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By Stephen Lee
Worker safety and labor advocates don’t see eye to eye with President Donald Trump on very much, but one thing they both agree on is that NAFTA should be rewritten.
Yet economists and global trade specialists tell Bloomberg BNA they can’t see the Trump administration demanding significant changes to the North American Free Tree Agreement’s side labor agreement. That comes as a bitter pill—though not an unexpected one—to labor advocates, who see the possibility of new talks as a perfect opportunity to rip up a labor pact that, in their view, has never gone far enough to protect workers on the job.
“NAFTA is a disaster,” Celeste Drake, a trade and globalization policy specialist at AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg BNA. “We don’t think it needs to be tinkered with. We think it needs to be wholly rewritten. It’s not about taking a red pen and moving a comma here and a sentence there. Whole chapters need to be cut out and whole new chapters need to be rewritten.”
Of course, not everyone agrees. To Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the labor and environmental side agreements that accompanied NAFTA never should have been tacked on in the first place.
“It’s our position that trade agreements ought to be about trade,” Scribner told Bloomberg BNA.
The 23-year old side agreement, known as the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, broadly encourages the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to maintain a “progressive, fair, safe, and healthy working environment” and urges each nation to enforce its own labor standards.
But the agreement is a toothless document, devoid of meaningful provisions on enforcement, dispute settlement, or sanctions, according Drake. Her union is calling for reforms that would allow for thorough workplace inspections, an independent secretariat to hear complaints promptly, and specific protections for migrant workers moving between the three countries who are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for it to be improved because it’s so awful,” Drake said. “But there are many ways it could be made worse, as well.”
Failing to toughen up NAFTA’s worker safety language would also contravene the wishes of companies like Intel Corp., which submitted written comments to the U.S. Trade Representative calling for tougher protections. Some companies currently “gain a low-cost advantage by using unfair labor practices,” Intel said.
Similarly, Mars Inc., without specifically mentioning labor standards, wrote that renegotiating NAFTA “presents a unique opportunity to take a strategic approach to addressing regulatory divergence across North America, and the trade barriers such differences create.”
Levi Strauss & Co. submitted comments saying it “might make sense to pursue” new terms that would allow the formation of unions and the elimination of forced labor—although “not under a threat to terminate” the renegotiation.
In late June, the U.S. Trade Representative, the agency overseeing the pact, held three days of public hearings on a NAFTA renegotiation and collected more than 1,400 public comments on the possible reset. The agency didn’t respond to a Bloomberg BNA interview request.
Trump notified Congress in May of his intent to renegotiate NAFTA. The agreement contains no formal provisions for amendment or revision, however, so it’s unclear how the talks will be reopened.
But the chances of Trump reopening the labor section of NAFTA is almost nil, according to Robert Blecker, an economics professor and trade specialist at American University.
“These are not pro-labor people,” Blecker told Bloomberg BNA, referring to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, a former corporate lawyer, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a former coal boss. “It’s very hard to imagine that team wanting to toughen the labor-side agreement, or do anything to really strengthen it. I’d say the odds of it happening are extremely low—close to zero.”
Robert Scott, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, agreed with that diagnosis. Scott told Bloomberg BNA that “there’s almost no chance that anything like what the AFL-CIO wants would happen under a Trump administration.”
Scribner said the NAFTA labor side agreement is tantamount to “regulatory imperialism,” saying the U.S. “should be focused on reducing barriers to trade. Trying to force poor countries to behave like rich countries by fiat is protectionism disguised as do-gooderism.”
Cintas Corp. warned in its comments that, should NAFTA be nixed, the company would likely have to move its manufacturing to Asia. Asian countries like Bangladesh are notorious for their weak or nonexistent worker safety laws.
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