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First Labor Rights Claim Under the Revised NAFTA Filed by Migrant Worker Women in the U.S. -- What Does It Mean in Terms of the New Labor Rulebook in the Region?

By Daniel Rangel

The revised North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) hints at key terms that a pro-worker, pro-environment trade agreement should include, thanks to the crucial engagement of congressional Democrats. In 2019, they forced Trump to renegotiate his initial 2018 NAFTA revision to meet Democrats’ demands. The final pact won unprecedented Democratic congressional support in no small part because of enhanced labor obligations enshrined in the agreement and its novel enforcement mechanisms that many hoped could improve the living conditions of working people throughout North America.

One critique made by some progressives was that the deal targeted labor conditions in Mexico, while offering little that could improve working conditions for people north of the Rio Grande — including labor protections for Mexican migrant workers employed in the Northern neighbors.

Well, it turns out that the first demand for enforcement action for failing to comply with the new labor terms is against the United States. The petition submitted on March 23 was filed by Mexican migrant workers, Maritza Perez and Adareli Ponce, and a binational coalition of organizations led by the binational organization Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM). Other signers include the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

From the outset, it is important to point out that this submission is not under the labor Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) that is viewed as one of the most interesting new provisions in the revised NAFTA. RRM allows challenges against specific companies and punishes them directly for violations. RRM enforcement only applies to claims about violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, which are not the focus of this complaint. So, the first test run of the RRM provisions is still pending.

Rather, this submission to the Mexican Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare is effectively a request that the Mexican government initiate what is called a state-state enforcement claim that the United States has breached the revised NAFTA labor rules by allowing gender-based discrimination in its H-2 non-immigrant worker visa program.

The 133-page complaint basically has four lines of argument.

First, migrant women are largely excluded from the U.S. H-2 visa programs. Through systemic, discriminatory recruitment and hiring practices, women are overwhelmingly left out of both the H-2A and H-2B programs. For instance, in 2018, only 3% of all H-2A visas (for non-U.S. citizens to temporarily work in agricultural essential activities) were issued to women, while women make up 25% of the U.S. agricultural workforce.

Second, the limited number of women who get admitted to the H-2 visa program are routinely funneled into H-2B visas, which are generally less desirable because of lower wages and fewer benefits, such as free employer-provided housing. The petitioners point out that the United States issues approximately three times as many H-2B visas to women as compared to H-2A visas.

Third, even within the less desirable H-2B program, employers generally assign women to less favorable and lower-paid positions than their male counterparts.

And fourth, women that participate in H-2 visa programs experience pervasive sexual harassment and sexual violence and limits to their ability to seek legal counsel.

According to the petitioners, the United States is in violation of its obligations under the revised NAFTA by failing to enforce both the new terms of the deal and its own laws that ban these kind of practices, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, the case claims violations of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) Article 23.3(1)(d), labor rights; Art. 23.5(1) and (2), enforcement of labor laws; Art. 23.7, violence against workers; Art. 23.8, migrant workers; Art. 23.9, discrimination in the workplace; and Art. 23.10, public awareness and procedural guarantees.

Notably, the petitioners rely on provisions of the revised NAFTA and on U.S. domestic law to back their arguments. This speaks to the critiques about the new deal not protecting Mexican migrant workers. Unlike the original NAFTA’s labor side deal, the revised NAFTA’s Labor Chapter is part of the pact’s core text and contains “hard” obligations that are subject to the agreement’s dispute settlement provisions. This includes obligations on the elimination of employment discrimination (Art. 23.3(1)(d)) and on the protection of migrant workers (Art. 23.8). The original NAFTA’s labor-side agreement only mentioned these subjects as “guiding principles” that the parties were committed to promote without setting common minimum standards.

While the substantive standards give tools to organizations in North America to promote the enhancement of working conditions in the United States and Canada, including for migrant workers, there are no procedural guarantees a formal state-state enforcement action will proceed. Article 23.11 of the revised NAFTA obliges the parties to designate a contact point and to provide a timely response to written submissions related to labor matters. However, whether the enforcement process is launched is solely within the discretion of the government that has been petitioned. Thus, while the strong case made in the petition has advocacy value on its own merits, we must wait for the decision of the Mexican government on whether this will become a formal USMCA case and test if substantive protections for Mexican workers employed in the United States and Canada can be enforced.

Acknowledging the existence of migrant workers protections does not mean that the labor terms in the deal treat each country the same. This imbalance is particularly visible in the procedural requirements to activate RRM, alluded to above. A complaint can be initiated against Mexico based on violations of the right to organize and union democracy rights, under legislation that complies with conditions set out in an annex of the agreement. For all relevant purposes, this refers to violations of Mexico’s 2019 reformed Federal Labor Law. However, cases against the United States and Canada are limited to violations occurring after the National Labor Relations Board or Industrial Relations Board, respectively, has already issued an order, meaning that the issue already has been subject to domestic enforcement action. In practice, what this means is that there is an exhaustion of local remedies requirement to start a RRM case against the United States or Canada and there is no such requirement if the complaint is against Mexico. Furthermore, there is not RRM enforcement between the United States and Canada. 

So, what’s next on this petition? According to the revised NAFTA rules, the Mexican government has to consider and provide a timely response to the petitioners behind this brief, but it still has significant discretion about whether to proceed with state-state dispute settlement. If it chooses to do so, the first step is to start consultations with the United States to try to reach a mutually agreeable solution. If consultations fail, Mexico could initiate a formal dispute settlement proceeding and, eventually, impose trade sanctions against the United States if a panel rules that the violations indeed exist and that the U.S. government has not done anything to redress them.

Whether the Mexican government is likely to pursue this case at all or go all the way through a formal state-state enforcement case remains to be seen. Notably, earlier this year President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) aired a proposal to create a Bracero style immigrant labor program to allow Mexican and Central American immigrants to temporarily work in the United States to fill labor shortages. Given that this complaint spotlights bad conditions for workers under existing U.S. visa programs for foreign workers, AMLO could try to leverage the case to promote his plan. However, civil society organizations, among them the lead organization behind the complaint, have sounded alarms about a potential Bracero 2.0 program, due to the exploitative working conditions under the original program during World War II.

In any event, the complaint represents many organizations’ intentions to test if the revised NAFTA’s labor terms could be an effective tool to improve workers’ conditions in the United States, in contrast to the current model that has primarily benefited transnational capital. Now, it is for the governments of North America to treat this case, and those that follow, seriously in order to make the revised deal a floor of decency for worker protection across the region.

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