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Labour rights become key issue in the renegotiation of NAFTA

Unifor workers rally during the third round of NAFTA talks in Ottawa, Sept. 22

The Canadian labour movement is pushing for strong labour protections within a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The Canadian Press notes, “NAFTA currently includes an unenforceable side deal on labour which essentially commits each NAFTA partner to the aspirational goal of improving working conditions and enforcing its own labour standards.”

Canadian unions want enforceable rules within the text of NAFTA 2.0 that would mean higher wages for Mexican workers (without specifying a minimum wage demand), the end of yellow unions (that represent employers rather than workers), and an end to right-to-work laws in the United States (that allow workers to refuse to pay union dues while enjoying the benefits of a unionized workplace).

In short, they want a labour chapter that reflects the International Labour Organization’s declaration on the fundamental principles and rights of workers.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, the National Union of Public and General Employees, United Food and Commercial Workers, and United Steelworkers have also all cautioned, “A bad agreement with good labour rights is still a bad agreement.”

It appears that the business lobby in Mexico might be willing to accept some enforceable labour standards – but only if there are no ‘Buy American’ and more restrictive ‘rules of origin’ provisions that benefit the United States (as demanded by President Donald Trump) in the new deal.

Moises Kalach, a business lobbyist who advises the Mexican negotiating team, says, “If that balanced pact or new deal has a labour provision inside of it and that focuses a higher standards, probably yes, but it has to be a whole thing. …We’ve been very clear, a good deal has to have no tariffs, has to be a free trade agreement. You cannot limit exports. We would not sign into something that’s lower than what we have in NAFTA.”

The Toronto Star explains Kalach’s quote, “That means ‘rules of origin’ that would increase the requirement for made-in-America content or ‘specific country content’, in, for example, autos or auto parts, or steel, or other manufactured goods…” The Globe and Mail has noted, “There are reports that the Trump administration wants to raise the NAFTA content [for automobiles from the current 62.5 per cent North American content] to more than 70 per cent and add a requirement that anywhere between 35 per cent and 50 per cent must be made specifically in the United States.”

Meanwhile, The Globe and Mail now reports, “American negotiators tabled new proposals on labour standards at NAFTA talks on Tuesday, opening an area of dispute among the three trading partners with measures that fall far short of Canada’s goal to protect union rights and compel Mexico to pay higher wages.”

That article adds, “Trump wants labour concessions from Mexico under a modernized NAFTA pact to satisfy the Republican base that says low Mexican wages undercut U.S. workers. …The American text tabled Wednesday [also] rejected Canada’s call for an end to right-to-work laws in 28 U.S. states.”

The Mexican government has yet to table its proposed text for a labour chapter in NAFTA 2.0 (and it’s unclear when that might happen).

Negotiations on NAFTA 2.0 – if they don’t collapse – are expected to be completed sometime between December of this year and February 2018 (before campaigning begins for the July 1, 2018 general election in Mexico).

The next scheduled rounds of talks are expected to be:

October 11-15 – fourth round of NAFTA talks in Washington, DC

October 29-November 2 – fifth round in Mexico

November 16-21 – sixth round in Canada (most likely Ottawa again)

December 6-10 – seventh round in the US (possibly in Detroit)