Tuesday - Dec 01, 2020

Will the new NAFTA make the pandemic worse for Mexicans?

For Mexican workers, farmers, and the poor, the pandemic and the new treaty replacing NAFTA are a devastating one-two punch


by David Bacon


In the debate over the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, the new trade treaty replacing NAFTA that went into effect on July 1, many promises were made about the effectiveness of its labor protections.  Supposedly, they will protect the labor rights of Mexican workers, which will free them to push for better wages and conditions.

These promises are reminiscent of those made when the original NAFTA was debated over a quarter of a century ago. At the time, its corporate backers insisted it would lead to prosperity for workers and farmers, who would no longer be obligated to leave home to find work in the United States.

Whether the old treaty created better conditions-for workers in the maquiladora factories on the border, for Mexican migrants toiling in U.S. fields, or for farmers in the communities from which the migrants come-is more than an economic issue. In the era of the pandemic, the record of the old treaty must be examined to determine as well its responsibility for life and death. Did the changes it provoked make Mexicans more vulnerable to the virus? And because it continues the same economic regime, the new agreement cannot avoid raising the same questions.

The impact on Mexico

NAFTA had a devastating impact on Mexican workers, farmers, and the poor, and its labor and environmental side agreements did nothing to protect them. The problem lies in the agreement’s purpose-to facilitate the penetration of U.S. capital in Mexico. By taking down barriers to investment and the activity of U.S. corporations, it instituted cataclysmic political and economic changes. The current trade agreement shares NAFTA’s purpose and will have the same impact.

The 1990 report by the U.S. Congress’ Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development recommended that the United States negotiate a free trade agreement with Mexico in order to deter migration. But even this report warned, “It takes many years-even generations-for sustained growth to achieve the desired effect,” and in the meantime would create years of “transitional costs in human suffering.”

Waves of privatization, mandated to provide opportunities for banks and investors, cost the jobs of hundreds of thousands as Mexico threw open its economy. As investment increased, the income of Mexicans declined.

Investment had health consequences beyond unemployment. The prelude to COVID came in 2009, with the spread of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. In Mexico some call it the NAFTA flu, because the agreement provided the vehicle for Smithfield Foods to fill the Perote Valley in Puebla with hog farms. The virus started in a valley town, La Gloria.  Its source was the intense concentration of pigs and their waste. The waste from Smithfield’s U.S. operations was so considerable it led to prohibitions even by the conservative government of North Carolina.

The failure of NAFTA’s labor side agreement was even more complete. Not a single independent union won bargaining rights, nor a single fired worker reinstated, because of a NAFTA complaint. That abysmal record continues today. The Mexican miners union has been on strike at the huge Cananea copper mine since 2007. The treaty had no impact on regaining their rights. Instead, NAFTA’s freeing of investment to move across borders helped the mine’s owner. The wealthy Larrea family bought the ASARCO mines in Arizona, and forced the miners’ cross-border allies, the United Steel Workers, out on strike there as well. NAFTA’s goal of freeing investment didn’t guarantee labor rights; it jeopardized them. The new agreement has precisely the same goal.

AMLO’s response

One of the first acts by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) after he was inaugurated president in December 2018 was to mandate the doubling of wages in the border factories. In Matamoros, tens of thousands of workers went on strike after their U.S. employers and Mexican partners simply refused to obey the law. The government, however, seemed afraid to use its considerable power to force maquiladora employers to comply.

When the COVID-19 crisis started, the Mexican government ordered U.S.-owned factories to stop production, many of them auto assemblers and plants in the Pentagon’s supply chain. Again, companies simply refused to comply until their own workers went on strike and forced them to close the doors. At least twelve people died in the Lear auto parts plant alone. Then the U.S. ambassador, the State Department, and the executives of big U.S. defense and auto corporations leaned on the government in Mexico City. AMLO folded under the pressure and allowed them to restart production, even though workers will get sick and die as a result.

The leverage that the agreements have given the United States is very disturbing. The growth of U.S. production in Mexico has made the Mexican government dependent on keeping that sector operating. This doesn’t just affect the past governments that were notoriously pro-corporate. Mexicans elected AMLO because he promised to end this neoliberal dependence and make life in Mexico more attractive for Mexicans. But the U.S. government and companies have been able to use their leverage to pressure him to reverse those promises. Trump threatened to shut the border and forced Mexico to agree to illegally keep applicants for asylum, including women and children, in camps. NAFTA provided no means to stop Trump from doing this, and the new treaty won’t do that either.

Now this popularly elected president is going to Washington to greet Trump before the election, hat in hand, desperate to see this new trade agreement implemented. But signing the new treaty and a White House visit are not creating friendship with Mexico.

(Due to lack of space, this article was cut).