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Aug 8 Public Forum on NAFTA-NAALC complaints filed by migrant farmworkers

Mexican government representatives will join U.S. Labor Department officials at a public forum in Yakima, Washington August 8 to hear testimony from apple workers and migrant worker advocates in a case filed under NAFTA's labor side agreement. The case could lead to a cutoff of apple exports to Mexico.
Contact: Guadalupe Gamboa 206 786-1096 Lance Compa 607 255-7314 Rebecca Smith 360 970-4979 U.S., Mexican Officials to Hear Workers' Claims in Trade, Labor Rights Dispute under NAFTA; Sanctions Could Result

Mexican government representatives will join U.S. Labor Department officials at a public forum in Yakima, Washington August 8 to hear testimony from apple workers and migrant worker advocates in a case filed under NAFTA's labor side agreement. The case could lead to a cutoff of apple exports to Mexico.

Representatives of apple growers will also testify at the forum, and Washington officials from the governor's office and from state enforcement agencies will join representatives of the two national governments conducting the forum.

First filed with Mexico's labor department in 1998, the workers' complaint cited violations of freedom of association, health and safety, and non-discrimination principles under the NAFTA labor accord, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC). A May 2000 accord between the two countries' secretaries of labor authorized the August 8 forum.

At later stages, the complaint could lead to trade sanctions against Washington State apple exports to Mexico. Findings in the Washington State apple case could also affect Mexico's position in talks with the United States on a broad range of immigration issues and proposals by the Bush administration and Congress for "guestworker" legislation seen by many migrant workers as an unacceptable new bracero program that ignores workers' rights. "This public forum is unique in that for the first time it allows workers to show the connection between trade and labor rights. The U.S. and Washington state have failed to live up to their obligations under international law. We expect the government to enforce the laws on its books and we hope to establish a cooperative mechanism for protecting and promoting workers' collective bargaining rights, for the benefit of workers, growers and consumers," said Guadalupe Gamboa, Regional Director of the United Farm Workers of America union.

"We hope the case never reaches a stage of economic sanctions," Gamboa said. "Migrant workers in Washington State care about the health of their communities and their industry. We hope to work cooperatively with the state and federal governments to reach a model of labor relations in which fair returns to growers are coupled with fair protection of workers' collective bargaining rights, rights with respect to labor standards, and their health and safety," continued Gamboa.

Mexico is the single largest export market for Washington apples. According to the Washington State Shippers and Growers, 30% of apples traded on the international market are sent to Mexico. It is anticipated that up to 10 million boxes of Washington apples will be sold in Mexico this year. At the same time, over 80% of the apple workforce is workers of Mexican origin. The complaint alleged that the government has failed to protect internationally-recognized rights of workers to join unions and to collectively bargain, both in the apple orchards and in packing sheds.

According to Jorge Madrazo, the Mexican Counsel in Seattle, ".. the administration of our new president ,Vicente Fox, has made defending the rights of its Mexican immigrants a top priority. We will be watching this complaint closely to ensure that our workers get the legal protections that they are entitled to under United States laws."

The complaint alleges that the state of Washington and the Department of Labor have failed to enforce labor standards and to protect worker's health and safety. It also alleges a failure to enforce existing health and safety and labor standards rights of farm workers. Nationally, farm workers account for 1 percent of the workforce and 6 percent of the occupational deaths. "The occupational injury and illness rate for Washington workers employed in fruit and tree nut production is 54% higher than the rate for all such U.S. workers." said Rebecca Smith, of the National Employment Law Project, a national organization which advocates on behalf of low-wage workers. "Clearly, the state of Washington needs to do a better job to protect workers."
"Farm workers in Washington State, a large percentage of whom are born in Mexico, are overtly discriminated against in several state laws. Neither do farm workers get a fair share of state enforcement resources. Workers hope to eliminate these items of discrimination and create, together with employers, consumers and retailers, a model system of labor cooperation for agriculture in North America."

The Washington apple industry complaint is unique in that only a handful of claims under NAFTA have been filed against U.S. firms. These have generally been resolved after consultations between the two governments. However, the Washington complaint could move beyond the consultation level to an evaluation by a committee of labor law experts, and even arbitration that could result in trade sanctions.

It would be the first case under the NAFTA accord to move to the level of an evaluation by experts, says Lance Compa, an international labor rights expert at Cornell University.
The formation of an independent committee of experts to make findings and recommendations, he added, ". . . would be the first independent investigation authorized by an international trade and labor rights agreement."

Independent committee members would be experts drawn from the private sector, not government officials, he explained.
Compa said that the apple case ". . . is closely watched by unions, NGOs, businesses and governments around the hemisphere for the lessons it brings to negotiations on a free trade area of the Americas and to the plan supported by President Bush to extend NAFTA-like trade arrangements to the rest of South America and the Caribbean."

In conjunction with the hearing, the UFW plans to launch its "Fair Trade Apple" campaign, modeled after campaigns already undertaken in the coffee and garment industries. The union hopes that cooperative efforts between workers, growers, consumers and retailers will both increase respect for workers rights in the United States and act as a selling point for US apples abroad, especially in Mexico. "We believe that the NAFTA principles can be applied to workplaces within the United States as well, and that the Washington's apple growers will be willing to uphold those principles. Fair-minded consumers will buy apples when they can be confident that the workers who harvest those apples are being treated fairly," asserted Gamboa.

For more information, contact the United Farmworkers of America at (509) 839 4903.

phone: phone: (509) 839 4903