Why the leader of Mexico's mine workers union is looking to limit concession terms

Bnamericas Published: Tuesday, December 06, 2022
Why the leader of Mexico's mine workers union is looking to limit concession terms

Morena party senator and general secretary of Mexico's national mine workers union (SNTMMSSRM), Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, is pushing a legislative proposal to reform the mining law.

Changes his bill proposes include reducing the length of mine concessions to 15 years from 50 currently, establishing violations of labor rights or environmental permits as grounds for revoking exploration and exploitation permits, as well as making it obligatory to carry out two environmental impact assessments before starting any works and banning exploitation of minerals in protected natural areas.

BNamericas speaks with Gómez Urrutia about his bill and the modifications to the federal labor law in 2021, which capped the distribution of profits to workers at 10%.

BNamericas: How advanced is your legislative proposal to reform the mining law? What are the next steps?

Gómez Urrutia: It's very much alive and in process. I submitted a reform bill just over a month ago in the mining and regional development committee of the senate, so that the different members of the committee could analyze it and give us feedback. I think that we will soon have the meeting so it can be approved and, once approved, the next step is to submit it to the plenary of the senate. 

There are members of all parliamentary factions on the committee, but in the full senate it would be as it has been approved. Then it would have to go to the lower chamber and, if it were approved by both, it would obviously be published and go into force.

BNamericas: What is the main contribution of your reform proposal?

Gómez Urrutia: There's a lot. We need the sector to grow in a more balanced way, taking more into account the needs of not only the workers and people employed in this sector but also the communities where the companies operate – care and respect for the environment, care and respect for Mexican laws. 

This is something on which we've backed the president [Andrés Manuel López Obrador]. He has always said that investment in the mining sector, domestic or foreign, is welcome, as long as it meets four conditions: that they respect Mexican laws, that they respect the rights of workers, that they respect communities and the environment.

BNamericas: Is the main proposal to reduce the number of years for which concessions are valid?

Gómez Urrutia: It is one of the main proposals, yes, because currently they're up to 100 years; 50 years and renewable for another 50, and the deposits generally last an average of 15 or 20 years at most. Some mines last centuries, but they are exceptional cases.

BNamericas: And what benefits would this reduction in the length of the concessions bring to the mining sector?

Gómez Urrutia: First, it would promote exploration and it wouldn't be monopolized by just a few companies, which is what has happened. 

Over the last 30, 40 or 50 years, mining concessions have been concentrated in the hands of a few national and foreign companies and this has meant that there's no equitable development for the rest of the small or medium-sized companies. That's why the three or four richest businessmen in this country are miners, among others.

BNamericas: The industry has criticized the government for not granting new concessions. Does your bill include any proposal to reactivate awarding new ones?

Gómez Urrutia: Well, this has been a criticism made by the industry because they always want more. Some companies accumulate millions of hectares and don't exploit them, and eventually they don't even develop them into mining projects, but they end up as developments of other kinds.

BNamericas: Is anything being done in the senate to facilitate the delivery of titles for the concessions that have already been approved?

Gómez Urrutia: Of course. The whole bureaucratic and administrative areas should be improved, but only once granting of concessions is resumed, as long as they comply with these four fundamental concepts of the law.

BNamericas: Is the national mining union also protecting itself against the amendments to the federal labor law that arose after the labor reform, leading to a cap of three months on payments of profits to mine workers?

Gómez Urrutia: This is an initiative that I promoted in the senate and … of course we didn't want to put conditions on or limit [payments of profits], because I believe that distribution of profits is a right of workers and that's recompense for the efforts made throughout an entire year. The law states that it should be 10%, and what we want is for that 10% to be met.

[Editor's note: Workers are eligible for a 10% cut of profits under Mexican law, but these profit-sharing bonuses were capped at the greater of three-year trailing average payments or three months’ salary when the government banned subcontracting last year] 

BNamericas: What is the status of the legal challenge? How has it progressed and how many people are covered?

Gómez Urrutia: I really don't know how many are covered. What we have seen with each particular case with the companies is that the 10% profit-sharing is obtained and approved as it is stated in the law and we've achieved that in our union, but I think that others haven't. We've enforced the law as it is. 

What was established in the reform is that there should be a maximum of 90 days of compensation, but that's a suggestion, a proposal, but the 10% is stated in the law. That hasn't been removed.

BNamericas: But will you promote a change in the legal text that resulted from the labor reform so as not to have to negotiate the 10% profit-sharing each year?

Gómez Urrutia: I think we will eventually, yes. For now, that's not under discussion. There are other important issues in the labor reform, but of course it will be done. It should be very clear and defined.

BNamericas: Does your union demand changes to the reformed federal labor law?

Gómez Urrutia: I don't know. Probably some organizations have said they're going to do it, but we haven't. [These negotiations] are conducted directly with the companies. 

We've done it in many ways, but as long as they comply, we don't care about the name, the title, whatever it's called, whether it's considered a special bonus or compensation. The important thing is that it's fulfilled and that the worker receives the benefits they're entitled to.

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