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Tijuana Factory Workers Denied Legal Rights, U.S. Says

Labor: Han Young plant allegedly violated laws during organizing drive. Report urges meeting of U.S. and Mexican officials to discuss the issue.

April 29, 1998|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Workers in Tijuana were denied Mexican legal protections last year when they sought to form the first independent union of border maquiladora factories, a U.S. labor agency concluded in a report Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Labor's National Administrative Office called for meetings between Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman and her Mexican counterpart to discuss apparent violations of Mexican law during an organizing effort by workers at the Korean-owned Han Young factory in Tijuana.

National Administrative Office Secretary Irasema Garza placed blame on the government labor board in Tijuana, which she said was "inconsistent" in its oversight of October elections won by the union but initially invalidated by the Mexican government. Several union leaders were dismissed from their jobs at the factory, but the union was later recognized.

"We have found that the workers at Han Young encountered a number of obstacles in attempting to form an independent union. Although the Mexican Constitution and federal labor law guarantee freedom of association and the right to form independent unions, there appear to be inconsistencies in the application and enforcement of the law," Garza said.

The union and the company have yet to negotiate a contract. Meanwhile, a rival union that opponents say is linked to the government has petitioned for a new round of elections, slated for May 21.

Under a side pact to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the National Administrative Office and counterpart agencies in Mexico and Canada monitor labor conditions in each other's countries.

In cases of alleged union busting by factory owners and government officials, a recommendation of "ministerial consultations," as has been called for in the Han Young case, is the strictest measure available to the National Administrative Office. Violations of other labor protections, such as minimum wage, child labor and worker safety, could result in monetary sanctions or the loss of trade benefits.

The U.S. labor agency is separately considering complaints about health and safety conditions at Han Young, which makes chassis for Hyundai trucks. Garza, who oversaw a hearing into the Han Young matter in San Diego two months ago, said a decision on the safety complaints is expected within a few weeks.

The case against Han Young was the ninth complaint before U.S. labor officials involving alleged violations of Mexican labor protections since 1994. All but one concerned union organizing. Three cases have resulted in talks between top labor officials of the United States and Mexico.

The Han Young case--coming amid debate over fast-track trade legislation last year--was cited by U.S. congressional critics of NAFTA who have charged that it would worsen working labor and environmental conditions in Mexico and leave U.S. workers unable to compete.

The National Administrative Office complaint was made by the San Diego-based Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers and other groups after the Oct. 6 election was thwarted despite a 54-34 outcome in favor. The subsequent outcry included protests in front of Hyundai dealerships in two dozen U.S. cities and calls for a boycott of Hyundai cars.

Mary Tong, executive director of the Support Committee, said the impact of Tuesday's report remains to be seen. "A lot of what comes out of this depends on the level of voluntary cooperation on the part of the Mexican government," she said. "To date, we haven't seen a lot."

The panel's findings come as Mexican courts have granted increased leeway to independent unions, Garza said. Mexico's 860,000 maquiladora workers traditionally have belonged to unions associated with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, but usually without ever getting a choice. Control rests in the hands of a few union bosses and many workers are never allowed to see the contract.

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