September 18, 2007
Early this year, the Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacan Valley contacted MSN about troubling events taking place at the Vaqueros Navarra facility. A series of dismissals had raised alarm amongst workers of a looming closure – just as workers were organizing to demand proper payment of the annual profit-sharing benefit mandated by Mexican law.
According to the Commission, the employer had told the workers that speaking up against labour rights violations would likely result in brands canceling orders and a factory closure.
Vaqueros Navarra is the largest and longest-running jean factory owned by the Navarra Group, one of the most powerful garment consortiums in the Tehuacan region employing some 8,000 workers in five factories and two jean laundries.
When Vaqueros Navarra began issuing profit-sharing payments in May, workers scoffed at the miniscule amount – the equivalent of two days’ wages, much less than they had received in previous years.
Though technically members of a union, workers did not receive any support from that organization. Nor would they have expected to – their union, affiliated to the FROC-CROC, is an “official union” known for siding with management and Mexico’s traditional ruling political party, the PRI, which governs the state of Puebla.
So with the help of the Commission, 750 of them formed a temporary coalition of workers, as permitted under Mexico’s Federal Labour Law, and organized protest actions.
On June 20, 400 workers marched to the Local Conciliation and Arbitration Board during their lunch break to demand action on the profit-sharing irregularities. Upon returning to the factory, they were barred from entering – even from retrieving their personal belongings.
The next day, workers returned to the factory and were admitted. However, management illegally dismissed 13 of the coalition leaders, triggering another work stoppage and physical confrontations with police and factory guards that resulted in injuries to 11 workers and the hospitalization of two.
In July, at the request of the Commission and the workers’ coalition, MSN contacted the brands workers had identified as having recently sourced from the Navarra Group – Gap, Levi Strauss, American Eagle Outfitters, The Limited, Warnaco, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Tommy Hilfiger – to urge them to work together to pressure their supplier to put an end to the anti-union harassment.
Meanwhile, Vaqueros Navarra continued to pressure workers to “voluntarily” resign with severance pay, threatening that if they didn’t, they would be fired anyway.
At a worker assembly on July 10, members of the coalition voted to join the September 19 garment workers union, an independent union affiliated with the Authentic Labor Front (Frente Auténtico del Trabajo, or FAT). That same day, the new union filed a petition with the Local Conciliation and Arbitration Board for title to the collective agreement at the factory.
On July 23, Vaqueros Navarra workers sent a letter to all the brand buyers to request their intervention to ensure that the workers’ right to be represented by the union of their choice was respected, that the harassment and dismissals ceased, and that all unjustly fired workers were reinstated.
On August 1, Gap Inc. responded, indicating that it had contracted the US non-profit monitoring organization, Verité, to carry out an investigation into the workers’ allegations. The Gap letter also noted, “Although these allegations must still be confirmed…, we [have] conveyed to top management that the allegations would be concerning if true, should stop if they are taking place, and will need to be addressed if they are confirmed to have taken place.”
Meanwhile the FAT was mobilizing within Mexico’s independent labour movement to lobby the Puebla state government for a timely vote on union representation by secret ballot and in a neutral location.
At the FAT and Commission’s request, MSN issued an action alert calling on unions and other organizations in North America and Europe to add their voices to the demand for a free and fair union representation vote. Thirty-eight trade union, faith and labour rights organizations from around the world responded by sending letters to the state governor.
In August, two meetings were held with the Puebla Minister of Labour involving representatives of the FAT, the Commission, one of the dismissed workers, and the General Secretary of the independent Volkswagen workers’ union. Representatives of Grupo Navarra attended the second meeting.
According Benedicto Martinez of the FAT, the minister made a verbal commitment to hold a union representation vote by secret ballot, but the date of that vote will not be announced until the end of September.
The Verité investigation was completed on August 15. One day later MSN received word from the Commission that worker dismissals had resumed at the factory. According to the Commission, at least 30 workers reported being coerced to “voluntarily” resign over a two-day period.
MSN reported this information to the brand buyers, indicating that it would initiate a public campaign if the harassment and dismissals continued. Gap responded by sending a letter to Grupo Navarra on August 20, requesting that workers who have been dismissed or pressured to resign be reinstated, that management not interfere with workers’ right to freely associate, and that it cooperate with a secret ballot union representation vote. Gap also made it clear that closing the Vaqueros Navarra plant would have an effect on its future business with the Navarra Group as a whole.
According to the Commission, which has been closely monitoring the situation, no further dismissals have been reported as of August 24. MSN is seeking continued pressure from all the brand buyers to prevent further dismissals or a closure of the factory.
At the time of this writing, neither the Verité findings nor corrective action being requested of the employer has been shared with the union, the Commission or MSN. However, MSN has received indications that at least some of the workers’ allegations have been verified.
The 35 workers who filed complaints for illegal dismissals are currently without income, and as the school year approaches, they and their families are facing serious financial hardship.
Further delays by the state labour authorities or the brands on their reinstatement or in setting a date for a union representation vote could therefore weaken the workers’ resolve and jeopardize their chances of winning an independent union.
According to Martinez, when workers petition for an independent union in Mexico, they are usually confronted with harassment by the employer and bureaucratic delays and a rigged election imposed by the labour authorities.
“If we can achieve a democratic vote without further delay, for once workers will be able to vote their conscience, and that will set an historic precedent for the state of Puebla,” says Martinez.