Women’s Rights in Mexico: From Labor Unions to Labor Pains: Pre & Post-NAFTA 2011

HIST 652       Women in Modern LA       Dr. Liz Hutchison                Timothy Sipp        5/13/11

Women’s Rights in Mexico: From Labor Unions to Labor Pains: Pre & Post-NAFTA


Research into the historical development of Mexico’s economy and organized labor after the 1917 Revolutionary Constitution and the Federal Labor Laws of 1931 and 1970 is a good beginning from which to observe the parallel development of women’s rights at work and at home and the evolution of Mexican Feminism pre and post-NAFTA. The future of women’s rights in Mexico is far from certain. There are many obstacles to the realization of gender equality in Mexican society. These barriers to change exist throughout the realpolitik, reinforced by gendered socio-economic structures and robust religious norms.

Mexico is uniquely and prominently placed in current world affairs as a nation at a crossroads. As America’s southern neighbor, second largest trading partner, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) member and frontline co-combatant in the War on Drugs; Mexico is transforming from a post-dictatorial, Left-leaning revolutionary state, to a modern multi-party democracy. The transition is not without winners and losers both politically and economically. As always, class matters, but it matters more when you are also a woman. The primary concern for women is over the balance of neo-liberal reforms and a staunchly conservative, Catholic culture where femininity is rigidly constructed. The historic gender division of labor and social roles is being contested but the deep-held beliefs of both men and women could prevent Mexico from developing equitably by integrating women’s rights more fully in a time of great opportunity.

The political opening of Mexican government and the reforming of governance in light of the UN’s Charter on Human Rights, and the Beijing Convention on Women’s Rights, has afforded women greater legal protections and educational opportunities than ever before. NAFTA’s economic liberalism and labor protection provisions of the NAALC (North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation) have sought to ensure women equal access to employment and fair treatment of all employees in order to prevent extreme job flight to Mexico’s maquiladoras from American factories and widespread labor abuses.

The signing of NAFTA brought mixed-blessings to Mexico. Unpredictable business cycles occurred and depressed wages due to increased international competition. Many workers’ benefits that both the traditional corporate unions and more radical independent unions had negotiated in years past dissolved without immediate recourse. Mexican workers lost many collective bargaining rights to government intervention in favor of big export businesses, mostly maquiladoras, foreign-operated factories for U.S. clients. The process to organize their own independent unions, to better represent their concerns to corporations and government, have become so restricted that Mexican laborers fear for their jobs if they make waves about their rights as workers and women.

The working women of Mexico have lost the most to these regressive trends in labor relations. Women are forced to prove that they aren’t pregnant to be eligible for jobs in maquiladoras and must often prove menstruation to maintain employment. In spite of this practice being in violation of Mexico’s 1917 Revolutionary Constitution and Labor laws of 1931 and 1970, employers, principally maquiladoras, insist that Mexico’s labor laws protect employees only, not job-seekers and therefore they are not in violation of any national laws or international conventions. Attention has been focused on this issue with no clear progress as the international pressure and domestic political will to compel systematic change does not currently exist.

The Mexican feminist movement has constantly and consistently lobbied against these sexist employment practices and for increased access to abortion as a reproductive right and not just a marginalized issue of public health. Their efforts have succeeded in spreading informational awareness and increasing access to contraceptives and therapeutic abortions for rape and maternal health, but not towards their ultimate end of emancipating women’s bodies from intrusive state and corporate social controls tied to Catholic dogma and profit.

Modern Mexican labor law has its roots in the armed revolution “that concluded with the adoption of the Political Constitution of the United States of Mexico in 1917. Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution entitled ‘Labor and Social Security,’ expressly recognizes and protects the inalienable rights of workers. This was the first constitutional recognition of labor rights in the world.”[1] This groundbreaking piece of legislation also provided for women’s rights in the workplace but didn’t have the practical enforcement mechanisms needed to effectively implement these revolutionary reforms. The codification of the Federal Labor Law (Ley Federal de Trabajo) in 1931 ensured, among other things, worker protections for women and children, the eight hour work day, profit sharing and the right to earn a living wage. [2] It also challenged long held gender norms inherited from conservative Catholic patriarchal institutions where women’s place in society was narrowly defined and strictly regimented.[3]

The seven decade rule of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) after 1917 instituted and guarded the triangulation of corporate unions sympathetic to government pressures over their members’ needs, government labor authorities and big business, both domestically based and foreign-owned (Maquiladoras).[4] The early cooption of organized labor into predictable political operating formulas that fostered centralized top-down control over labor has made forming worker-centric independent labor unions extremely difficult and politically costly for the average worker and may even get them blacklisted from employment.[5]

