• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

As U.S. considers the 4-day work week, Mexico debates the 6-day week


Dec 31, 2023


CANCÚN, Mexico — On a recent Friday, like nearly every day, Maricela de la Cruz woke up at 5 a.m. She caught two buses to get from her parents’ modest apartment on the outskirts of Cancún to the J.W. Marriott Resort & Spa. As tourists sunned on the white-sand beach outside, she spent eight hours scrubbing bathrooms and making beds.

The 28-year-old housekeeper works six days every week. So do millions of other working-class people in Mexico — hotel staff, auto assemblers, waiters.

But now, workers in the United States’ No. 1 trading partner are rebelling. The Mexican Congress is debating a constitutional amendment to guarantee employees two days off per week, a proposal pushed by unions. Over eight decades after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in the five-day workweek in the United States, it finally might be coming to Mexico.

“Every worker dreams of this,” de la Cruz said. “More social justice.”

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The Mexican workers’ fight for the 40-hour week comes amid a growing global debate over work schedules. Yet there is a vast divide in how that conversation is playing out. While North Americans and Europeans experiment with a four-day week, many employees in developing countries toil six days — or more. (In India, a tech billionaire recently caused an uproar by suggesting a 70-hour week.)

The debate goes to fundamental questions of workers’ rights and their obligations to their companies and their nations’ development.

De la Cruz joined thousands of cooks, waitresses, bellboys and gardeners marching through downtown Cancún under a late-afternoon sun last month, chanting “Yes to two days off!”

“We’ve seen how other countries have shorter hours than us,” she said.

But Mexico is less productive than more developed countries, said Jesús Almaguer, president of the Hotel Association of Cancún. “First, we have to develop economically and industrially in order to have these” — he paused — “these privileges.”

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A brash lawyer says: ‘This is the moment’

The five-day fight’s most visible champion is Susana Prieto, a raspy-voiced labor lawyer who once worked in an assembly plant in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the maquiladora center across from El Paso After she won election to Congress in 2021 with the governing Morena party, she discovered there had been prior efforts to legislate a five-day workweek. Seventeen of them, to be precise.

“I said, ‘I think this is the moment,’” Prieto recalled.

Morena had a majority in Congress and controlled more than half of state legislatures — crucial for amending the constitution. And party founder Andrés Manuel López Obrador had emerged as Mexico’s most pro-labor president in decades.

Since taking office in 2018, he has tripled the minimum wage, to the equivalent of around $1.80 an hour. He has doubled mandated vacation time, to 12 days a year. He has outlawed the abusive “subcontracting” of full-time employees.

And Latin America was beginning to change. Traditionally, “our model of development has been based on low salaries and raw materials,” said Juan Carlos Moreno Brid, an economist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. But Colombia and Chile, both led by leftists, passed laws this year to shorten the workweek.

In April, Prieto’s bill was approved by the House Committee on constitutional Issues.

“The business owners had a heart attack,” she said.

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Mexican unions become a real thing

The push for change hasn’t come only from above. Unions have become more independent, in part thanks to the revamped North American free-trade agreement that took effect in 2020. In the negotiations, Mexico agreed to reform its system of weak, business-controlled unions. Now, workers have the right to choose their labor leaders by secret ballot.

That has empowered people such as Mario Machuca, the Cancún-based regional representative for the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants. The union has spearheaded protests in favor of the five-day workweek.

“Today, those of us who are [union] leaders can raise our voices in favor of the workers,” he said. “Because we really are their legitimate representatives.”

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The labor reforms are getting an additional boost from a new generation of Mexicans who are more connected to the world — and each other — by the internet, migration and tourism.

Alejandra Chang, 32, grew up watching her father work six days a week as a waiter. Now she does the same at a Cancún resort, Seadust. Between work and her commute — at least an hour each way — she has little personal time. She is determined to change that.

Another day off each week “would change my life,” she said. “I’d see my family.”

José Rubén Cob, 33, a cook at the Hyatt Ziva resort, has no doubt what is driving the worker mobilization. He holds up his iPhone. “It’s because of this,” he said. Workers are using Facebook and WhatsApp to organize demonstrations. “Now, if we share something here in Cancún, you can find out about it all over the country.”

Mexicans work long hours, but productivity lags

Mexico is among the hardest-working of the leading industrialized countries, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. The average worker clocks 2,226 hours a year — 415 more than in the United States, and 540 more than in Canada.

But Mexico has lagged woefully in productivity: GDP per worker grew just 0.1 percent a year from 1991 to 2020, according to the World Bank. Growth across the OECD, a group of mostly wealthy North American and European countries, averaged 1.1 percent during that period. And around half the workforce still labors in the informal sector, with little access to legal protections or benefits. Economists warn that the informal sector could grow as employers try to dodge new salary and schedule reforms.

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In Cancún, a top foreign destination for American tourists, employers worry they will have to hire more workers to fill shifts, and then pass on the costs to consumers. Angélica Frías, the state representative of Coparmex, the national business owners’ association, has two words for the pro-labor folks: Punta Cana.

The Dominican resort “will take away the tourists,” she said. “It will be cheaper to go to other destinations.”

Frías, head of a consulting firm, prides herself on running a modern company. She wears a banana-yellow blazer and jeans. On the wall is a giant stencil of Steve Jobs. But even she has been taken aback by the flurry of labor reforms snaking through Congress.

There’s a move to give new dads a paid, month-long paternity leave. A “chair law” mandates seats and rest breaks for employees who work on their feet. It may not be entirely coincidental, she said, that the presidential elections in June is looming.

Prieto points to studies that show that reducing the workweek can result in better-rested, more-productive employees. But López Obrador, facing blowback from employers, recently urged Congress to hold a new round of negotiations on the change.

The delay hasn’t discouraged the workers in Cancún, who are prepared to march again.

“This is something we need,” said Chang, the Seadust worker. “Two days off.”

Lorena Rios and Gabriela Martínez in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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