Fairness Is What's Missing in NAFTA


Washington. -- All the shouting makes facts about the North American Free Trade Agreement impossible to hear over the rhetorical din. But a few simple facts will make it clear why I have come out against NAFTA.

I'm not against the idea of free trade. I've always felt that free trade is the basis for a stronger and more competitive U.S. economy. At the same time, I am and have always been concerned with fairness: fairness in hiring, in promotions, in the workplace and in the competitive economic arena.

Despite Clinton administration claims of eventual job gains, I feel the reality can be seen better in a Roper Organization survey of 455 senior executives of manufacturing companies. A third of them think NAFTA will be "somewhat unfavorable" to American workers. As many as 40 percent say it is likely that, under the agreement, they will shift some production to Mexico in the next few years. And a quarter of them admit they would use the threat of moving as a bargaining chip in forcing pay concessions from unions.

What waits in Mexico is equally disturbing. The minimum wage there is 58 cents an hour, and the Mexican government plays a large hand in maintaining that figure. Individuals trying to assert the right to collective bargaining are at best discouraged, and at worst, harassed, jailed, tortured or shot.

The concept of "trickle-down economics" may have been repudiated in the last U.S. presidential election, but in Mexico, it is alive and well. In 1991, the country had just two billionaires, now there are 13. But the average worker there has seen little of that wealth, as the standard of living has dropped and gains in productivity have not resulted in an equal gain in wages.

NAFTA proponents would counter with, "Well, we've negotiated labor side agreements that will address this disparity." Close, but no cigar. NAFTA protects intellectual property rights, as Vice President Gore so skillfully demonstrated when he needled Ross Perot, but workers' rights still go lacking. Intellectual property rights are primarily investors' rights, and have little to do with any changes in the lifestyle of a line worker.

On another concern of mine -- the environment -- the Mexican government is, if anything, an integral part of the problem, not the solution.

Mexico has some of the toughest environmental standards in the world. Yet they are largely window dressing for industries that have freely polluted the U.S.-Mexico border for years, dumping waste and fostering corruption in accommodating border towns desperate for jobs. If the United States is already uncomfortable with the role of world policeman, then the issue of environmental enforcement is an example of every policeman's worst nightmare: a domestic squabble.

Parts of Mexico make no secret of their desire to lure American business with their artificially low wages and light-weight regulatory environments. An advertising campaign waged by the Mexican state of Yucatan trumpets the proximity to southern U.S. distribution centers and the low employee turnover rate. The "Yes You Can, Yucatan" ads all mention within the first two paragraphs -- surprise! -- "labor costs average under $1 an hour, including benefits."

Finally, the Clinton administration and its pro-NAFTA allies have simply given up on appeasing one of our historic allies in trade, the Caribbean.

Attempts at modifying the Caribbean Basin Initiative to equalize the playing field between the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean have been abandoned by the pro-NAFTA forces as unworkable. At risk is a score of industries, such as textiles, apparel, sugar and citrus, whose markets could dry up as a result of NAFTA. Trading patterns of Caribbean nations could be disrupted and several nations' economies thrown into turmoil as they are forced to compete at a disadvantage with Mexican products given free entry into American markets.

I have long felt that this NAFTA is less a free-trade agreement than an investment agreement protecting those large U.S. companies who want to do business in Mexico. It will alienate our friends, placate those who would sacrifice American workers and poison the well, figuratively and literally, for the people living on both sides of the Mexican border.

This agreement will set an example. If anything, we must get a free-trade agreement right the first time, because the odds are that it will be used to set the standard for later agreements with other Western Hemisphere countries. For now, no NAFTA is better than this NAFTA.

I would love to see a free-trade agreement that is fair and helps put America back on its economic feet. I would love to see a free-trade agreement that pits the American worker against those of other nations in a competitive, but fair, environment. And I would love a free-trade agreement formulated with the input of the entire American business community, not just those with the most dollars and the loudest voices.

But for this NAFTA: the love is gone.

Kweisi Mfume represents Maryland's Seventh District in Congress.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad