Mexicans Seek US-Style Workplace Standards ; Free Trade May Undercut US Labor, but It May Also Raise Conditions In

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In the first five years of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico's exports to the United States have more than doubled. It has passed Japan and ranks just behind Canada as the US's largest trading partner.

But two recent events - the grounding of Mexico's third-largest airline last week and a $30 million workers' compensation settlement - are indications that the Mexican workers aren't simply producing more goods and services to send north. They're also starting to demand a parity with the US in safety and working conditions. Similar to the way human rights have grown in international acceptance, workers' rights are beginning a march toward international standardization. (See story on environmental standards and WTO, page 2.)

In Mexico this month, a group of flight attendants fired by Taesa airlines have taken their air-safety complaints to the US Department of Labor, arguing that the airline flies to the US and that NAFTA includes a labor-side agreement.

Taesa, which suffered a fatal crash Nov. 9, was grounded indefinitely last week by Mexico's transportation secretariat to allow for a full investigation of the airline's safety practices.

Weeks earlier, in a separate case, the relatives of 12 Mexican workers who died in a bus crash on their way to work at a US-owned sewing plant on Mexico's northern border won a $30 million settlement in Texas. The relatives turned to US courts after finding that Mexican law would have limited damages to no more than $3,000 per lost life.

Those two cases exemplify why labor rights and working conditions will attract keen interest at this week's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. With the US-Mexico economic integration at the forefront of growing relations worldwide between wealthy and emerging economies, what happens between the two sides of the Rio Grande is an indicator of global issues to come.

"The US-Mexico relationship is emblematic of where the world is headed in terms of international trade," says Claudio Jones, an international economist with the Center for Development Research (CIDAC) in Mexico City. "and although it's only starting, we're going to see these international labor issues grow in importance, not diminish."

Perhaps because the US labor market is tighter than bongos, the dominant transnational labor issues are not so much job losses and income discrepancies - as they were in the early 1990s during the NAFTA debate - but working conditions and workers' safety, analysts say.

Aftermath of bus crash

The Mexico bus-crash case had nothing to do with Mexican workers being paid perhaps one-tenth of what US workers in an equivalent job would earn, observers add. What it did conclude is that the safety of a US company's Mexican workers are worth as much as those of US workers.

With only a toothless "side agreement" on labor designed primarily to encourage member countries to uphold their existing labor regulations, NAFTA is not directly responsible for the rise in cross-border attention to labor issues, analysts say. Indirectly, on the other hand, it's the growing NAFTA-spawned economic integration between the US and Mexico that is the primary impetus. …