaint focuses on the Tridonex auto parts factories in the city of Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. The AFL-CIO said workers there have been harassed and fired over their efforts to organize with an independent union, SNITIS, in place of a company-controlled union. Susana Prieto Terrazas, a Mexican labor lawyer and SNITIS leader, was arrested and jailed last year in an episode that received significant attention.

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The trade deal, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, was negotiated by the Trump administration to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement and took effect last summer. While it was negotiated by a Republican administration, the deal had significant input from congressional Democrats, who controlled the House and who insisted on tougher labor and environmental standards in order to vote in favor of the pact, which needed approval from Congress.

The trade pact required Mexico to make sweeping changes to its labor system, where sham collective bargaining agreements known as protection contracts, which are imposed without the involvement of employees and lock in low wages, have been prevalent.

The complaint is being brought under a novel “rapid response” mechanism in the trade deal that allows for complaints about labor violations to be brought against an individual factory and for penalties to be applied to that factory. The complaint was filed by the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, SNITIS, and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

“USMCA requires Mexico to end the reign of protection unions and their corrupt deals with employers,” Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement, using the abbreviation for the trade deal. “The ongoing harassment of Susana Prieto and SNITIS members is a textbook violation of the labor laws Mexico has pledged to uphold.”

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

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

The complaint includes several accusations of labor violations, including that workers have not been able to elect their union leaders or ratify their collective bargaining agreement, and that more than 600 workers were fired by their employer in acts of retaliation. It 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, international president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents Cardone workers in Philadelphia.

In a statement, Cardone said it was “committed to leading labor practices, fostering constructive relationships with employees and fully respecting the universal principle of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.”

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“We are committed to fully complying with all applicable labor laws and regulations with respect to our Tridonex facilities in Matamoros, Mexico,” the statement said. “Should an inquiry be initiated to further discuss this, we would welcome it and be fully transparent and responsive in addressing all governmental requests for information.”

The rapid response mechanism in the trade deal allows for the United States to take action against an individual factory in Mexico if workers there are being denied their rights to free association and collective bargaining. It was among the provisions that Democrats highlighted as an improvement in the final agreement compared with the Trump administration’s original version of the trade deal.

If the United States decides there is sufficient evidence of workers’ rights being denied, it would then request that Mexico conduct a review of the allegations. After that step, a panel could be established to investigate the matter. Under the rapid response process, the factory could face penalties, and repeat offenders could even have their goods blocked from entering the United States.