Date: Fri, 29 May 98 14:45:13 CDT
From: Michael Eisenscher <email@example.com>
Subject: Mex. Unions Use NAFTA to Defend Workers; Teamster Candidate
US Unions Use NAFTA to Help Workers
By Ken Guggenheim, Associated Press Writer, Thursday, May 28, 1998; 5:48 p.m. EDT
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- American unions are testing a new tool to improve conditions of migrant workers in the United States: the North American Free Trade Agreement they so strenuously opposed.
Using provisions from a side agreement to the pact, four Mexican unions aided by their U.S. counterparts filed a complaint in Mexico on Wednesday charging that migrant workers in Washington state have been denied their rights. Most of the estimated 45,000 migrant workers who pick and pack apples in Washington are Mexican.
Labor unions have been among the strongest opponents to NAFTA, the trade bloc encompassing the United States, Canada and Mexico implemented in 1994, because of concerns U.S. jobs would be lost to lower-paid Mexican workers.
To address those concerns, a side agreement aimed at protecting worker rights was added which basically requires member countries to enforce their labor laws. Unions say the agreement doesn't go far enough, but in the case of the apple workers, they're testing it.
"It may sound contradictory, but we don't think it is," said Maria Figueroa, a senior analyst with the Teamsters in Washington. "We think it is a legal avenue that is open that can be used to expose its own weaknesses."
The complaint charges the United States with failing to enforce health and safety standards and protect the right of workers to organize. It was presented Wednesday to Mexico's Labor department, said Berta Lujan, an official with the Authentic Workers Front, a Mexican union involved in the complaint.
The complaint could eventually lead to arbitration and result in fines against the U.S. government or the loss of NAFTA tariff benefits, said Pharis Harvey, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, which worked with the Mexican unions.
The director of the Washington Growers League, Mike Gempler, said his group hasn't had a chance to review the complaint in detail, but "on the surface, it appears that it's really a public relations effort primarily."
"It seems as if the Mexican unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and international labor have found the NAFTA complaint process an additional vehicle for calling attention to their organizing efforts in Washington state," he said.
The apple industry's labor protections include special laws covering seasonal workers, he said.
This is the 11th complaint filed under the side agreement since NAFTA took effect in January 1994. Most complaints involved U.S. unions charging that Mexico has failed to enforce workers' rights.
The new complaint "helps to establish that the labor side agreement is a trilateral agreement and not just a tool for Americans to beat up on Mexicans," Harvey said.
Lujan said unions today need to think globally. Low labor standards in one country "become the norm for the entire region," she said.
Guadalupe Gamboa, regional director of the United Farmworkers of America in Sunnyside, Wash., said he is unsure anything will come of the complaint.
Still, "it's a beginning," he said. "The pressure of public opinion sometimes can work when the law is weak."
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press