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Requests for training under NAFTA are few


WASHINGTON -- Irene Sanchez was told she could keep her job if she wanted when AlliedSignal Inc. said it was leaving El Paso, Texas.

But her job was moving across the Rio Grande to Mexico and Ms. Sanchez refused to follow.

"The company said, 'What's the big deal?' But it is," said Ms. Sanchez, a 34-year-old single parent. "I'm a U.S. citizen. Why should I be forced to work in a Third World country?"

Ms. Sanchez, a clerk for five years, wants a fresh start and is going back to school to become a teacher. And, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, she will get a big boost from U.S. taxpayers to make that change.

Because of fear that NAFTA would cause an exodus of jobs, Congress agreed to set aside money to retrain workers who lose their jobs to Mexico or Canada.

With Ross Perot warning that NAFTA will cause a "giant sucking sound" of jobs moving south, many lawmakers would only vote for NAFTA if Congress did something to help workers whose jobs were threatened.

Under the program, displaced workers can get money for retraining, as well as extended unemployment compensation. But so far, the only sound coming from the border has been a modest gurgle of jobs leaving for Mexico.

The number of jobless workers applying for special NAFTA benefits has been much smaller than federal officials expected.

When the year began, the Department of Labor had been bracing for as many as 100 applications a month from groups of fired workers. Instead, only 162 groups have applied for special NAFTA benefits in the first half of this year.

Among those who have applied, 55 petitions, representing 4,601 workers, have been approved so far for NAFTA assistance. Another 62 groups were denied benefits and the remaining cases are pending.

"That's not a sucking sound by anyone's definition," said Vic Trunzo, who manages the NAFTA program for the Labor Department.

Of course, a delayed flood is still possible.

Labor analysts said some U.S. companies that waited to determine NAFTA's fate in Congress may not yet have announced their moving plans. In addition, some businesses may be waiting to see what tangible improvements in trade are created by the agreement before they make any moves.

"Corporations don't make moves very quickly," said Don Nibbe, publisher of Twin Plant News, a magazine published in El Paso that follows industry along the border. "It's pretty much been business as usual for now."

Then, too, the uncertain political situation in Mexico may be causing some businesses to hold off on investment decisions. In March, the leading candidate for the upcoming presidential election was assassinated. And, in the rural region of Chiapas, peasants led an uprising that had to be quelled by government troops.

Victor Munoz of the AFL-CIO, whose job is to monitor industry along the border, said it's too early to gauge the job fallout from NAFTA. He said the real impact of the trade agreement will unfold over the next few years, not the next few months.

Once Mexico proceeds with plans to improve its highways and telephone system, making it easier for businesses to operate, Mr. Munoz said, the real shift in employment will occur.

"It's not a sucking sound, but eventually it could happen where you really start to see a hemorrhage of industry to Mexico," he said.

Mr. Trunzo of the Labor Department said the NAFTA aid filings are not a precise snapshot of the impact of the trade agreement on employment in this country. Instead, they provide a rough measure of the current extent of job loss.

He noted that most of the workers filing petitions for NAFTA benefits worked for small manufacturing firms with about 90 workers.

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