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PROFILE: Putting her life on the line for workers

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2 December, 2014Mexican human rights lawyer, Alejandra Ancheita, has faced death threats and a personal smear campaign in defending the rights of workers, indigenous communities and migrants.


COUNTRY : Mexico

TEXT: Leonie Guguen

As founder and executive director of human rights organization, ProDESC, (the Project of Economical, Social and Cultural Rights) Alejandra Ancheita has worked tirelessly to get justice for mine workers and rural communities whose rights are threatened by multinational companies.

In recognition of her bravery, Ancheita was granted the prestigious Martin Ennals Award in Geneva, Switzerland on 7 October. Dubbed the Nobel prize for human rights, it is presented to individuals who have shown deep commitment to their cause in the face of great personal risk. The international accolade is designed not only to highlight their work but also protect the winner through increased visibility.

It is a huge honour, not only for the recognition of my work and the work of my organization, but also in recognition of the dangerous conditions that human rights defenders are facing in Mexico,

she said on receiving the prize.

Ancheita and ProDESC have collaborated closely both with IndustriALL Global Union and affiliates in Mexico and the US, Los Mineros and the United Steelworkers (USW), on organizing campaigns. She has also worked with US affiliate AFL-CIO in defense of migrant workers.

But her commitment comes at a cost. While campaigning on behalf of mine workers against Canadian mining group Excellon Resources, and for communal landowners and indigenous communities against Spanish multinational, Renovalia Energy, she came under immense pressure and intimidation.

Over the past two years, Ancheita and her colleagues have been under surveillance outside their homes and offices, and watched while they visited communities and workers. ProDESC offices were broken into and Ancheita was subject to a personal smear campaign in the national media, with a leading newspaper calling her the Devil’s advocate.

“First they started defaming the work of ProDESC as a human rights organization, saying that we were just manipulating the workers and the communities. Then they attacked me on a personal level,” says Ancheita. “Of course that intimidation and defamation is trying to create a public opinion where if something happens to me the general feeling will be that I was looking for it.”

The situation for women human rights defenders in Mexico is particularly difficult, says Ancheita, as they challenge the traditional perceptions of the role of women in society.

Ancheita’s father was a lawyer equally dedicated to defending the vulnerable. After receiving numerous death threats, he died in mysterious circumstances on her eighth birthday.

“I come from a family committed to social justice,” says Ancheita. “I was raised with two very important principles. One was the principal to look for dignity, not just in myself but also in others around me. The other was the principal of equality. It sounds easy but exercising dignity and equality in a society like Mexico will always be a challenge.”

Ancheita also credits the Zapatista revolutionary movement in her decision to concentrate on becoming a human rights lawyer. The indigenous uprising coincided with the start of her university studies in 1994. She describes the student activism in support of the movement as an awakening in how to use the law to give power to the excluded sections of society.

Labour rights are human rights

As a lawyer, Ancheita believes fighting for workers’ rights is a key way to advance human rights.

“The possibility to improve labour rights is the chance to improve democratization of every single society in the world,” she asserts. “Traditionally, human rights defenders only work in the civil and political rights field but freedom of association and collective bargaining are part of the economic, social and cultural rights of every society.

“Organizing a union is the chance to have the collective power to demand, in a respectful and peaceful way, better conditions of work and life from government and industry,” she stresses.

However, Ancheita says the lack of independent unions in Mexico is a significant problem. She blames the so-called ‘official’ unions (employer protection contract unions), who work in alliance with the government and corporations, for making obstacles for the exercise of real freedom of association for workers in the country.

“Most workers don’t have a strong union defending their rights. So we decided to work for the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining… For example, health and safety conditions are related directly to the ability to elect a union that will be fighting for their rights and bargaining for better conditions with the company.”

Success for mine workers

ProDESC has had particular success in helping to organize workers at the Canadian mining company Goldcorp in the state of Guerrero. After running workshops helping employees to identify their rights, the workers decided to organize and affiliate to the democratic national mining union, Los Mineros. ProDESC helped the workers to bargain their collective contract, which is now one of the most advanced in the Mexican mining industry.

Notably, ProDESC also organized women cleaning Goldcrop’s offices in Guerrero, who had not originally been considered as mining workers.

“We created this link so that when the miners went on strike they went on strike together. This way the miners consider the cleaning workers as part of the industry and they are also included in the collective bargaining contract. It is an important advancement.”

ProDESC was able to maximise pressure against Goldcorp by making alliances with the USW in Canada, where the company is headquartered, and where it employs USW members.

Corruption is endemic

While Mexico has advanced labour laws, with freedom of association a constitutional right, Ancheita blames the endemic corruption and impunity in the Mexican legal system for a breakdown in justice.

“The government has the obligation to protect human rights defenders. If it does nothing to prevent these kinds of defamation campaigns and also the intimidation we are facing, the government is responsible, not necessarily by action, but by omission.

“Democratic unionists are always under pressure,” she adds. “We have the example of leadership of the electricians union and national mining union leader – who are both under pressure from the government. On the local level, the workers that are trying to organize their colleagues are also under huge pressure from the local government and federal government.”

Ancheita explains that people bringing transnational corporations into account are frequently under attack. Intimidation is ‘regular’ in Mexico, she says.