Mexican Workers, Supporters, Want to Participate in Tri-National Working Group

Maquiladora workers on the United States-Mexico border renewed their demand on March 15 for a voice in the Tri-National Working Group on Occupational Safety and Health.

The working group was established in 2002 in part to address the workers' 1998 complaint filed under the "labor side agreement" of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"None of the four existing subcommittees of the Tri-National Working Group are addressing the problems actually encountered by workers on the job, nor the problems encountered when workers have attempted to get government agencies to actually do their jobs," said a letter from Monica Schurtman, associate professor at the University of Idaho College of Law, who represents the Mexican workers at Breed Technologies plants in Matamoros and Valle Hermoso, and the leaders of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras and the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network. "These key issues, described in detail in the complaints and the NAO reports, are totally absent from the working group's current generic discussions of best practices, voluntary protection programs, chemical labels, electronic resources and the like."

They further stated that the fifth subcommittee should have as its central task a thorough examination of the actual NAALC experience since 1994 and what lessons the experience holds for future trade agreements, several of which are now pending approval or are currently in negotiation.

The letter is a follow-up to an October 2003 letter making the same request. In December 2003, Canadian Labour Minister Claudette Bradshaw and U.S. Labor Department official Arnold Levine responded to the October letter (all letters are posted at www.igc.org/mhssn).

Levine called the proposal "interesting," and promised to "raise the possibility with the working group's Mexican and Canadian counterparts." Bradshaw also said her government would "discuss the possibility" of adding workers, employers and non-governmental organizations to the working group. But the workers claim that three months later, no action has been taken, despite a four-year review of the NAFTA labor side agreement.

"It is simply not acceptable, in our view, that the fifth subcommittee mirror the activity of the four existing subcommittees, which consist of government functionaries issuing perfunctory press releases following semi-annual closed door meetings," the workers' letter stated. "Public seminars which do not address the unexamined issues noted above, and which do not include any of the worker or NGOs submitters of the complaints, do not and cannot address, let alone remedy, the substantial obstacles to enforcement of workplace safety regulations in North America identified by the NAALC process itself."

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