Labor groups say Mexico and U.S. violate worker rights under NAFTA
Farmers carry a banner with a message that reads in Spanish: "For national sovereignty, no to NAFTA!" during a march protesting the North American Free Trade Agreement, in Mexico City, July 26, 2017. More than a thousand farmers from multiple Mexican states marched to protest against the treaty that has allowed in lower-priced imported grains from the U.S. which farmers say have harmed their ability to make a living. | Rebecca Blackwell / AP

WASHINGTON—The Mexican government has violated its already weak workers’ rights laws for the last 24 years under NAFTA, the AFL-CIO formally charged in a petition to the U.S. Labor Department office which, under the so-called “free trade” pact, handles such complaints. And a pending labor law from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto would only make things worse, the federation added.

At almost the same hour, the United Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), an independent union of Oregon farm workers, and Farmworker Justice together filed a formal complaint to the same agency, saying the U.S. government breaks NAFTA, too, with the way it runs the H2-A visa program for seasonal migrant farmworkers.

The petitions came as the U.S., Canada, and Mexico launched yet another round of talks on a “new NAFTA” in Montreal on Jan. 25. The round lasted through the weekend, and worker rights are a key difference between the three nations.

Workers and unions are campaigning, including sending observers to the talks and marching through the streets of Montreal, for no new NAFTA or one with extremely strong and enforceable worker rights written into its text, to raise Mexican wages and working standards.

That would both improve Mexican workers’ lot and slow, if not halt, the headlong corporate rush from the other two countries to transfer plants, call centers, other enterprises, and jobs to low-wage no-rights no-environmental standards Mexico.

The Mexican government is insisting on retaining the current North American Free Trade Agreement’s weak labor provisions and submerging them into a side letter with the ineffective enforcement of “consultations” should one of the other two nations break its own labor laws.

The Trump administration claims it wants to write worker rights into a “new NAFTA” text but is vague on enforcement. U.S. unions are wary of the administration’s stance.

Canada says it wants stronger worker rights provisions in the text, too, including repeal of so-called “right to work” laws in both nations south of its border. But Canadian unions now wonder whether Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will stick to that stand after Trudeau lauded a “new” Trans-Pacific Partnership—with Mexico but not the U.S.—with virtually no worker rights at all.

With all that as a background, the AFL-CIO and the farmworker groups filed their complaints with the Labor Department’s National Administrative Office,  set up to handle such issues under the current NAFTA. “Mexico is out of compliance with its labor obligations” under the pact, AFL-CIO International Affairs Director Cathy Feingold said.

The AFL-CIO complaint deals solely with worker rights in Mexico, and not the impact of such lax regulations and weak laws on U.S. workers. The Economic Policy Institute has calculated NAFTA cost up to 1 million U.S. factory jobs in the last 24 years, and the Communications Workers contend it’s costing thousands more in call centers alone.

“Labor law and practice in Mexico have long prevented workers from freely exercising their right to freedom of association, among other rights,” says the 42-page AFL-CIO complaint, which Mexico’s Union Nacional de Trabajadores also signed. Under NAFTA, there is no deadline for the U.S. Labor Department’s office to rule on it. A similar complaint, against Guatemala under another “free trade” pact, took eight years—and then the Labor Department dismissed the abundant evidence of Guatemalan law-breaking.

“The heart of the problem is the ‘protection contract,’ which is a ‘collective agreement’ signed between an employer and an employer-dominated union without the involvement or sometimes even the knowledge of the workers the union is supposed to represent,” the AFL-CIO began.

“The purpose of the protection contract is to lock in low wages”—the lowest among the developed nations tracked by international organizations—and to prevent independent unions which “would insist on better wages and working conditions.”

The protection contract virtually bars independent unions, and when workers try to throw out the company union on their own, that union, the employe,r and the government “collude to intimidate the workers through delays, verbal threats, physical violenc,e and dismissal…. This system continues because Mexican labor authorities allow it to happen.”

A new Mexican labor law, introduced by Peña Nieto’s allies in Congress in December, would only worsen the situation, the AFL-CIO and the independent Mexican union told the Labor Department.

That legislation would eliminate the current requirement for individual dismissals to be in writing, cut fines and injured workers’ repayment if the firm breaks already lax job safety and health laws, and would encourage mass dismissals, among other things. It would also ban separate professional unions for pilots and aviation flight attendants.

And it would virtually bar Mexican workers from challenging the company unions—or any other abuses—in court.

The Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), Farmworker Justice, and Pineros y Compesinos Unidos del Noroeste, plus a Mexican workers’ rights group, filed the complaint with the same Labor Department office—but against the U.S. government’s visa program.

A 1983 federal law was supposed to protect migrant farm workers in the U.S., who are not covered by other federal laws. But growers and farm labor contractors—middlemen—have been abusing the H2-A visas, which now number about 200,000.

And while other farm workers can sue in federal court against law-breakers, the H2-A visa holders, the temporary farm workers, are stuck in state courts. Their exclusion “deprives them of labor protections, remedies, and access to federal courts, all of which have been deemed important and effective to protect migrant workers in the United States,” the two farm worker unions and their allies said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.