Last May, U.S. and Mexican human rights groups accused the Mexican government of refusing to enforce its own anti-discrimination laws at dozens of companies along the U.S.-Mexican border.
The petition accused companies such as Glenview-based Zenith Electronics Corp. of forcing female job applicants at maquiladora plants to take pregnancy tests. They refused employment to those who were pregnant and fired those who became pregnant once employed.
The complaint was filed with a little-known office inside the U.S. Labor Department that had been set up under a side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement specifically to investigate alleged violations of labor rights. Given the limited enforcement powers in the side agreement, it is not surprising only eight such petitions have been filed since the treaty went into effect.
The failure to include even this minimal nod toward enforcing labor laws in future trade agreements will be a focus of the debate in Congress over granting President Clinton so-called fast-track authority to negotiate trade treaties.
Under fast track, the Senate cannot make changes in a treaty negotiated by the executive branch. The president says he needs the authority, first established in 1974, before other nations will negotiate new trade treaties in good faith.
“Congress must vote it up or down so the other country does not believe it is having to negotiate with 535 people in addition to the person with whom it negotiated,” the president told the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh last week.
His speech was interrupted by occasional catcalls from the union delegates, who have pledged an all-out war against fast-track legislation. The first such battle is likely to be over efforts to expand NAFTA to Chile.
The president assured organized labor the proposed fast-track legislation enshrines enforcement of labor and environmental standards as a goal of U.S. trade policy. Yet the bill he submitted to Congress says the United States will limit its pursuit of that goal to negotiations at the World Trade Organization, the multilateral group that sets the broadest rules of global trade.
The WTO, when it comes to labor and environmental rights at least, is dominated by developing countries not inclined to let human rights groups interfere in their domestic affairs. At a ministerial meeting in Singapore last December, the WTO refused to even establish a working group to discuss labor rights.
The WTO language contained in the fast-track legislation Clinton sent to Congress has organized labor and human rights groups seething.
“The fast-track legislation is a step back from NAFTA, which was nothing,” said Terry Collingsworth, general counsel of the International Labor Rights Fund, one of the petitioners in the Mexican case alleging harassment of pregnant workers.
“Clinton and most of his Republican supporters of fast track know nothing will come of this since the WTO has already made a firm decision not to link trade and labor or environmental issues.”
Labor groups and their chief congressional spokesman, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., would like to see labor and environmental protections included in the main body of trade treaties, not relegated to side agreements that usually have minimal enforcement provisions.
Under the NAFTA side agreement, the U.S. government must first investigate a charge. In the pregnancy discrimination case, that investigation is under way.
If the investigation confirms the charges, Irasema Garza, the secretary of the U.S. National Administrative Office established under the treaty, will hold consultations with her Mexican counterpart.
For most violations, there can be no fines and no penalties. The agency is required only to hold consultations with its Mexican counterpart to discuss the findings.
The most serious labor violations - and discrimination is not considered serious - can result in fines and penalties. Serious offenses, which include child labor, minimum wage or health and safety violations, lead to fines only after a multilateral panel of experts hears the case. No complaint under NAFTA has reached that stage.
U.S. officials say the side agreement has had an impact on Mexico. “Mexico has restructured its health and safety codes. They’ve appropriated more money to labor enforcement,” Garza said.
The powerful opponents of labor and environmental protections range from business groups to the free-trade lobby, which eschews virtually any rules over global commerce that might have the effect of blocking capital flows.
“We didn’t have child labor laws until we could afford them,” said Claude Barfield, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s very difficult for one country to dictate to another what stage of history it’s at.”
But that misstates the argument, labor rights proponents say. Labor rights provisions are not an attempt to raise wages and reduce competition from developing countries but are necessary to ensure developing countries, many of them run by authoritarian regimes, enforce the laws already on the books.