The PRI government sponsored unions included the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) the Federation of Unions of Workers at the Service of the State (FSTE) and the National Peasant Confederation.[6]  Together these unions and the government formed the Federal Boards of Conciliation and Arbitration (JFCAs), “which, together with local boards, regulated union recognition, collective bargaining and the legality of strikes.”[7] The structure of the boards is such that to petition for an independent union license, all of the officers and the members of the new union would have to submit their names, addresses and occupations to the board for consideration. Moreover, balloting is not secret but conducted in full view of the attendees. This vulnerable system has resulted in widespread intimidation and violence throughout Mexico in recent decades as workers seek to make gains or minimize losses of hard won benefits.[8]

The developments of organized labor in Mexico both pre and post-NAFTA have espoused three major forms of collectivization. The first form of labor union is the “Cartel” union or pro-corporate union, which in recent years has practically handed over all of the gains in wages and benefits that were made in previous negotiations, especially in maquiladoras. These unions, however, do act on behalf of most of the perceived needs of their members and made what they thought were necessary sacrifices to remain competitive.

The second form of labor union in Mexico is known as the sindicatos fantasmas or ghost unions.[9] These “unions” specialize in “protection racquets” and form in advance of planned economic development in a targeted area for a particular industry. The ghost union insinuates itself in the deliberations of the prospective business and the local government to provide a reliable, pliable and inexpensive work force often without the employees knowing that a union “represents” them. These mafia-like unions often only have meetings to inform their workers of wage reductions, quota increases, union fee increases and new, usually more restrictive, rules.[10]

The third form of union is the most worker-centric. They are referred to as “independent unions” and they have their roots in the 1960s and 1970s became fairly influential before NAFTA but have lost some of their bargaining power since the influences of globalization have changed the dynamics of labor.[11] The UNT or National Union of Workers is the umbrella group of which the FAT or Authentic Labor Front is one of the largest constituent members.[12] As mentioned, there are three imposing obstacles to forming an independent union: the union must have a legal registration or registro; the state must recognize the union’s right to negotiate for laborers on collective bargaining agreements, titularidad; and the union must periodically re-register its officers and be accepted by the state, toma de nota.[13] 

Not every description of “ghost unions” in the media is the same. A website for North American Production Sharing Inc.(NAPS) actually promoted ghost unions as necessary to the Mexican economy under its ‘Labor Laws in Mexico’ section,

Mexico labor laws offer protections to workers as stated in the Ley Federal de Trabajo (LFT) or Federal Labor Law, enacted in 1931. The LFT established Juntas de Conciliación y Arbitraje (the Boards of Conciliation and Arbitration), made up of representatives of the government, employers and labor unions. A union must have a legal registration (registro) to negotiate collective bargaining agreements and must periodically re-register its officers and be accepted by the state. In addition, it is common practice in Mexico for employers to work with friendly “sindicatos fantasmas” or “ghost unions”. Due to the importance of the maquiladora sector to the Mexican economy, the industry has developed systems to provide an affordable and stable workforce, while adhering to Mexican labor laws.”[14]

NAPS negotiates foreign investment into maquiladoras and prefers to work with sindicatos fantasmas because they know how to navigate legality and efficacy. These unions have proven a willingness to use any leverage including physical violence to maintain their grip on the employees they claim and punish harshly those that seek to organize and link –up with the UNT or FAT.[15] Women suffer the most abuse at the hands of these ghost unions.

            Mexican workers enjoyed much higher quality benefits than their American counterparts before NAFTA. The trends in employment saw women in the remunerated workforce triple from World War II to the 1980s and in 2004, domestic labor accounted for 17% of Mexico’s GDP according to Mexico’s President Fox.[16] With the increase in working women, the incidence of sexual harassment has also increased despite laws protecting them. The most prevalent form of ongoing and widespread sexual harassment is the intrusion of companies into the private lives of their employees, primarily their female employees.[17]

            Women are required to submit to a pregnancy test as part of the application process for most jobs in maquiladoras in Mexico, which supply most of the manufacturing jobs in Mexico.[18] This is the most blatant of all institutionalized acts of sexual discrimination despite de jure rulings against such practices. There is a loophole in the language of the Mexican Constitution that allows the pre-screening of candidates, since only employees are covered by Federal Labor Laws. Current employees in many positions are forced to take maternity tests on the job to prove that they are not pregnant or attempt to gain maternity benefits.[19] This situation is specifically addressed by respected Mexican feminists like Marta Lamas, independent labor union leaders like Benedicto Martinez, the head of FAT, the UN High Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and the various international trade unions based in the U.S. and Canada tied to Mexican labor through NAFTA. All of these groups have found the practice to be in violation of international law and have called for immediate changes.[20] No changes have been made en masse, but some women have recouped severance pay and other maternity benefits.

