NSC: Workers Protest 'Secret' Meetings

Most of the protesters stood in silence, tape over their mouths, to symbolize what they feel is an attempt by the U.S. and Mexican governments to shut them up about health and safety conditions in manufacturing facilities along the border.

A group of workers and members of non-government organizations held a press conference Monday outside the San Diego Convention Center to protest what they called "secret" meetings of the government-only "Binational Working Group on Occupational Safety and Health," appointed by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Mexican government. One of the goals of the working group is to resolve a occupational health and safety complaint filed under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) at the Autotrim/Customtrim plants in Matamoros and Valle Hermoso, Mexico.

The workers and NGOs claim they are being shut out of the process and denied a voice in the proceedings, and demonstrated that fact by covering their mouths with tape during the press conference. Thirty-seven members of Congress, including Senators Paul Wellstone (D, Minn.) and Edward Kennedy (D, Mass.), sent letters to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao denouncing the working group as an insufficient response to the workers' complaints.

"Workers are waiting patiently with hope," said Martha Ojeda, executive director, Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, San Antonio, Texas. "The Mexican government is failing consistently in guaranteeing the safety of workers."

After waiting five years to find out the outcome of the NAFTA complaint, said Ojeda, "all we [get] are secret meetings behind closed doors, excluding workers. They can spend forever on talks…and offer nothing to workers."

For his part, Assistant Secretary of Labor-OSHA John Henshaw said at a press conference later in the day the time had come to get down to business, adding the inclusion of workers or representatives from the NGOs in the meetings would be a distraction.

Connie García, policy advocate, Environmental Health Coalition, San Diego, said the process of filing the complaint under NAFTA "failed in its basic mandate, to protect the health of workers and the environment."

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