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Mexicans seek US-style workplace standards

Free trade may undercut US labor, but it may also raise conditions in

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.)

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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

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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.

"There's nothing in NAFTA that deals with air transport," says Sidney Weintraub, a US-Mexico specialist at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, referring to the Taesa case. "But what these [cross-border] cases do suggest is greater knowledge and sophistication among workers. There's this knowledge that the growing economic relations between the two countries have implications for them," he says, "and a new willingness to take advantage of this greater knowledge."

The Mexico bus crash lawsuit in Texas is an example of this growing "sophistication," says Mr. Weintraub. "I'm not sure that five years ago the maquila workers would have thought of going after the parent company in its country." A "maquila," or maquiladora, is a foreign-owned factory that assembles foreign pieces into products for export and enjoys tax and wage benefits. Mexico counts more than 3,500 maquilas, most of which are in the northern border states.

The Texas lawsuit and its settlement in August stems from a 1997 accident in which 12 employees of the New York-based Salant Corp., which sews Perry Ellis clothing, were killed on their way to work at Salant's maquiladora plant in Piedras Negras, Mexico. Employees said the company-owned bus was in poor condition, but that the plant's management, based across the river in Eagle Pass, Texas, disregarded their warnings. The workers also complained that the bus driver was inexperienced.

Hiring American lawyers

After the bus crash and the realization that Mexican law limits indemnification for loss of life, the surviving relatives - many with relatives or contacts in the US - sought the help of Texas lawyers. After a jury trial in Eagle Pass, but before a verdict, Salant offered the plaintiffs the $30 million settlement.

In the Taesa case, an "upstart" flight-attendants' union took the safety complaints of a group of fired attendants to the US Department of Labor. The complaint follows the Nov. 9 crash of a Taesa DC-9 in Uruapan, Mexico, in which all 18 persons aboard were killed.

The American Flight Attendants Association, which represents the attendants of Mexico's two largest airlines, Mexicana and Aeromexico, has just filed a report lambasting Taesa's safety record with the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington.

Global pressure

The Taesa case is certain to hasten developing changes in Mexico's once monolithic labor-union structure, analysts say. International pressures, mainly from the US, have also helped maquiladora workers in Baja, Calif., with collective bargaining and broader union representation, Jones says.

"So far there's very little institutionalization," he says, echoing the view that NAFTA has had little to do with the rise of binational labor issues.

"But since we are at the forefront of a global movement that is gathering steam, we are going to be watched."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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