            Women in the Mexican workplace have overcome many hurdles to occupy the prominence that they now hold as more than 30% of the remunerated labor force. But women have not achieved equality, either at work or at home. At work women make 60-70% of men’s wages and receive much less job training and advancement opportunities.[21] Much of this dynamic can be attributed to Mexico’s predominantly patriarchal Catholic culture and heavily gendered division of labor, both in and out of the home.[22] Perhaps the speech of the former Mexican Minister of Labor and the Interior, the late Carlos Abascal, a devout Catholic, on International Women’s Day in 2001 can best describe the government attitude towards women at work.

In his speech, Abascal extols the virtues of “re-valorizing women’s work” in the post-NAFTA Mexican economy. Abascal calls for five different aspects of working women to be addressed for the greater good of the Mexican fatherland. All five points are predicated on a gendered labor system that provides for a “separate but equal” solution to socio-economic ills taking into account a woman’s “… natural gift of femininity which makes her apt for her special contribution to the development of the humanity of the country.” The Mexican Labor Secretary continues to insist that Mexican women’s traditional domestic labor (being a housewife and mother) were vital to the future of the nation.

            What is interesting is that the speech occurred during an economic slow-down, amid factory closings and losses of previously-negotiated gains for organized labor. The advent of NAFTA opened Mexican labor markets to global pressures too quickly leaving many workers vulnerable to wage and benefit decreases or losing jobs to cheaper foreign labor (Abascal said so himself August 15th, 2003 when advising his Central American counterparts during their negotiations with the U.S. on DR CAFTA.). 

Abascal’s apologetics for women to stay home and be satisfied with being a good housewife and mother are more robust than his offerings for equity and equal opportunities, giving the reader/listener decidedly more reinforcement for pursuing a “more traditional role” in Mexican society, e.g. keeping house and raising children. Abascal’s openly conservative Roman Catholic faith is the foundation for his political views and his treatment of working women in post-NAFTA Mexico.[23]

            Patricia Espinosa Torres, the director of the National Women’s Institute in Mexico, responded to Labor Secretary Abascal’s International Women’s Day speech. I take her comments from an article discussing Abascal’s speech in the same issue of Mexican Labor News and Analysis (April, 2001 Vol. 6, no. 4 Special Issue – International Women’s Day) edited by Dan La Botz with correspondents in Mexico: Peter Gellert and Michal Kohout.

            Ms. Espinosa Torres counters Mr. Abascal’s assertion that women must be careful not to “masculinize” themselves while they seek economic enfranchisement backed by more equitable worker-centric labor reforms. She suggests that she would speak “about the need to feminize the world and society” instead and points out that this statement is indicative of the need for change in Mexican culture concerning gender equity and equal opportunity.

Torres laments the ongoing sexual harassment and barbaric intrusion into working women’s privacy as forced pregnancy tests or proof of menstruation are conditions of hiring and continued employment. Torres convincingly calls for Mexico’s labor laws to be reformed to provide legal protection for working women’s rights, including opportunities for training and promotion.[24]            

These two verbal records frame one of Mexico’s most important & ongoing domestic issues. Ten years later the situation has not improved significantly for women despite economic growth and exponential increases in women with higher educations. Education by itself can’t fix a culture of systemic discrimination, but it is a start to increasing female descriptive representation in the economic and political realms of Mexican society.[25]

Mexican women have more access to education, employment and information regarding contraception as well as actual contraceptives, but abortion has remained the untouchable goal of Mexican feminists. Abortion is still only permitted for the cases of rape and maternal health (the mother may die if the fetus isn’t aborted). Women have been empowered through progressive legislation from suffrage to domestic violence laws and property rights within the marriage. All of these liberal improvements to Mexico’s de jure culture further women’s rights at work and at home. Unfortunately, although many more women are represented in the workforce, most management positions, both blue-collar and white-collar are beyond the glass ceiling. But according to Marta Lamas, the premiere Mexican feminist academic and abortion advocate, Mexican constructs of femininity are directly tied to notions of motherhood and the sexual double standard is prolific. Lamas also informs us that “Mexican feminism has not emphasized the oppression of housework, the role of the housewife, and the responsibilities associated with motherhood.”[26] Therefore many of the new middle class women in Mexico inadvertently add to the suffering of the lower classes of women by employing them as domestic labor that doubles as day car, lowering the formal pressure for institutionalized care to allow women to participate at higher levels of academic, professional and political achievement.[27] Lamas laments the lack of organization and unity in the various factions of Mexican Feminism and predicts that the revolutionary rhetoric is preventing greater assimilation of a wider section of the population including younger women and men from joining their cause. Lamas states that approaching women’s rights more like American interest groups is probably the best way forward.[28]


