A quarter of a century after labor standards first became a bone of contention in trade talks to conclude the North American Free Trade Agreement, weak enforcement of labor standards in Mexico is one of the key issues holding up a vote on President Donald Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA, now rebranded the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Every U.S. trade agreement since NAFTA has included language nominally aimed at protecting workers. Yet despite significant strengthening over the years, the labor provisions in those trade agreements remain controversial and largely ineffective for foreign and American workers alike.
NAFTA was only the third free trade agreement the United States had negotiated, following bilateral agreements with Israel and Canada, and the first with a lower-wage developing country. As first negotiated by President George H.W. Bush, NAFTA contained nothing to explicitly protect workers’ rights. The U.S. business community and pro-free trade Republicans argued that trade promoted growth and job creation, which are good for workers, and therefore labor standards were unnecessary. Labor unions and many Democrats were concerned that removing barriers to trade with a country like Mexico that had weak worker protections would put downward pressure on American wages and working conditions.
To mollify concerns about fully opening the U.S. market to competition from Mexico, President Bill Clinton promised to negotiate labor and environmental protections before seeking congressional approval for NAFTA, which had been signed but not ratified prior to the 1992 presidential election. But Mexico refused to reopen the agreement. Clinton had to settle for a side deal that barely covered core worker rights, such as freedom of association, and that had weak enforcement measures.