Publication of a mission report on the effects on human rights of the NAFTA

11/05/2006
Report
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On the occasion of the 36th session of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) publishes today the report of a fact-finding mission on the effects on human rights of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The mission, conducted in Mexico between 22 and 31 of August 2005, looked specifically at the effects of NAFTA, ten years after its entering into force, on employment and working conditions in the Northern part of the country, in particular in the maquilas (free zones) and in the informal economy.

Presented as being a motor for economic growth and development, the NAFTA has had a considerable impact on levels of economic integration of Mexico within North America, making the country the second largest partner of the United States.

However, as a result of open borders, national manufacturing production capacity has been dismantled and the agricultural industry destroyed. As a consequence of these structural changes, the Mexican national economy is becoming a consumer economy, dependent on American firms.

The Agreement has particularly benefited the maquilas, in which significant capital from Canada and the US have been invested following the entry into force of the NAFTA, fostering their rapid expansion. The main beneficiaries of the Agreement are the big transnational companies, while the effects on employment and wages have been deeply detrimental to Mexican workers. Indeed, the main competitive advantage of Mexico in the context of the NAFTA lies in the maintenance of low wages and precarious working conditions, along with control of trade unions.

The report shows that the destruction of the agricultural industry has driven Mexican families to the urban areas, where they now live in conditions of extreme poverty. Women and children under the age of 16, hired by transnational companies to work in maquilas, in exhausting conditions, and for extremely low wages, are the first victims of this situation.

The report examines in particular the situation in Ciudad Juarez, a city that lies near the United States border in the North of Mexico, where recurrent workers’ rights violations have been observed by the FIDH delegates.

Systematic violations of rights of association stemming from the Mexican structure of unionism, is at the core of the labour rights problem in Mexico. Indeed, although there is a fledging independent union movement, official unions and sindicatos blancos (unions created by the companies and which are virtually non-existent) hold a monopoly in most companies. The activities of the official unions are heavily influenced by local politicians and the agenda of attracting new business investment, at the expense of labour rights. Sindicatos blancos allow companies to claim to abide by international human rights standards, but are non-existent in practice and provide no accountability. Moreover, violent repression of workers’ rights by their union representatives is commonplace.

The Mexican Constitution and laws contain strong protections for labour rights, and would protect the rights of workers were they to be enforced. Yet, the main purpose of the labour law reforms proposed by the Fox Government, known as the Abascal Project, is to give business increased flexibility, allowing them to hire temporary and part-time workers without granting them the social benefits usually owed to the employees. If adopted, this project would have serious consequences on the right to strike and would continue existing regulations which permit a union monopoly in the workplace. Although these reforms have been frozen for the moment, they are still on the legislative agenda.

Following those observations, FIDH calls upon Mexican authorities to reform current labour law in order to ensure that workers are protected, and in particular to raise the minimum wage to ensure a basic living wage; to promote an effective and independent mecanism for the protection and enforcement of labour laws and to ensure that trade unions are independent, representative and transparent.

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