The first order of business for the Congress that emerged from Mexico's July 1 general elections is a controversial overhaul of labor law proposed by lame-duck President Felipe Calderon.

The main opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, came out of the summer balloting with pluralities in both houses of Congress, and its presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, will succeed Calderon on Dec. 1.

"Labor reform on behalf of workers and business owners who need it is an urgent matter," Calderon's labor secretary, Rosalinda Velez, said Monday before a committee of the lower house.

The intention of the bill is to create "decent, steady jobs where workers are able to exercise their rights" while offering "incentives" to companies, she said.

The administration's proposal, outlined in 51 points, seeks to promote steady jobs, regulate outsourcing and subcontracting, and allow employers to impose a three-month probation period on new hires.

It would also ban the hiring of minors for high-risk work and would protect women by penalizing sexual abuse and harassment.

At the same time the measure says workers should be paid for actual hours worked, a departure from the current system of a set monthly wage.

"Hourly pay might look like the same system that is used in the United States," Monterrey Tech researcher Angel Lopez Montiel told Efe.

With the difference, he said, that in the United States "hourly pay is remunerated at a much higher rate than in Mexico."

But the biggest controversy sparked by the bill is the transparency it would impose on the accounts of Mexico's powerful unions, with its stipulation that all union associations refusing to provide information - to the workers who ask for it - about the management of union dues could lose those funds entirely.

In response the UNT federation, a group of some 170 unions, has stated its "total rejection" of the idea and has threatened to launch street protests beginning Friday.

The UNT says Calderon's bill aims to cheapen labor by imposing "one-sided flexibility, making it easier to fire employees and undermining genuine collective bargaining."

Furthermore, according to the UNT and a number of union leaders, the measure would end union autonomy.

Business owners, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and even Mexico's Catholic hierarchy have called for the establishment of a new, modern, more competitive labor framework.

The current Federal Labor Law has not been substantially modified since it went into effect some 40 years ago.

The debate comes as Calderon's conservative National Action Party prepares to leave power after 12 years, making way for the return of the centrist PRI, which ruled Mexico without interruption from 1929-2000. EFE