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Complainants in NAFTA labour side agreement case boycott tri-national consultation

December 9, 2008

The three complainants in a NAFTA labour side agreement case against Mexico were conspicuously absent from a December 3 stakeholder consultation in Puebla, Mexico in which the governments of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico were supposed to discuss Mexico’s commitment to freedom of association.

Five years after the Puebla case was filed, the Worker Assistance Center (CAT) of Mexico, the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) of Canada, and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) of the United States announced they were boycotting the so-called “stakeholder seminar” citing serious flaws in the side agreement process.

In a joint public statement the three groups explained that they could not participate in the seminar because "no independent Mexican trade union organizations, labour rights NGOs or credible independent experts on labour rights issues in Mexico were invited to speak at the seminar, and, with a few exceptions, independent Mexican voices were deliberately excluded from the seminar." (see the joint public statement).

Instead of attending the consultation, the CAT and MSN held a press conference outside the Puebla Marriott Real Hotel where the seminar was being held, during which Blanca Velázquez, from the CAT and Lynda Yanz from MSN called on the three governments to take concrete steps to address the labour side agreement violations documented in the case.

Ms. Velázquez stated that nothing had changed in Puebla in the five long years since the complaint was filed: the rights of workers to freely associate and bargain collectively are still being violated and government agencies in the state are colluding with companies and government-controlled unions against workers’ interests.

Ben Davis from the AFL-CIO, which also declined to participate in the seminar, echoed those sentiments. He said that five years after the complaint was made “the response of the three governments is a seminar in which the representatives of the workers are not invited; this is a joke, but a very bad joke, made worse by the fact that during those five years there have been a number of more serious violations of these same rights.”

The stakeholder seminar took place one day after a meeting between the three governments and the government of the State of Puebla on the outcomes of a 2003 NAFTA labour side agreement complaint filed by the same three organizations alleging that the Mexican government was failing to enforce its own laws regarding workers' right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Hearings in both the US and Canada in 2004 found there were continuing difficulties with the union registration process, the impartiality and independence of labour boards, workers' access to information about their collective agreements, and the protection of workers from dismissal for organizing a union. They both recommended Ministerial Consultation to attempt to resolve the issues.

According to Lynda Yanz, Coordinator of the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN), the Mexican government was able to delay the government-to-government meetings on the Puebla case for another four years after the findings recommendations were made public, but with the election of a new US president who has pledged to reopen NAFTA to strengthen its labour and environmental provisions, the Mexican government is suddenly in a hurry to put this case behind it.

"If they were interested in seriously addressing these issues, they would have opened the meetings to the public and the media and allowed all relevant stakeholders to participate," said Yanz. "Instead, they meet behind closed doors with people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo."

A last minute December 2 meeting was held between the claimants and NAFTA government representatives in an effort to avoid the boycott, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Of note, during the meeting Pierre Bouchard from the Canadian National Administrative Office (NAO) announced that the Canadian government was looking to support a "technical cooperation" project on freedom of association in the State of Puebla.

Background information on the Puebla complaint.

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