Workers from Mexico, where many U.S. companies operate large facilities, staged a protest outside the building where the meeting was being held. They claimed their complaints about working conditions and occupational safety and health in some of those facilities along the border were largely ignored or disregarded by both the Mexican and U.S. governments.
"Closed meetings of government functionaries - the same ones whose inaction prompted the complaint in the first place - is hardly an effective, transparent and meaningful resolution for workers who have been trying since 1997 to get to some improvement in their working conditions," says Garrett Brown, coordinator, Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network.
Formed under the auspices of the North American Free Trade Agreement's labor arm - the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) - the group brings together technical experts from the three nations to advance cooperation and programs in key areas of occupational safety and health. The group is headed by each nation's top occupational safety and health official.
"The workplace and businesses of our nations are interconnected and interdependent," Henshaw said. He promised the working group will product results "that will benefit us all by reducing injures, illnesses and fatalities in all workplaces throughout North America."
The working group established four subgroups to focus on the key areas of: inspector and technical assistance staff training, the handling of hazardous substances, safety and health management systems and voluntary protection programs, and communications and best practices sharing, including the establishment of a trinational Web site that will link each country's occupational safety and health programs.
The fear of the protesting workers and advocates - that very little substantive progress would be made by the group - appears to be true. In this second meeting, the Working Group appeared to spend most of its time on housekeeping tasks. It ratified terms of reference outlining how it will operate. Similar terms were agreed to for the four technical subgroups, including the involvement of labor and business organizations. While the Working Group will continue as a government-to-government body, each country will decide how to include labor and business organizations on a case-to-case basis, meaning that the protesting Mexican workers, and the groups that support them, could continue to be shut out of the discussions.
The Working Group will meet semiannually and monitor the performance of the subgroups. After each meeting of the Working Group, a communication will be issued indicating progress and next steps.
Consensus of the group is that training is a key component in improving occupational safety and health throughout the three nations. As a result, the U.S. committed to provide training and educational materials to Mexico and to establish train-the-trainer courses for use by Mexican technical assistance staff and inspectors. Mexico will translate these materials to offer support for U.S. efforts to better reach its Hispanic workers. In addition, the training subgroup will discuss possible long-term goals regarding an occupational safety and health degree program and the development of educational resource centers to provide for continuing educational courses in Mexico.
The group also recognized the importance of systems for hazard classification and labeling. Each country committed to review its internal systems and consider the UN-supported Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labeling of Hazardous Chemicals. Future work may cover information exchanges regarding issues such as best practices for compliance, the dissemination of hazardous substance information to workers and employers and processes for certifying independent laboratories that monitor exposure to hazardous substances.
The three countries also recognized the importance of effective safety and health management systems as a factor in reducing work-related injuries and illnesses and other related costs. As a result, the subgroup will examine the similarities and differences in their existing voluntary safety and health management systems and programs and recognize exemplary programs across all three nations.
Finally, the three countries recognized the need for consistent communications and best practice sharing. Consequently, the three countries committed to utilizing the OSH Working Group Web site to share information on best practices, to link to their national occupational safety and health programs to their respective communities, and to communicate information on the efforts of the Working Group to the public.