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January 15, 2024

Strengthening Unions to Fight Organized Crime: Labor Reforms as a Path Forward for Mexico

By Andrea Daniela Fuentes, ABA ROLI Intern

Mexico’s labor industry is plagued with significant challenges in providing legal services for workers, including low settlement rates, prolonged lawsuits, inadequate compensation, and widespread worker unawareness. According to Justice in Mexico, organized crime institutions rank as Mexico’s fifth largest employer. These criminal institutions employ approximately 160,000 to 185,000 people, and on a weekly average, 350 people are recruited into organized crime. The harsh economic climate and democratic decline in Mexico prompts residents to turn to illicit means of income for survival. A deliberate effort has been made by Mexico's government and business tycoons to dismantle labor rights and unions. By strengthening union representation and improving labor legislation for Mexico’s residents, democratic institutions can deter organized crime involvement.

Across Mexico, unions advocate for employees to receive equitable treatment, fair wages, and safe working conditions, among many other benefits. Mexican unionization rates are lower than the global average (12%), demonstrating the need for adequate labor legislation and legal representation for unions. Several complex issues continue to impact Mexico's labor market, such as informal employment, poorly developed social protection systems, and inadequate or late wages. These unjust policies bred poverty and exploitation, which breeds the perfect environment for cartels to seize control. The Mexico Social Security Institute provides data indicating that Mexico's average monthly Salary is MXN 16,449.22 (approximately 820 USD), $3.50 USD per hour. In contrast, the organized crime and illicit industry generates over $13 billion USD annually. Illicit activities generate income and status that often far exceeds what is offered by the general labor market. It is only through comprehensive labor reforms and union representation in Mexico that viable alternatives can be offered to the financial attraction of illicit industries.

Aspects of the interconnected strategy to improve labor conditions and union representation, as well as combat organized crime, include holistically addressing socioeconomic vulnerabilities, labor rights, criminal infiltration, impunity, and transparency simultaneously across sectors to disrupt injustice. These changes if enacted offer viable alternatives to the organized crime's financial gains. In 2019, Mexico’s courts enacted substantial labor law reforms, replacing Conciliation and Arbitration Boards with new labor courts and introducing conciliation centers to ensure job security and improve societal and individual well being. It is anticipated that these reforms will address long-standing issues, improve efficiency, and broaden the roles of labor justice institutions. However, proper and effective reform takes a substantial amount of time. Thus, it calls for additional advocacy and assistance to effectively implement the reforms. 

Although Mexico implemented the labor law reform, challenges persist. The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) in conjunction with the Government of Canada are implementing a project named "Strengthening Legal Representation of Workers and Trade Unions in Mexico," which focuses on enhancing the protection of workers' rights in line with Mexico's new labor law. ABA ROLI proposes leveraging its expertise to train labor justice institutions and implement sustainable changes. ABA ROLI  provides outlets and recommendations for improving legal counseling, promoting conciliation, enhancing officials' capacities, establishing clear policies, setting measurable goals, providing gender equality training, and implementing a professional career service to close the gaps of legal labor disparities.

Mexico stands at a crossroads in its attempts to secure labor rights and combat organized crime. In order to ensure successful implementation, extensive training, resources, and time are required. Further reforms must be pushed through organized action in order to hold institutions accountable and empower unions. With the continued effort of the Mexican Government to reform labor law, and ABA ROLI’s initiative, empowered unions can now uplift and unify workers to improve working conditions, provide deserving and equitable pay, and improve the general labor market and legal labor atmosphere in Mexico. A more equitable and opportunity-based labor system can be implemented by Mexico in order to eliminate the unjust labor system that feeds organized crime.

Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across Latin America and the Caribbean.

The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the authors and editors and should not be construed to be those of either the American Bar Association unless adopted pursuant to the bylaws of the Association. Nothing contained herein is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. These materials and any forms and agreements herein are intended for educational and informational purposes only.