nafta, labor, and the empty promise of NAALC
by dean spade
The creation of NAFTA prompted harsh criticism from organized labor and others concerned with social justice in the US. Many were concerned that NAFTA would encourage employers to relocate to Mexico and that it would lead to increased imports that would threaten jobs in the US. Workers also worried that it would lower wages in the US, because american workers would have less bargaining power since companies could easily find lower cost labor elsewhere. Companies would be able to operate more cheaply both by finding lower wage employees and by operating in places where they would be less regulated in terms of worker health and safety and environmental protections.
In response to pressure from labor, something called the NAALC (north american agreement on labor cooperation) was developed. The NAALC was designed to pacify labor--it was never meant to actually hold companies accountable for their labor practices. Its purpose is to create an image of fairness to workers, while doing nothing to disrupt the huge benefits that business gets from exploiting workers under NAFTA.
Here are the main problems with NAALC that make it useless for helping workers’ who have had their rights violated:
The NAALC creates no standards for labor that apply across all the member countries, and also bars any country from trying to enforce labor laws in another country. This means that it encourages the “race-to-the-bottom” that labor unions feared--businesses will flock to whatever country has the least protection for workers. Additionally, business can work to corrupt or disable labor law enforcement in a region and be rewarded with increased license to abuse workers. The NAALC includes no requirement that the member countries have a working enforcement system for their own labor laws, or that they protect workers at all.
Workers whose rights are being violated cannot go to the NAALC for help. They must wait for an organization in another member country to petition their government and request meetings with the worker’s country about the violations. Even so, only labor protections that are recognized in both countries can be investigated, further creating a lowest-common-denominator context for labor protections. Additionally, no action will be taken unless it can be proved there has been a “persistent pattern” of failure to enforce the labor standards. The requirement that there be a pattern even further disables an individual worker or a group of workers at a business from getting any help, because their experiences of abuse will be viewed as individual, and not sufficient.
These requirements together make it entirely unrealistic for workers to get any redress under NAALC, just as was intended by its drafters. Even in the rare case that a member country will be found to be in violation, and if “mutually satisfactory action plan” cannot be agreed to to fix the problem, the only consequence is that a country will have its NAFTA benefits withheld up to a certain monetary limit. This means that the workers still get nothing, and the country will eventually get its NAFTA benefits back.
The drawn out process that the NAALC creates provides no real protection for workers, and no real incentive for countries to enforce labor laws. NAALC was only created to placate US labor’s concerns about the pro-business, anti-worker effects of NAFTA, but not to actually reduce these effects.