“People are buzzing with enthusiasm – you can feel it in the air,” says Luisa María Alcalde cheerfully. It is truly the start of a new era for the people of Mexico: Andrés Manuel López Obrador was recently elected president, bringing hopes of democracy, gender equality, youth inclusion and the end of poverty and corruption.
It is also the first time a Mexican cabinet has achieved gender parity, with eight men and eight women of varying ages. Luisa María Alcalde is the perfect illustration of this new era. The 31-year-old is ready to head up one of the key ministries in the fight to protect workers’ rights – the ministry of labour and social welfare.
Minister of labour and social welfare
Text: Kimber Meyer
How did you get into politics?
I started to get much more involved in politics in 2006. The elections that year were quite controversial, and I began to take more of an interest in what was happening in public life.
When I left law school at the age of 23, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party was starting out as a grassroots association and I was named national youth and student coordinator. We began working in youth circles, getting young people to take part in the movement, which had been around for several years but was developing into more of a formal organization at that point.
Then in 2012, I was elected to the LXII Legislature of the Mexican Congress as a deputy of the Citizens’ Movement party, serving as a federal congresswoman until 2015.
Do you think gender parity is important in the new cabinet and Congress?
I think it’s really important. The fact that the cabinet is made up of the same number of men and women sends out a strong message that should encourage more women to get involved in political life, and public life in general. I think it’s great that the female cabinet members have been given a range of responsibilities. Not only will there be women in various ministries, but they have be given important, high-level positions too.
Our team is gender-diverse and includes people of all ages as well, so we really represent the different visions of our society.
In the past, you’ve often said how important it is to eradicate the discrimination and harassment that women experience in the workplace. How will you do that?
We want to work on several fronts, through the attorney generals, public prosecutors and the welfare ministry. We will seek to integrate women into the workforce and set up childcare facilities at work. We will also team up with the workers’ ombudsman to tackle the discrimination and harassment that women face in the workplace. The problem is that such incidents often go unreported. We want to make sure women feel they can report violence to the authorities.
The “young people building the future” initiative has been billed as one of the government’s key programmes for enhancing the skills of young people.
Do you think the government is going to be able to resolve the issue of youth unemployment in Mexico?
The programme seeks to help young people who want to work but lack the opportunities. They will be given training and support in entering the workforce, and that will help us to ease tensions across the country. The aim is to ensure that young people have the tools and experience they need to increase their employability, and the programme includes one year of on-the-job training. Among the entities involved in the programme, 70 per cent are private, 20 per cent are state-run and 10 per cent are involved in outreach work.
We’re building a network of mentors, and so far the response has been good. Each one of them has something to bring to the table.
On numerous occasions you’ve said that one of your priorities will be to promote fair, high-quality jobs. How do you plan to do that?
We’ll do this in various ways. First of all, we want to foster a labour-related dialogue. We want to bring back genuine collective bargaining to pave the way for democracy and transparency. That will help us create a more balanced system and improve wages.
At the same time, we’re going to change how we ensure that employees’ rights are respected. We will work with the employment ministries in different states and run campaigns with clear objectives to raise workers’ awareness of their rights.
We will campaign against abusive subcontracting practices and incentivize more formal work arrangements. Many people don’t sign up for social security, which can adversely affect them when they reach retirement or want to find a home, so we’re going to address that as well. We will call on civil society organizations to promote compliance with the law. Instead of having inspectors, we’re going to set out clear priorities, with campaigns that always involve the other side.
Finally, at the centre of it all is the national welfare plan, based on the premise that higher wages will bring stability. If we manage to cut unnecessary costs – such as excessively high salaries, expensive travel arrangements and other avoidable expenses – and eradicate corruption, we will be able to boost development and improve education and health care.
One of your proposals is to end the country’s low minimum wage, which currently stands at 88 pesos (US$4.6) a day. How do you plan to increase the minimum wage?
The policy used to be to keep wages low to generate investment. This model encouraging precarious work has failed. We want workers to recover their sense of worth, so that they can live well and with dignity. We are a long way from that at the moment.
We have been working closely with analytical experts who use objective information. We’ve been speaking with the new minister of finance and the Bank of Mexico to find ways to gradually raise the minimum wage. They’ve told us that it’s possible to increase wages without prompting a rise in inflation.
Do you think that major constitutional reform to employment law is needed to prevent violations of workers’ rights?
Yes, it is fundamental. The constitution is a paradigm changer. We intend to use secondary legislation to ensure that justice exists in the workplace, since impartial judges will now be the ones to resolve employment-related disputes. There’ll also be a new, independent institute for registering trade unions and collective agreements. And to bring an end to employer protection contracts, it will become compulsory for free and secret ballots when electing union leaders in charge of signing collective agreements. We will also ensure that there is genuine representation and dialogue.
Do you think that the employment provisions of the new trade deal reached between the governments of Mexico, Canada and the United States are compatible with Mexico’s Constitution?
The labour provisions in the new USMCA trade deal, the ratification of ILO Convention No. 98, the constitutional reform of employment law, the legislation on transparency and the resulting secondary legislation are all pieces of the same puzzle. They all have the same aim and are compatible with the policy put forward by AMLO’s new government, which is to promote democracy, freedom and transparency in Mexico.