Ryan Pigden: NAFTA Safety

Even though NAFTA is a free trade and investment agreement, it has no protection contained in the core of the agreement to maintain labor or environmental standards. As a result, NAFTA tilted the economic playing field in favor of investors, and against workers and the environment, resulting in a hemispheric “race to the bottom” in wages and environmental quality. There were conflicting views between the critics as well as members of the maquiladora industry whether the North American Free Trade Agreement would be advantageous or disadvantageous to the maquiladora community. The word “maquiladora” is from colonial Mexico when “maquila” was the charge that millers collected for processing other people’s grain. Today, the term applies to companies that process or assemble components imported into Mexico that are then re-exported. There were criticisms from outside sources, mainly in the United States, regarding how the maquiladora industry would compound the problems of the infrastructure of the border area, decrease jobs and wages in the United States and Canada, and cause more environmental damage through increased pollution and toxic waste.

The effect of maquila jobs on workers’ health has not been extensively researched, but results of several studies of occupational exposure indicate a potentially serious problem, especially when compounded with environmental exposure to industrial hazardous wastes. Since many maquila jobs involve repetitive assembly line work, carpal tunnel syndrome and related injuries are of particular concern, as described by Pablo, a maquila worker, and the common use of solvents and other chemicals present occupational as well as environmental health hazards. The impact of globalization on workers health in the North American continent extends beyond Mexico’s maquiladora sector. Workers who migrate north in search of jobs are disproportionately exposed to hazards in U.S. industries. Pablo said, “It is primarily a job that requires movement of the wrist . . . . One of my coworkers who was injured went to the nurse who gave her only two pills and said, ‘go and continue your work,’ and they even took the time off her salary because she was ill.”

The unregulated movement of companies and the lack of protection for workers who cross borders seeking work are two core aspects of globalization that affect labor rights and workers’ health and safety. Described by NAFTA opponents as a “race to the bottom,” resistance to NAFTA was based on the premise that free trade would allow companies to locate where conditions permit them to assemble their products most cheaply. NAFTA’s impact on worker migration was hotly debated. Some NAFTA proponents advocated for its passage as a way to reduce Mexican migration north through job creation south of the border. But NAFTA’s advocates failed to acknowledge that job creation in Mexico’s manufacturing sector would also come at a cost: the displacement of many workers in other sectors. For example, as agriculture companies moved south in search of cheap labor, many Mexican farmworkers were displaced by trade policies and moved north in search of jobs. A worker advocate described the discrimination and poor working conditions facing Mexican migrant workers in the Washington State apple industry. He said, “Low salaries, lack of respect, sexual abuse, discrimination and the potential to be laid off or fired at any time . . . many times people were laid off for nothing more.”

Aten, Carey, and Cody Burke. “Maquiladora Industry and NAFTA.” NAFTA Web. http://wehner.tamu.edu/mgmt.www/NAFTA/spring99/Groups99/ITAM/maquila2.htm (accessed April 21, 2009).

“North American FTA.” Office of United States Trade Representative. http://www.ustr.gov/Trade_Agreements/Regional/NAFTA/Section_Index.html (accessed April 21, 2009).

United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service. http://www.fas.usda.gov/ (accessed April 21, 2009).