Labor was a major talking point during the third and latest round of renegotiation talks for the North American Free Trade Agreement in Ottawa last week.
There, U.S. trade negotiators continued to push for a proposal on labor standards that would address low pay and lax labor standards in Mexico.
But Lynne Dodson, secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, says while trade agreements of late, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, have included labor standards like those prohibiting child or forced labor, what matters more is whether such standards will be enforced.
“Even those that have good labor language ... there’s no enforcement mechanism,” said Dodson, whose organization provides assistance to unions statewide.
Several years ago, the AFL-CIO attempted to address worker abuses, including numerous worker deaths, in Guatemala by filing a complaint. In that grievance, union officials argued the country had violated labor standards outlined in the Central America Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. The U.S. agreed to proceed with the case. It went on for several years before a CAFTA panel ruled earlier this year that while there was evidence of worker abuses there was no proof it interfered with trade between the U.S. and Guatemala.
Dodson said that is a flawed premise.
“Violations of workers’ rights are wrong, no matter if they occur in the field, in the factory or office buildings,” she said. “The violations of labor standards are wrong and they should be enforced.”
In the NAFTA renegotiation, the Washington State Labor Council and other groups have continued to push for the same rights and standards for the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Advocates also want a provision for an independent labor secretariat that would be tasked to enforce labor standards and promote best practices.
“Trade is going to happen and trade is a good thing — our economy does rely on trade,” Dodson said. “What we want is trade to be done in ways that raise the standard for people here and the countries we trade with.”
Impact on jobs
A talking point for many who oppose or have misgivings about NAFTA is that it has led to U.S. job losses.
Among the indicators of such losses are recipient figures for the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which provides funds for income assistance, health care and retraining to laid-off U.S. workers who have been impacted by foreign trade.
More than 550 Yakima County workers laid off between 1995 and 2014 have received assistance through the program due to impact from trade imports from Mexico and Canada, according to federal figures. Included in those numbers are more than 250 laid-off workers from the Yakima Resources lumber plant, which closed a decade ago. The company at the time blamed an influx of foreign, low-priced plywood in the marketplace — chiefly from Canada — for the closure.
However, trade advocates have stated that successful agreements can generate jobs. The Washington Council on International Trade says 330,000 jobs in Washington state are tied to trading activity with Mexico and Canada.