DOL to Review New Allegations at Mexican Factories

Friday, February 13, 2004

The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Administrative Office (NAO) has agreed to review allegations by two advocacy groups claiming the Mexican government has failed to enforce its law protecting the rights of workers at two garment factories, according to a DOL press statement issued on Feb. 9.

A complaint was filed by United Students Against Sweat Shops (USASS) in Washington, D.C., and Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador (CAT) in Puebla, Mexico, under the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, the negotiated labor provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement that deals with the enforcement of labor laws and the improvement of labor conditions and living standards for workers in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The organizations filed the 48-page submission with the government of Canada on Sept. 30. The DOL’s panel has up to 180 days to review the case and issue a public report.

The organizations filed the submission on behalf of garment workers whose repeated requests for an independent union were denied by the Mexican Conciliation and Arbitration Boards, according to Sweatshop Watch, a workers’ rights group in Oakland, Calif.

The complaint focuses on two apparel factories in the state of Puebla: the Tarrant Mexico-Ajalpan factory and the Matamoros Garment Factory.

Last year, the Tarrant Mexico-Ajalpan factory laid off several hundred garment workers, including several union supporters, according to CAT, which is also known as the Workers Support Center. The factory had employed 1,400 sewers, dyers and finishers who filled private-label orders for prominent customers such as The Limited, The Wet Seal Inc. and Federated Department Stores Inc. Last month, the factory laid off its remaining work force and shuttered its operation, CAT said.

Gerard Guez, chief executive officer and founder of the Tarrant Apparel Group in Los Angeles, was not available for comment.

Garment workers at the Matamoros Garment Factory claimed the factory’s owners had denied them the right to collective bargaining— the process by which employees negotiate the conditions of their employment. Some employees alleged that the factory had failed to provide required occupational safety and health protections.

Garment workers at both factories were seeking better working conditions and profitsharing opportunities. Under Mexican law, employees are entitled to a share of their employer’s profits, according to Robert Jeffcott, a policy analyst for the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network, a grass-roots organization that promotes respect for workers’ rights in maquiladora factories and other export processing zones in Mexico and South America.

“Over the years, we have developed an expertise of Mexican labor law,” said Lewis Karesh, the acting director of the NAO. “But we will have to review the complaint to take a look at the allegations that were made, and come up with a determination of whether the Mexican government has been effective in enforcing its labor laws.”

Karesh said the review process will be lengthy and include interviews with the groups that submitted the complaint, Mexican government officials, local officials, labor organizations and the manufacturers that contracted work at the factories.

The latest submission by USASS and CAT is the 17th complaint filed with the NAO—15 involve labor violations in Mexico and two involve labor violations in Canada. In some of those cases, the U.S. government has conducted “consultations” with government officials in both countries, Karesh said.

“Effective enforcement of labor laws is fundamental to the labor principles to which the U.S., Canada and Mexico are committed under the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation,” said Karesh. “To this end, the Labor Department intends to conduct a thorough review.” —Claudia Figueroa