Border Workers Want More Input into NAFTA's Impact on EHS Protections

Workers in Mexico and their supporters have written the labor secretaries of Mexico, Canada and the United States asking that a special subcommittee of the Tri-National Occupational Safety and Health Working Group be formed to evaluate the impact of NAFTA on protection of occupational health and regulatory enforcement in Mexico and the other countries.

The workers and their supporting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) asked in September 2002 to be included in the newly-formed Tri-National Working Group, but the request was rejected by U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. The workers were promised "tangible results" by OSHA Administrator John Henshaw in October 2002. However, a year has passed and no tangible benefits to workers in Mexico, Canada and the United States have been detected, according to the authors of the letter.

The Oct. 7th letter proposes that workers and NGOs who have submitted complaints under the NAFTA agreement be integrated into a new, fifth subcommittee of the Working Group to analyze whether the labor side agreement has resulted in any improvements in the enforcement of regulations or protection of workers health and safety in the 10 years of NAFTA's existence.

"The failure of the Working Group to produce substantive improvements in the lives of real workers is unacceptable. One year ago, Secretary Chao denied our request to participate in the Working Group. Instead, the Working Group's quarterly discussions have taken place behind closed doors, and behind the backs of the workers, NGOs, news media and the public," claims the letter.

"We believe that the Working Group's exclusion of workers those with first-hand knowledge of the impact of inadequate enforcement of occupational health and safety laws largely accounts for the dearth of tangible improvements in the health and safety conditions for maquiladora workers," the letter goes on to say. "The refusal to include workers, who have the most at stake, reduces the tri-national meetings to nothing more than 'talk shops' among government functionaries. Representatives of the NAFTA governments have had years to talk about how to improve enforcement of existing occupational health and safety laws. We are therefore skeptical about the ability of Working Group meetings that comprise only government officials to produce tangible results."

The letter writers note that 35 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote Chao in May 2002 and two U.S. Senators wrote her in August 2002 to express their concern about the lack of results from the NAFTA process. The letter writers promise to raise the issue again with their Congressional supporters and offer the failure of the NAFTA labor side agreement as an issue to be discussed in the pending debate about trade and investment treaties such as the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

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