Mexico seeks to put to rest labor concerns over new trade deal

Mexico seeks to put to rest labor concerns over new trade deal
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Mexico's labor reforms will put to rest any concerns that American legislators may have over ratifying the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the country's top diplomat for North America told The Hill Tuesday.

Jesus Seade, an undersecretary of foreign relations, said Mexico will, for the first time in a century, actually follow its progressive labor ideals.

"We have a century of having the most advanced labor legislation in the world, the Constitution of 1917, number one in the world, but it turned out to be bogus," Seade said.

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Mexico's labor practices are likely to come into question once Congress sets to the task of ratifying the USMCA, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE hopes to use to replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Many Democrats originally opposed NAFTA, which had no labor stipulations, arguing that Mexico's union system was rife with corruption and failed to protect workers.

The new treaty has a chapter on collective bargaining that forces Mexico to undertake specific labor action to rectify its union structure.

Still, Seade said he doesn't blame Congress for viewing the changes with skepticism.

"I think they have a legitimate concern, a legitimate agenda … you have at least 10 or maybe 15 percent who are very connected to the labor question," he said.

"And many of them, it's not just the labor question  in the USA, it's also abroad. There are two connections. Why do they worry about labor conditions in  Mexico? Many of them, because of level playing field concerns. Others, because of good neighbor concerns — you want a close partner in Mexico to develop best practices," Seade added.

Seade took over as lead USMCA negotiator for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the long transition period between López Obrador's election in July and his swearing-in ceremony in December.

In that period, Seade worked with former President Enrique Peña Nieto's negotiating team to ensure the incoming leftist administration inherited a deal they could promote.

López Obrador, an early opponent of NAFTA, has voiced disdain for what he calls "the neoliberal period" of 1994 to 2018 and the top priorities of that period's administrations.

He's nixed many of Peña Nieto's key projects, including a $13 billion airport that was about a third of the way through construction.

But López Obrador has been relatively quiet about USMCA, letting Seade take the lead in pushing the revised treaty through ratification both at home and abroad.

Seade said the night-and-day change between prior administrations and López Obrador's has still not been felt by labor-connected critics of the deal, whether they're concerned about American workers or Mexican workers.

"In both cases what I think is missing, or I don't hear come from the U.S., is enough awareness of the fact that in Mexico were going through and absolute revolution. A revolution of values," he said.

"Now workers for the first time in their lifetimes and their parents' lifetimes are going to choose their labor leaders honestly. So that's a fantastic deep change that we have to make sure is well understood in the United States.

"And I have no reason to suspect that it is understood at all," added Seade.

To convince Congress, Seade said, he'll open two fronts: First, Mexico needs to show individual members the changes first-hand, and second, the treaty's dispute settlement mechanism needs to be shown to be a strong guarantor of the labor chapter.

Seade plans to meet with top U.S. labor leaders and invite members of Congress to meet Mexico's new labor secretary, 31-year-old Luisa María Alcalde.

And he's promising quick changes to give the agreement teeth if the labor chapter turns out to also be "bogus."

"My second line of defense is to say we have a super-duper labor chapter. Nothing that has been said [in criticism] relates to labor, it is related to enforcement, to credibility that you will actually do it," Seade said.

He added that Mexico is open to fast-tracking the creation of labor expert panels that are needed in case of dispute, before any dispute happens rather than after a suit is filed.

"What some people are pushing for are enforcement measures, and the best enforcement measure is dispute settlement. It's just to make dispute settlement operational from day one — let's work on that," he said.