Faulting U.S. Labor Laws, Mexican Unions File "Broadest" NAFTA Labor Complaint on Washington State Apple Industry


By Pharis Harvey

A coalition of Mexican trade unions and farmworker organizations today filed a wide-ranging complaint under NAFTA's labor side accord alleging failure of U.S. labor law to protect workers' rights in the Washington State apple industry. The complaint cites the lack of legal protection for farmworker union organizing and bargaining rights, discrimination against migrant workers, widespread health and safety violations, budget cuts in U.S. enforcement agencies like the NLRB and OSHA, and employers' use of threats and intimidation in recent union representation elections at two major apple packing and shipping plants.

The petitioners called on the Mexican government to pursue avenues of review, consultation, evaluation, and arbitration available under the NAALC for "persistent pattern of failure" by U.S. labor law authorities to prevent workers' rights violations in the Washington State apple industry. Arbitral rulings could result in government fines or loss of NAFTA tariff preferences for Washington State apple producers.

The Union Nacional de Trabajadores (National Workers' Union -- UNT), a new labor federation formed in 1997 by dissident Mexican unions representing 1.2 million workers, filed the complaint with Mexico's Department of Labor under the cross-border complaint procedures of the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC). The UNT was joined in the complaint by another federation, the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (Authentic Labor Front -- FAT) and its metalworkers' affiliate, known by its acronym STIHMACS. The Frente Democratico Campesino (Democratic Farmworkers Front -- FDC) also signed the complaint. Based on its experience in filing other cases under the NAALC, the International Labor Rights Fund provided assistance to the Mexican organization that submitted this complaint.

Over 45,000 workers work in the orchards and warehouses of the largest apple producing industry in the United States. Many come from the Mexican states of Michoacan and Oaxaca. Mexico is the largest single export market for Washington State apples, and the industry receives a $20 million subsidy from the U.S. government to promote overseas sales. Jorge Robles, a spokesman for the UNT, said "what's going on is a veritable 'social dumping'of apples exported to Mexico, with companies tripling their profits by violating workers' rights."