As Three Amigos Meet, Unfinished Trade Business: Jennifer Wells
It would be a mistake to allow this Brexit business to soft soap the so-called Three Amigos summit being held in Ottawa Wednesday.
The White House has set the stage for a three-way engagement that trumpets clean energy targets with, no doubt, an underlay of the benefits won via the North American Free Trade agreement, which came into effect as the New Year dawned in 1994. The overseas uncertainties in the wake of the Leave vote and the continued demagoguery of Donald Trump in the U.S. are expected to result in a rah-rah moment for unimpeded trade in a globalized world.
But the true foundation for trade — it seems almost silly to state something so obvious — is labour, and the forging of NAFTA then and the state of labour today is a story of unfinished business. I say this not only because of the trilateral relations between our North American countries, but because the Trans-Pacific Partnership looms on the horizon. The TPP will, if ratified, tie in countries that bear the hallmarks of Mexico then and now – Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei — in the realm of cheap (and child) labour and inadequate worker protections.
Last month, the Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh shone a light on labor issues in Mexico, including the deployment of “ghost unions.” Travelling to Tijuana Mojtehedzadeh documented the creation of employer-dominated phantom unions that are little more than corporate proxies. Once entrenched these ghost unions put up a Trump-like wall between the employer and such labour issues as workplace safety. Such a union, Mojtehedzadeh wrote, “essentially serves as a protection contract for factories — ensuring that workers will never be able to independently organize.”
A year ago, some two decades after the ratification of NAFTA, the U.S. representative to the 104th session of the International Labor Conference said this: “The persistence of false trade unions, or ‘protection unions,’ remains a major challenge in Mexico and constitutes a serious abrogation of the right to freedom of association, particularly as collective bargaining agreements are concluded with these protection unions without the knowledge and consent of workers, often even before enterprises open, and providing only the minimum benefits required by law.”
NAFTA stands, in fact, as a shining example of how not to affirm labour rights, which didn’t even make it into the primary document. One of two side agreements appended to the deal (the other is on the environment), the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation set freedom of association and protection of the right to organize as a primary obligation. Yet structurally, domestic labor laws were not compelled to abide by international standards and the “preferred approach” as stated in the agreement, is to underscore, say, minimum employment standards through co-operation. The agreement was unenforceable and failed to enshrine as national law the standards of the International Labor Organization.
In this the Americans, represented by President Bill Clinton and his “more growth, more equality” sound bite, walked tall and carried a small stick.
NAFTA would become a cudgel when Barack Obama, then a mere senator from Illinois, contested Hillary Clinton for the Democratic leadership. “We can’t keep passing unfair trade deals like NAFTA that put special interests over workers’ rights,” he said in a swing through Ohio in the winter of 2008.
Obama says now that the TPP presents the optimum opportunity to enshrine international labor standards. Bilateral agreements have been negotiated between the U.S. and Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, each presenting its own challenges. In Communist Vietnam, by example, attempts to form unions have led to imprisonment and beatings. Labour exploitation has been well-documented in Brunei for years, as has forced labour in Malaysia.
In January, Human Rights Watch concluded that while these so-called Consistency Plans are important to advance much-needed reform, “the extent to which they will be implemented or enforced is unclear, particularly given poor enforcement of labor rights provisions in other trade agreements and under each country’s domestic laws.”
Mexico, of course, is a party to the TPP, what presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has called the “gold standard” in trade deals, opening “free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.” Yet a report from the AFL-CIO contends that labour abuses in Mexico continue.
It is this that President Enrique Pena Nieto should be answering to, making the case that labor law reform will allow for the rights of organization that should have been enshrined in, oh, 1994.