May Day Protests Cancelled by Swine Flu (H1N1) As Mexican Workers Face Yet Another Crisis

In Mexico, May Day, the international labor holiday, has been cancelled for the first time in the country’s history.

All of the major federations — the government-backed, conservative, and often corrupt “official” unions of the Congress of Labor (CT) as well as the independent National Union of Workers (UNT) and Mexican Union Front (FSM) — have called off their planned May Day activities in Mexico City because of recommendations from health officials concerned about swine flu, or as it is now being called H1N1.

The independent unions had planned to march in support of the Mexican Miners Union, now locked in a life-and-death struggle against Grupo Mexico and the Mexican government.  But the unions have had to postpone their protests.  H1N1 has stopped the Mexican workers’ demonstrations, at least for now, but it has not stopped unions from speaking out.

One union coalition has issued a statement strongly criticizing government policies and arguing that the government response to the flu epidemic, like its response to the drug cartels, has harmed Mexican workers, not simply because of its failure to find the measures to contain the disease, but also because of the economic and psychological impacts and the feared further loss of workers’ rights.  The effects on workers are many.

Workers Get Unpaid Layoff

Already facing the partial militarization of the country because of the government’s war with the drug cartels — a war that has taken 8,500 lives — and an economic crisis that has caused plant closings and layoffs, now Mexican workers find themselves facing health risks, psychological stress, and the economic consequences of the swine flu.  José Angel Córdova Villalobos, Mexico’s Secretary of Health, ordered a five-day suspension of all non-essential services from May 1 until May 5, meaning a forced and in many cases unpaid layoff for many workers.

CANACINTRA, the National Chamber of the Manufacturing Industry, announced that its members did not have to pay wages to workers staying home those five days.  An attorney for the Chamber explained that under Article 427 of the Federal Labor Law, employers do not have to pay workers when the business is closed because of force majeure, that is due to forces beyond their control.  The current health emergency is just such a force majeure.  While the Chamber’s spokesperson recommends that employers pay workers, there is no guarantee that they will and a good chance that they won’t  (Manuel Lombrera y Julián Sánchez, “Trabajadores pagarán el mayor costo del paro,” El Universal, May 1, 2008).

While most workers will be affected by the five-day layoff, the tourist industry has been hit especially hard by the swine flu, and there could be much longer layoffs there.  The Mexican border towns of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez have already lost tourist business because of the drug war violence, now H1N1 is affecting other areas as well.  The illness in Mexico has led a host of countries — Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, the United States, and others — to recommend that their citizens avoid Mexico.  Some airlines have cancelled or cut back on flights while cruises are being rerouted around Mexican ports.  Tens of thousands of U.S. tourists are now in the process of leaving the Mexican Caribbean Riviera to return home.  Hotel, nightclub, and restaurant workers will no doubt face layoffs.

Grupo Mexico, Maquiladoras Continue Working

Despite the government’s call for non-essential businesses to close, Grupo Mexico, the mining company, and maquiladora plants along the border have announced that they will keep working.  Grupo Mexico, already responsible for the death of 65 miners at the Pasta de Conchos mine on Feb. 19, 2006, according to the International Labor Organization, apparently has no more regard for questions of public health than it does for workers safety. 

César Castro of the Nacional Council of the Maquiladora and Export Manufacturing Industry (CNIMME) told the press that the maquiladora plants would ignore the government’s public health order and “continue to meet our obligations to the corporations.”  He said that some workers would work from home by computer, that special precautions would be taken with pregnant women, who would be sent home, and that all workers would be issued masks.

“Terrible Fear” and “Severe Panic”

The Mexican Union Front has issued a statement accusing Secretary of Health Córdova of “complete ineptitude,” claiming that the government knew of this flu since February and did nothing about it.  The FSM argues that the Secretary of Health’s incompetent responses have been responsible for the development of a “violent media campaign which has provoked terrible fear and a severe panic among the national population, the result of a lack of real, verifiable, and clear information which would have allowed our population to recover the calm so necessary at moments such as these” (FSM, “Alto a la política de miedo y sicosis frente a la contingencia sanitaria”).

The FSM also objected to the latest health decree which gives the government the right to enter into any building in order to carry out its work and the power to shut down any meeting or gathering.  With the recent war on drugs having led to a long string of abuses by the military, as reported recently by Human Rights Watch, the union is understandably suspicious of the government, its motives and objectives.  HRW’s 76-page report details 17 cases of military abuses against more than 70 victims in 2007 and 2008.  “The abuses include killings, torture, rapes, and arbitrary detentions.  Not one of the military investigations into these crimes has led to a conviction for even a single soldier on human rights violations.”  The unions clearly fear that the health emergency will be another excuse for violations of workers’ rights and human rights.

What Is the Real National Emergency?

The Mexican Union Front points out that thanks to neoliberal economic policies, Mexico is a nation of tremendous economic disparities.  While Carlos Slim, the country’s richest man has a fortune valued at 35 billion dollars, and others like Grupo Mexico owner Germán Larrea are also incredibly rich, 20 percent of all Mexicans live in extreme poverty.  Poverty, the FSM suggests, is not irrelevant to wellbeing and public health.

The FSM points out that 3.3 million children between 6 and 14 years of age work in Mexico, while 8,000 children die every year from malnutrition.  Yet, asks the FSM, has the government ever called that a national health emergency?  “Never!”

Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer and activist.  Contact him through his home page: <>.