NAFTA Labor Black Hole Lessons for the Fast Track Debate

Five years ago, Mexican workers at two factories in Tamaulipas state owned by U.S.-based Breed Technologies initiated a work stoppage to protest unsafe working conditions. Workers in these two plants, called Customtrim and Autotrim, glue and sew leather around automobile steering wheels and gear shifts. As a result of poor ventilation and the fast pace of work, illnesses and injuries are extremely common. Plant managers, however, tell disabled employees, known as "jonkeados" (junked workers), that their problems are merely psychological.

The work stoppage was just the beginning of a multi-year struggle by Customtrim and Autotrim workers to improve conditions, not just for themselves, but for the entire maquiladora zone along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their story offers powerful lessons about the failure of current U.S. trade policy to strengthen labor rights - lessons that members of Congress should examine carefully as the Bush Administration forges ahead with plans for a hemispheric trade deal as well as bilateral and multilateral pacts.

When the work stoppage failed to pressure their employer to address health and safety concerns, the Cutstomtrim and Autotrim workers turned to the mechanism set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement to handle labor rights violations. During the debate over NAFTA, promoters vowed that the agreement would strengthen labor rights enforcement in all three participating countries - the United States, Mexico, and Canada. However, during the eight years since NAFTA went into effect, more than 20 complaints have been filed and not a single one has produced significant results, aside from a bit of publicity.

The Customtrim/Autotrim case is perhaps the strongest to date. The lead petitioner was the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a tri-national alliance of union, religious, and other organizations with more than a decade of experience in advocating for worker rights in the U.S.-Mexican border region. More than 20 other organizations, including the AFL-CIO, joined as co-petitioners.

At a December 12, 2000 hearing in San Antonio, Customtrim and Autotrim workers provided moving testimony about their work-related illnesses. One worker who had been at the plant for more than eight years testified that "For about three and a half years now, I have suffered from respiratory and throat problems, which I believe have been caused by working for years with toxic glues and solvents. I now suffer from a constant cough that never goes away. I also frequently get throat infections and sometimes cough up blood. I sometimes feel as though I can't breathe properly - that I can't get enough air and that I'm gasping…I am now often dizzy and have almost constant nausea and stomach pain."

On April 6, 2001, the U.S. agency established to investigate complaints under NAFTA issued a strong report confirming the workers' allegations of chemical exposure and injuries from poor ergonomic conditions. More importantly, the report found that the Mexican government had failed to effectively ensure that employers protect the health and safety of their workers. Under the NAFTA labor agreement, it is not enough to find that violations have occurred; the government must be found to be negligent in enforcing its laws.

Customtrim and Autotrim workers involved in the complaint, particularly those who had taken great risks to travel to San Antonio to testify, were jubilant when they learned that the Bush Administration had confirmed their allegations.

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But it is at this point that the Customtrim/Autotrim complaints (and all the others, for that matter) appears to have fallen into a black hole. The U.S. Secretary of Labor is supposed to be consulting with her counterpart in Mexico to resolve the problems raised in the complaint. And yet after more than a year, there is no evidence of significant results. If they cannot produce a remedy, they are supposed to move the case to the next step in the process. This is the creation of an expert committee that would give recommendations, possibly including economic sanctions.

But the stagnation of the Customtrim/Autotrim case reveals a fatal flaw in the process. There is no deadline by which the labor ministers must conclude their consultations. They could go on for 20 years claiming that they are consulting away, and there is no means of forcing them to take further action.

Rep. George Miller (D-CA) has initiated a drive by members of Congress to rescue the Customtrim/Autotrim case from the black hole. In a letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao on the Customtrim/Autotrim case, he and other members of Congress demand that she provide a detailed report of progress and, if no progress has been made, to advance the case to the next step in the process. They state that "We believe that it is particularly important for members of the U.S. Congress and the public to have a clear picture of U.S. enforcement of labor rights provisions under NAFTA, especially given the Bush Administration's efforts to expand NAFTA through the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement."

The Customtrim/Autotrim workers have been waiting for two years to see some results from their NAFTA labor complaint. Meanwhile, most of those involved in the complaint are either disabled or fired and blacklisted from other jobs in the maquila zone. They had faith that when the NAFTA promoters said that the agreement would help strengthen labor rights, that they were telling the truth. But today there is little belief in NAFTA's promises for workers. We can only hope that our policymakers might learn from the lessons of the NAFTA experience and oppose any future deals that elevate the interests of corporations, particularly those that violate rights with impunity, above those of the rest of us.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies. She is the co-author of Field Guide to the Global Economy (New Press, 2000).

From the website of Radio Progreso. Copyright 2001-2002.

For Spanish version of this article, click here.