Mexican workers illegally fired in pandemic face long wait without help

Workers in Mexico who are fired unlawfully during the coronavirus pandemic face waiting at least four years before their complaints are resolved, lawyers have warned, potentially leaving tens of thousands with no income or state benefits.

Around the world, millions of people are surviving on lower income or savings as businesses close and families stay at home to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has infected at least 1.4 million people and killed more than 83,000.

In Mexico, more than 346,000 formal jobs were lost between March 13 and April 6, the Labor Ministry said. With the economy predicted to shrink this year, more layoffs are expected in the country that has no federal unemployment benefits.

Mexico, which has more than 3,000 confirmed cases of the virus, last week declared a health emergency, asking people to stay at home and closing non-essential businesses.

The government has encouraged workers to challenge unfair firings or suspensions, but those unable to negotiate a fair severance or partial salary with their employers will have to file claims in Conciliation and Arbitration Boards.

But the boards are closed during the outbreak and cases usually take at least four years to reach a conclusion, while there is already a backlog of 1 million cases, lawyers said.

“They are torture chambers, it’s hellish to be there litigating, waiting hours,” Manuel Fuentes, a labor lawyer who represents workers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“When they are able to open … there will be lines and lines of claims and few workers to take on the cases.”

In the last five years, the federal labor board budget has been cut almost 30 percent to 746 million pesos ($31.7 million).

Mexico’s Labor Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Francisco, in his forties, worked an 8,000-peso ($334) a month job with a contractor fixing office air conditioning units. Last week, his employer offered him a choice: take a 2,800 peso payout or 2 months unpaid leave with social security.

The father-of-three knew that either option would not cover two weeks of bills so he tried to negotiate payment of a portion of his salary. The firm was not willing to compromise, he said.

“I agree that you have problems too, but don’t throw me out on the street like this,” Francisco said he had told his bosses.

Francisco, whose name has been changed to protect him from reprisals, is talking to lawyers about filing a claim against the company to try to receive the severance he is legally owed.

Workers can turn to private lawyers, usually charging 20-50% of any payout, or the public Federal Prosecutor for the Defense of Workers, whose budget has also been cut in recent years.

“Labor justice in Mexico is in a state of collapse after decades and decades of being neglected,” said Gilberto Chavez, head of the Labor Commission at the Mexican Lawyers Bar Association, adding that some workers faced long waits.

Lawmakers passed a major reform of the labor justice system last year which will see labor boards replaced by specialized courts and worker unions enabled to register independently.

But the reform will take years to implement, lawyers said.

Francisco, who lost his job, is looking online and traveling on the still-packed metro hunting for work, but there are few offers. He said he will take the first offer, no matter the pay.

“A lot of companies are closed, but there are still a lot of people in the street,” he said.

Reporting by Christine Murray, Editing by Tom Finn and Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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