Mexican union calls for U.S. probe into alleged labor abuses at Panasonic plant

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MEXICO CITY, April 18 (Reuters) - A Mexican union on Monday asked the U.S. government to investigate a Panasonic plant for alleged worker rights abuses, the latest in a series of disputes seeking to leverage a new trade deal to improve workplace conditions in Mexico.

In a petition to U.S. labor officials, filed on Monday and shared with Reuters, Mexican union SNITIS said a Panasonic (6752.T) car parts plant in the border city of Reynosa violated the 2020 United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) by signing a union contract behind workers' backs and firing several dozen employees who protested.

"It's important to keep the U.S. government informed that worker rights are being violated," said Rosario Moreno, head of SNITIS, an independent union that grew out of worker dissatisfaction with traditional labor groups in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

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"They were given a contract they didn't even know about," Moreno said of the Panasonic deal with rival union SIAMARM.

The U.S. government was reviewing the petition, a Biden administration spokesperson said on Monday.

Asked about the alleged abuses, Panasonic Corporation of North America said it was committed to complying with Mexico's labor laws and collective bargaining process, and had "the strongest of interest" in ensuring the dispute does not impact employees' freedom to collectively bargain.

It also said the dispute was between SNITIS and SIAMARM and "does not directly involve Panasonic." Panasonic's Reynosa plant employs nearly 1,900 people and makes car audio and display systems, mostly for U.S. and Canada export.

Both Panasonic and the Tamaulipas labor board, where the contract that SNITIS says was signed without worker consent was registered, said the deal was legal.

The USMCA, which replaced the 1994 NAFTA, ushered in tougher labor rules designed to empower Mexican workers to demand better salaries after years of pay stagnation and help prevent low labor costs from leeching more U.S. jobs.

Under the deal, which was contingent on Mexico upholding a major labor reform aimed at breaking the grip of dominant unions accused of being cozy with employers, workplaces that fail to ensure worker rights can be sanctioned with tariffs and other penalties.

The United States launched the first USMCA probes into labor violations in Mexico last year, demanding better worker protections amid union disputes at automaker General Motors (GM.N) and Tridonex, a U.S.-owned car parts plant. read more

The Rethink Trade program at the American Economic Liberties Project, a U.S. non-profit that pushes for corporate accountability, co-signed the petition with SNITIS.

The dispute at Panasonic grew out of a vote last year in which workers rejected their union contract.

Such votes are required by the labor reform to end the once widespread practice of unions and companies signing so-called "protection contracts" without worker knowledge.

Labor authorities then scheduled a vote April 21-22 for workers to choose between two other unions vying to take over the contract - SNITIS and SIAMARM.

However, SNITIS says Panasonic signed a contract with SIAMARM ahead of the April election and began to withhold union dues from worker paychecks.

SIAMARM, part of one of Mexico's biggest labor groups, the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), could not be reached for comment. The group's Facebook page says it fights for the well-being of its members.

Under the contract, which was seen by Reuters, salaries begin at 261.49 pesos ($13.10) a day - barely above Mexico's daily minimum wage of 260.34 pesos. The highest position earns 315 pesos ($15.81) a day.

($1 = 19.9250 Mexican pesos)

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Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer, Lisa Shumaker and Aurora Ellis

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