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Labor Leaders Want Worker Safeguards Built Into Trade Accords

Employment: Critics call NAFTA's complaint system ineffective. Issue unlikely to be addressed in current talks.


What does labor want from the World Trade Organization? Leaders say they're not opposed to global trade, but want enforceable worker protections written into any agreements. What they don't want is the sort of nominal labor protections that were added to the North American Free Trade Agreement in the eleventh hour to appease organized labor.

NAFTA, which sliced tariffs and trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada starting in 1994, led to the shift of hundreds of thousands of low-wage production jobs to Mexico. At labor's insistence, a side agreement to uphold worker rights in all three countries was added. But numerous union and nonprofit organization representatives who have filed complaints said the agreement is virtually unenforceable.

"It's really not worth bothering," said Brett Caldwell, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The labor agreement essentially calls for each country to uphold its own laws, and sets up a mechanism for workers in other countries to lodge complaints if they believe those laws have been violated.

Cooperation is stressed, and for most violations, the highest possible response is a diplomatic talk between labor ministers. Only in cases of child labor, safety violations, or minimum-wage violations can sanctions be imposed.

To date, 22 complaints have been lodged--all but five of them against Mexico, said Irasema Garza, secretary of the U.S. National Administrative Office, which was created to hear the complaints. None have resulted in sanctions.

Garza insisted that the procedure has improved conditions for large numbers of Mexican workers, in some cases by simply shedding light on bad practices.

"It's been a great vehicle for providing public forums for discussions of these very important labor issues," Garza said. "There's always room for improvement, but I think it's a very good model and shows the administration is committed to the inclusion of labor standards in trade."

One example, she said, was the practice of requiring women to take pregnancy tests when applying for jobs in maquiladoras on the Mexican-U.S. border. After an NAO complaint led to high-level discussions, Mexico agreed the practice violated its laws.

Others aren't so sure. Sister Susan Mika, who heads the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras for the American Friends Service Committee, said the procedure for filing complaints is so cumbersome, most workers are discouraged from pursuing it. "Often these workers don't even have telephones. They're living in colonias [poor neighborhoods], making $25 a week. They don't have time to go through this."

Mika said proof of the treaty's ineffectiveness is seen in falling wages and high injury rates in border factories. "In many cases, workers are considered used up at 29, and there's nowhere for them to go but the streets," she said.

A case in point is the Han Young factory in Tijuana, where workers claimed they were exposed to dangerous working conditions, and then threatened and fired when they tried to form an independent union.

An NAO complaint was filed in the case in 1995, and eventually was heard by a U.S. Labor Department panel, which found Han Young management violated Mexican labor laws. That was two years ago. Still, the independent union has not been recognized and the fired workers have not been reinstated.

Labor leaders said such outcomes underscore the need for enforceable labor protections, to be built into trade agreements.

"We believe in trade. Our workers benefit from international trade," said Caldwell of the Teamsters. "But we need smart trade policies, clean trade as opposed to dirty trade, policies that protect children and all workers. It's our responsibility as the country that has some of the most protective laws in the world."

"The constant refrain we hear is that these [labor protections] don't belong in trade agreements. But if we can protect intellectual property and capital, why not labor?" said Paul Krell of the United Auto Workers. "We agree with the WTO that world trade is essential to raising the living standard of people around the world. But we also believe that in order for that to happen, workers around the world need to have a mechanism to make that happen."

Such an outcome is unlikely, however. Even President Clinton's proposal to create a working group to study labor and environmental protections--which labor says does not go far enough--has found little support among members from developing nations. The WTO stated on its Web site before the Seattle meeting began: "Labor is not on the agenda."

Raul Hinojosa, director of the Center for North American Integration and Development at UCLA, said his research has shown that while NAFTA's effect on the overall labor force has been relatively small, it has disproportionately hurt the poorest, low-skilled workers of all three countries. High-skilled, productive workers have benefited.

The same effects can be expected from global trade liberalization, according to Hinojosa, who said international bodies such as the WTO and World Bank must find ways to help the world's poorest adjust. For that, the NAFTA labor agreement could be instructive.

"It's the foundation of a model," Hinojosa said. "I do think there's room for improvement that would allow for a larger number of labor laws to be included, as long as it's very transparent and isn't used as a ruse for protectionism. In the end, the question is, what mechanism is there for enforcement?"

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