Date: Fri, 13 Dec 96 11:59:25 CST
Subject: NAFTA & Inter-Am Trade Monitor

From: (Dale Wiehoff)

NAFTA affects health and safety

From NAFTA Inter-American Trade Monitor, 13 December, 1996

The North American Working Group on Sound Management of Chemicals, formed by the NAFTA watchdog Commission on Environmental Cooperation, held hearings in Mexico in late October on plans to eliminate mercury, PCBs, DDT and chlordane from the North American environment. The working group will present action plans to the U.S., Mexican and Canadian environmental secretaries. DDT is widely used in Mexico for malaria control, and Mexico also exported 21 tons of DDT to Colombia, Panama and Guatemala last year. The action plan calls for 80 percent reduction in DDT use in five years and elimination over 10 years.

The effect of NAFTA on workers' health and safety was the subject of a panel discussion at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in November. Panelists pointed out that NAFTA is part of a continuing process of globalization of economies under a neoliberal ideological framework.

According to Professor Jorge Villegas of the Metropolitan Autonomous University, Xochimilco campus, in Mexico City, aspects of this framework include favoring large industry and transnational capital over small and medium-sized enterprises; increasing productivity through use of technology and elimination of workers' control over the labor process, accompanied by elimination or erosion of the collective bargaining process; and control of inflation at the expense of wage-earners and the unemployed by depressing wages and advocating fiscal policies that discourage creation of new jobs.

In Mexico, proposed "reforms" to labor laws include restriction of the right to strike, elimination of job security, and increasing productivity by loosening occupational health and safety standards without regard to occupational health risks. Specific examples include individual experience ratings for workers' compensation, rather than industry-wide ratings. That means that each business will pay a premium based on its claims history, resulting in a strong incentive to employers to under-report work injuries. Another proposal will transfer responsibility for workplace health and safety inspections from the Mexican government to private contractors.

The maquiladora assembly plant sector is now second only to oil in generating foreign income for Mexico. More than 80 percent of maquiladora investment comes from the United States, with maquiladoras receiving permanent government subsidies, including tax breaks and regulatory exceptions. Two-thirds of the 850,000 workers in 3,600 maquiladoras are women.

According to Cathy Walker, Health and Safety Director of the Canadian Auto Workers of Ontario, Canada, concern about free trade's impact on Canadian social institutions began with the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Canada and continues under NAFTA. Canadians feared that free trade would mean harmonizing Canadian laws downward to the lower U.S. standards, and would pressure workers to accept worsened working conditions because of the threat of plants moving to the low wage and largely non-unionized southern United States.

Canadian health and safety laws are built around worker's right to participate in joint management-worker health and safety committees; right to know about workplace hazards; and right to refuse hazardous work. In Ontario, the most populous Canadian province, welfare has been cut by $200 per month, hospitals have closed and health care workers have been laid off - all since the election of a conservative government in 1995. Anti-scab legislation, which protects unionized workers who go on strike, has been repealed. Severe cuts in funding to the Ministry of Labor included elimination of 20 percent of health and safety inspectors and of all ergonomists and half of the technical staff.

Canadian workers have responded with letters, petitions, meetings, and one-day general strikes called Days of Protest.

Kevin G. Hall, "NAFTA Working Group Closer to Halting Use of 4 Chemicals," JOURNAL OF COMMERCE, November 4, 1996; "NAFTA and Occupational Health: an International Perspective," MEXICAN LABOR NEWS AND ANALYSIS, 12/1/96.