MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s Puebla State, home to factories that produce apparel for brands such as Gap and Zara, is working to improve labor rights after human-rights groups claimed firms violate wage laws and employ children.

“We are working on a plan that will filter out these companies and formalize them,” said Gustavo Bojalil, president of the Puebla chapter of Mexico’s top textiles and apparel industry lobby Canaive.

He recently meet with Mexico’s labor under secretary Jose Rubi to come up with the scheme, which will be launched in the New Year.

“These companies are violating labor laws, employing workers for long hours without overtime and failing to insure them,” Bojalil said. “They can also employ children and have bad hygienic and other operating conditions.”

He cautioned, however, that the small maquilas, which are often set up in people’s homes, are not part of Canaive’s 732 Puebla members, which run in Mexico’s legal or “formal” market.

The plan comes as the Human Rights Commission of Tehuacán, a major maquila hub in Puebla state, said that the clothing industry is committing labor abuses on a national level, with workers shunned from collective wage agreements and often logging 12-hour shifts with no overtime.

The commission’s director, Martin Barrios, said most firms operate in the country’s informal, or black ,market which accounts for six out of 10 apparel items sold in Latin America’s underground economy. However, some top U.S. exporters, notably Kaltex, Grupo Navarra, Jamir, Industrias Oxford and CMT Denim, outsource production to these textile mills with no visibility over workers’ conditions, he said.

Colectivo Obreras Insumisas de Puebla, another workers’ advocacy group, in June filed a collective complaint from several Tehuacan female workers saying many suffered psychological bullying, sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Complaining operators were put on black lists and denied employment elsewhere, it claimed.

Bojalil said the complaints prompted Mexico’s Labor Ministry to approach Canaive Puebla to see how matters could improve, especially due to Tehuacán’s key role as a sourcing destination for the likes of VF Corp., Donna Karan, Gap, Calvin Klein and most recently Spain’s Zara.

The region, which Barrios said is one of Mexico’s largest manfuacturing hubs, employs 50,000 workers.

The federal inquiry spurred the plan, which Canaive hopes will streamline conditions and encourage the illegal shops (which he claimed total 150 of 340 factories in Tehuacán) to join the formal economy.

“We hope they [the firms] will listen to us but if they don’t, they will be punished by the federal authorities,” Bojalil said. He would not say whether the plan will be introduced in other parts of Mexico, where Canaive officials insisted labor rights are more respected.

Barrios begged to differ, however, adding conditions have worsened across the nation where so-called sindicatos charros (corrupt trades unions) favor employers and ban workers from entering collective wage deals.

“The great majority of clothing made for CK, Gap, H&M, Inditex or other U.S. or European brands comes from factories where worker’s don’t participate in collective wage agreements,” the activist alleged.

He added Mexico’s top trades unions — Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants and the Confederation of Mexican Workers – run this way while the very few truly independent syndicates are very small, localized and powerless.

“When foreign brands come to inspect factories, workers are threatened to fake conditions are good and asked to wear mouth shields and other security and hygiene gear,” Barrios added. He noted maquila minimum salaries average 100 to 150 pesos daily, or around $6 to $8, while a 2012 labor reform enabled firms to hire on temporary outsourcing contracts, robbing workers of fixed benefits. Many makers also fail to honor social security or severance compensation when firing workers, often pocketing accrued payments, Barrios charged.

But Bojalil repudiated those claims, saying unions work independently while manufacturers strictly follow foreign brands’ rules.

“They review us constantly and do independent investigations,” he said, adding that formal-economy suppliers are afraid of losing sourcing business amid cut-throat competition from Asian and Central American nations so engaging in labor violations would seem unwise.

Jose Manuel Martinez, Canaive’s general manager at the national level, backed Bojalil, adding that the 2012 reform was approved to end employers’ abuse of temporary contracts, spurring new protections.

“The laws are being respected in formal and legal commerce” across Mexico, Martinez said, adding that export maquilas caught in violations face suspension. “I have no news of labor rights worsening.”

Foreign apparel labels operating in Mexico are stepping up efforts to “certify” suppliers to meet stricter labor and safety operational standards which Canaive and Mexico City are helping orchestrate, according to Martinez.

He said these certifications — which also include “zero discharge” environmental initiatives — have risen 30 to 40 percent in recent years.

“We do not want another Bangladesh in Mexico,” Martinez said, adding that a large, unnamed U.S. manufacturer recently visited Mexico’s Hidalgo, Puebla and Mexico State factories to monitor conditions.

Mexican rights are generally better than Central America’s, where neighboring country Guatemala is battling a U.S. suit under the Dominican Republic — Central American Free Trade Agreement, Martinez said.

“Conditions are better on average, especially in Central and Northern Mexico but if you ask me if they are similar in Oaxaca or Chiapas [southern states bordering Central America], maybe,” he said.