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NAFTA Violation: Mexican Government Asks U.S. to Respond to Labor Violations

In a response to a complaint filed by sixteen Latin American workers, BC lawyers and a coalition of workers’ rights organizations urge the U.S. to act.

December 13, 2007

Mexican Government Asks United States To Respond To Alleged NAFTA Violations

For Immediate Release: 
December 12, 2007

Laura K. Abel, Brennan Center for Justice (212) 998–6737
Maggie Barron, Brennan Center for Justice (212) 998–6153
Michael Dale, Northwest Workers’ Justice Project (503) 525–8454


New York, New York –  Mexico has formally asked the United States to respond to a complaint filed by sixteen Latin American workers employed in Oregon, Washington and other states about the United States’ alleged failure to comply with a portion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  Mexico alleges the U.S. failed to protect the labor rights of Mexican nationals legally working in the U.S. on “H2-B” nonagricultural work visas.  The workers filed the complaint under the labor side agreement to NAFTA known as the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) .  The workers complain of suffering brutal physical injury, stolen wages, unsafe housing, being wrongly classified as non-agricultural workers (which deprived them of important labor protections), and being denied access to the civil legal aid they need to seek redress.

In response to the workers’ complaint, the Mexican government has asked the United States Department of Labor sixty-nine sets of detailed questions regarding the extent to which the workers have access to legal assistance, and the extent to which state and federal laws, courts and agencies protect the employment rights of H2-B workers.  For example, the Mexican government asks how many H2-B workers have complained of violations of their labor rights, how state and federal agencies investigate those complaints, how H2-B workers are able to access free legal aid, and how the government ensures that they are not subjected to forced labor.

Edgar Peña, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told how he and three other workers left their homes and families in Mexico and traveled to Colorado because a corn grower promised to pay at least $6.26 an hour for five months of work in food processing.  However, once they arrived, the workers were offered only sporadic employment in agricultural field work for two and a half weeks.  For some of that time they earned only an average of $2.12 per hour, far below both the wage they had been promised and the legally binding minimum wage.

The workers bringing the complaints have substantial support in the U.S. and Mexico.  Five U.S. organizations and six Mexican organizations have joined their complaint.  Representing the workers and the supporting organizations are Laura Abel, Deputy Director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; Michael Dale, Executive Director of the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project in Portland, Oregon; Bill Beardall, Executive Director of the Texas-based Equal Justice Center; and Maria Andrade of the Andrade Law Office of Boise, Idaho.

The workers brought their complaint in Mexico because the governing treaty provides that aggrieved workers can complaint to any of the signatory nations other than the one charged with violating the treaty.  The treaty guarantees migrant workers who are in the U.S. legally the ability to enforce their labor rights, access to courts, and fair enforcement proceedings.  As part of a reciprocal agreement with Mexico and Canada, the U.S. is required to provide migrant workers with the same workplace protections as native-born workers.

Once the U.S. government responds to the Mexican government’s questions, Mexico will decide whether to pursue additional mechanisms in NAALC to ensure U.S. compliance.  Those mechanisms could include holding public hearings in the U.S. and Mexico, retaining an expert and/or convening a panel of experts, and consultations with the U.S. and Canadian Secretaries of Labor.

Visit the following links for more information on the case.

General background
NAALC Fact Sheet
Mexican workers’ stories
Mexican docket (search for Brenan with one “n”)