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Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Page: 1112

Senator URQUHART (Tasmania) (20:45): I rise to lend my support to the many thousands of men and women across the world who last week took part in the 2012 Global Days of Action for Trade Union Freedom in Mexico. The week of 19 to 25 February commemorates the sixth anniversary of the explosion at the Pasta de Conchos mine in Mexico where 65 workers were killed. The mine is owned by the Mexican company Grupo Mexico, which is in turn owned by the second richest man in Mexico, German Larrea. The bodies of 63 of the men are still buried underground, and the government of Mexico has held no-one to account for this tragedy. Working conditions at the mine were so bad that the general secretary of Los Mineros, the Mexican miners and metalworkers union, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, called it 'industrial homicide'.

The first day of action was held on 19 February 2006 and involved a symbolic and emotional wake from 2 am until 12 pm in the central square in Mexico City. As a reminder that they have yet to receive a decent burial, 63 wooden crosses, each with the name of one of those who died, were placed alongside the helmets of the dead miners, while candles lit the scene. Those present called on the government and on Grupo Mexico to recover the remains of those who died and reminded them that this is technically possible. It is now six years since the miners were killed and to this day bereaved families still await proper compensation and recovery of the bodies for the funerals.

Miners, the local community, the Mexican National Human Rights Commission and the investigatory committee of the Chamber of Deputies echo the call of the Los Mineros general secretary and believe that Grupo Mexico's illegal safety violations killed the 65 miners, and note a pattern of irregularities in the inspection of labour standards. The United Nations International Labour Organisation has also recommended that 'adequate sanctions be imposed on those responsible' for this disaster.

Participants in these days of action demanded that the Mexican government respect the ILO's recommendation to hold those responsible for the Pasta de Conchos explosion accountable, and that adequate sanctions be applied. They also demanded that the Mexican government: abolish systemic violations of workers' freedom of association, including employer-dominated 'protection contracts' and interference in union elections; end the use of force—by the state or private parties—to repress workers' legitimate demands for democratic unions, better wages and working conditions, and good health and safety conditions; end the campaign of political persecution against Los Mineros; and respect the ILO's recommendations on protection unionism, engage in good faith social dialogue with independent and democratic unions and seek out legislative measures to end the practice of protection contracts.

The demands mirror those of the 2011 days of action where over 50,000 activists held massive mobilisations worldwide, and they are particularly necessary because of the steep deterioration in the rights of Mexican workers, particularly their right to collectively organise through a union of their choosing, over the past twelve months. In March last year, the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation called on the Mexican government to end the use of protection contracts concluded between a charro or 'ghost' union and an employer with no consultation or mandate from the workers they cover—contracts which systematically violate workers' rights that are enshrined in Mexican and international law. Despite these strong recommendations, the Mexican government has failed to reply and it appears that no action has been taken up.

It is important to remember that Mexico is a recent G20 host, former WTO host, aspiring Trans-Pacific Partnership member and, as a member of the United Nations, is party to the International Labour Organisation conventions. As such, it is simply not good enough for a country to take with one hand and then turn a blind eye to its international obligations—especially when this impacts on some of its most vulnerable people. Examples of ongoing abuses that demonstrate the worsening of labour rights protections over the past year include: lack of recognition of independent and democratic unions and their democratically elected leaders; mass sackings of workers as a result of the illegal or fraudulent closure of unionised companies; the manipulation of legal and administrative processes for determining union representation and collective bargaining rights; and the sudden appearance of charro or ghost unions in false representation of workers.

I have been provided with a number of examples of ongoing abuses that demonstrate the worsening of labour rights protections in Mexico. I wish to highlight those specifically against the members and officials of Los Mineros. Just days before the explosion at Pasta de Conchos six years ago, the government of Mexico declined to recognise the leadership of that union. The union's general secretary has been democratically elected by its members, twice, but has been forced to operate from exile in Canada for more than half of his term, as the government does not recognise his leadership of the union. The union's secretary-treasurer was released after spending over two years in jail and being subjected to nineteen mistrials, just days after the 2011 Global Days of Action for Trade Union Freedom in Mexico. Thirteen hundred troops provide daily safe passage to an equivalent number of scab workers at the Cananea mine site owned by Grupo Mexico, where Los Mineros workers have been on strike for over 4½ years for improved health and safety conditions. This is after the 10 June 2010 raid on this strike by over 4,000 Mexican government troops in which tear gas and force were used on the miners, who were striking simply for a safe work site. The union is under attack at several other mine sites where three protection unions operate in complicity with the Canadian mining company Excellon to prevent a new Los Mineros local union branch from gaining bargaining rights for 400 workers. The union is also under attack in places where auto parts assembly plant workers are choosing to join. The most important example of that is at the Finnish-owned PKC wire harnesses plant in Ciudad Aculia where 7,000 workers are now facing a legally sanctioned protection union and a concerted anti-worker campaign in a bid to prevent them from having the right to a voice on the job.

I stand with workers and unionists from across the globe at the Days of Action in calling on the Mexican government, through President Calderon, to stop its attack on workers, to implement steps to allow for workers to organise independent democratic trade unions of their choosing, to uphold its internationally recognised obligations and to implement the March 2011 International Labour Organisation recommendations. I urge the Mexican government to do so, through constructive dialogue with unions and social partners, and seek out legislative measures that will end the practice of protection contracts and initiate real change for the advancement of trade union rights in Mexico. I also urge the Mexican government to force Grupo Mexico to remove the bodies of the workers and return them to their families so they can be given the dignity of a proper burial and so that the families can grieve in the proper process.