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Economies of care or abuse? Company behaviour in Mexico during COVID-19

The report shows how workers in the maquila, energy and agroindustry sectors have been affected in their health and working conditions; it also shows how companies in these sectors of the economy should achieve better labour practices by incorporating a human rights approach, particularly equality and non-discrimination, in their strategies during the pandemic. The visibility that this report achieves for the specific situations of human rights violations during the pandemic is very valuable, as are the recommendations that companies and employers must assume in the context of this pandemic. The report brings us closer to the realities that governments, businesses and society must and can transform in terms of equality and non-discrimination
Adelina González Marín, Director of Promotion of Culture and Non-discrimination, National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination (CONAPRED)
The ways that companies respond now to the range of responsible business conduct (RBC) issues in the crisis will have lasting repercussions for their balance sheets and productivity during the recovery period. Companies taking proactive steps to address the risks related to the COVID-19 crisis in a way that mitigates adverse impacts on workers and supply chains are likely to build more long-term value and resilience, improving their viability in the short term and their prospects for recovery in the medium to long term. In the short term, keeping sight of RBC in the midst of the crisis will also ensure that the response minimises perverse effects on people and the planet
The OECD Centre for Responsible Business Conduct
It is essential that public and private companies be held accountable for the human rights abuses they commit. This report is just a summary of something that is happening on a large scale in Mexico and the world, and that has deepened during the pandemic. That is why it is urgent to put a stop to corporate impunity as soon as possible and for civil society and communities to remain vigilant and demand that rights be protected.
Fernanda Hopenhaym, Executive Co-Director of PODER
The entire supply chain is plagued with human rights violations that must be made evident. COVID has given companies a reason to further violate human rights with the permission of States under the argument that they "generate jobs and taxes". Both of these fallacies must be systematically denied, and your report contributes to that
Diakonia Honduras

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and human rights abuses in Mexico. The response of federal and local governments as well as business have been widely discussed in the media, at government press conferences, by international agencies and business associations, but no one understands the human rights impact of these actions more clearly than workers, communities and their families. This report presents key findings which highlight prevalent forms of abuse in the country, their drivers and company reactions to allegations.

Key findings included an analysis of 229 allegations against domestic and foreign companies in Mexico raised by the media, civil society, and other public information sources. We selected 42 companies across the business sectors of agribusiness, mining, energy and maquiladora industry (production and assembly factories ranging from electronics, apparel, automobile, etc) to provide more detailed information and invited these companies directly to respond to the allegations. Only seven responded. Companies from the US, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Japan and South Korea are included in the report.

Allegations include:

  • ‘Death bonuses’ offered to keep low paid employees working in non-essential business during the pandemic
  • A ‘temporary’ month long closure of one company which then disappeared closing all staff payroll accounts
  • The company with the highest number of COVID-19 related worker deaths globally is Mexican oil firm PEMEX, according to Bloomberg

Key findings:

  • The most common allegations of human rights abuse by companies were: violations of the right to health (40%) which included lack of implementation of adequate health measures, exposure to or a lack of support for workers in high-risk situations, either in the workplace or in transport to and from their homes; unjustified, arbitrary or mass dismissals (35%); and the rest comprised reduction of wages, "forced vacation" without pay and drops in social benefits, among others.
  • The sectors with the strongest links to international production chains – maquiladora industry and agribusiness - were found to fail at protecting workers against the virus. Almost two-thirds (65%) of all health-related allegations were attributed to maquiladora companies, and thousands of agricultural workers were reported at high risk of contagion, which is evidenced by registered collective infections and deaths in the fields.
  • The maquiladora industry did not suspend operations and failed to implement health and safety measures to adequately protect their workers. Protests and strikes by workers in several states resulted in dismissals (comprising 40% of all abuses) and arrests.
  • In the agribusiness sector, migrant workers were exposed to unsafe transport to fields and factories, overcrowding in the workplace and poor health protections. With a few exceptions like SM Invernaderos and Rancho Los Pinos, public allegations against companies in the sector have been scarce and it is difficult to hold companies to account due to the lack of transparency, including formal or clear labour contracts.
  • Three in five companies in the mining sector were accused of putting the health of workers, their families, and communities at risk. Some companies disregarded the ‘declaration of contingency’ by continuing operations, despite being considered a “non-essential” business. Indigenous and peasant communities considered mining projects to be a source of contagion.
  • In the energy sector, the two most important state-owned companies in Mexico, Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), were criticised for the exposure of workers to contagion, as well as for failing to ensure access to medical care and adequate living standards in the context of a pandemic. According to Bloomberg, PEMEX is the company with the highest death toll of workers due to COVID-19 in the world.
  • Many companies reported positive actions during the pandemic consisting of donations of food and medical supplies, as well as repurposing of their facilities or supply chains to respond to COVID-19’s demands. While some have been welcomed by distressed workers and communities, these actions lie within a corporate social responsibility approach. Companies need to adopt a systematic approach by ensuring respect to human rights in their operations and supply chains.