Mexican culture is diverse across states and between indigenous peoples and those of European descent. The emergence and expansion of the middle class, the end of single-party rule and the implementation of NAFTA have further stratified Mexican society along educational and employment opportunities. Within given ethno-linguistic and geographical communities and across class and gender, the people have greater access to their government through a multi-party electorate and growing NGOs garnering international attention through NAFTA labor union associations and the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Sexism is still rampant throughout Mexican society as the culture of conservative Catholic-informed machismo and machisma still prevails as the overriding gender-based social norm. Despite Gallup polls finding that 75% of Mexicans polled thought that abortion should be a woman’s choice, there is no concerted political will to reform abortion access any more than to increase availability and quality of care for cases of rape and maternal health. There is no perceived need to risk the enormous political capital that it would take to confront the power of the Catholic Church in Mexico to push for full reproductive rights for women.

Though a renewed sense of Mexican Feminism is taking hold, the women’s movement in Mexico has suffered from historical sectarian divisions over identity politics that have weakened the movement politically, academically and trans-generationally with concerns that the new generation of educated women is turned-off by the revolutionary rhetoric of the preceding generation of feminists. Marta Lamas suggests that a new vocabulary be established that speaks to a wider audience of women and men in the pursuit of equality.

[1] Mark E. Zelek and Oscar de la Vega, “An Outline of Mexican Labor Law”, Labor Law Journal (July 1992) : 466-470.

[2] Dan La Botz and Robin Alexander, “The Escalating Struggles Over Mexico’s Labor Law”, NACLA Report on the Americas (July/August 2005): 16-38. Taken from www.NACLA.org in March 2011.

[3] Marta Lamas, “The Role of Women in the New Mexico”, Mexico’s Politics and Society in Transition ,eds. Joseph S. Tulchin and Andrew D. Selee (Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 2003), 127-141.

[4] La Botz and Robin Alexander, The Escalating Struggles Over Mexico’s Labor Law: 17.

[5] Robert Bryce, “Gripe on Mexican Labor To Get NAFTA Hearing”, Christian Science Monitor (April 26, 1995, Wednesday): pg. 6.

[6]  La Botz and Robin Alexander, The Escalating Struggles Over Mexico’s Labor Law: 17-18.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John H. Hovis, Jr., Bruce J. Klipple, and Robert B. Kingsley, “Letter from UE General Executive Board to Fox, Abascal” March 24, 2002, reprinted in Mexican Labor News and Analysis Vol 7, No. 4, May 15, 2002.

[9] Fred Rosen, “Mexico’s New Labor Culture: An Interview With Union Leader Benedicto Martinez” September 11, 2008. Taken from www.NACLA.org in March of 2011. 

[10] La Botz and Robin Alexander, The Escalating Struggles Over Mexico’s Labor Law: 17-20.

[11] Fred Rosen, “Mexico’s New Labor Culture: An Interview With Union Leader Benedicto Martinez”

[12] Enrique De la Garza, Crisis in Labor Union Models in Mexico: Some Options (Toledo: University of Toledo Press, 2002)

[13] Ibid

[14] http://www.napsintl.com/labor-laws.php

[15] Fernando Pedrero, “Mexican workers complain of black listing at companies” NoticiasFinancieras [Miami] 26 July 2005

[16] “President Fox says domestic labor represents 17% of Mexico’s GDP” NoticiasFinancieras [Miami] 9 March 2004

[17] Emilio Godoy, “They first asked me if I was pregnant” IPS [Montevideo] 5 March 2009

[18] Emilio Godoy, “Persistence of discriminatory practices against women in Mexico” NoticiasFinancieras [Miami] 6March 2009

[19] Sam Dillon, “Sex Bias is Reported by U.S. At Border Plants in Mexico” The New York Times

[20] UN: Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, “Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women” Mexico 14 May 1998

[21] Manuel Pastor Jr. and Carol Wise, “Mexican-Style Neoliberalism” The Post-NAFTA Political Economy: Mexico and the Western Hemisphere (University Park, Penn State Press 1998): 54-56

[22] Marta Lamas, “The Role of Women in the New Mexico”, Mexico’s Politics and Society in Transition ,eds. Joseph S. Tulchin and Andrew D. Selee (Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 2003), 127-141.

[23] Dan La Botz, “Abascal ACauses Furor regarding Women” Mexican Labor News and Analysis, April, 2001 Vol. 6, no. 4 Special Issue – International Women’s Day

[24] Ibid

[25] Mario Osava, “RIGHTS: Women More Educated, Not More Equal:” IPS [Terra Viva] – 1 March 2010

[26] Marta Lamas, “The Role of Women in the New Mexico”, Mexico’s Politics and Society in Transition ,eds. Joseph S. Tulchin and Andrew D. Selee (Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 2003), 131.

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

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