Mexican Workers Since NAFTA

By NACLA 29.08.2005

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994, it was not only meant to put Mexico on the fast track to economic recovery and development, but to quickly reverse the severely declining fortunes of a large part of the Mexican population, extending from middle-class professionals to extremely poor campesinos. It was hoped that employment opportunities would grow in number, in quality and in remuneration. In the words of Mexico's then-President Carlos Salinas, the Agreement was supposed to create jobs instead of migrants.

It hasn't worked out that way. Since 1994, workers in Mexico have faced stagnant real wages and a dramatic decline in employment opportunities. For many Mexicans, holding a decent, steady job has become either a distant memory or a hopeful dream.

In this Report, Carlos Salas informs us that self-employment now accounts for nearly 25% of all the "jobs" held by members of Mexico's non-agricultural workforce. Self-employment can mean many things, some of them quite creative and even lucrative, but in Mexico it has become a last refuge for those with nowhere else to go – except, perhaps, north.

And of the jobs that come with a regular wage, the same precariousness applies. Salas reports that of all the jobs created between mid-2000 and mid-2004, 65% came with no benefits whatsoever, and frequently without a written contract. It is in this context, as Leigh Binford documents, that the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has nearly tripled since the Agreement went into effect.

This hasn't come as a surprise to everyone. When the treaty was debated in the early 1990s, its critics and opponents feared that by opening up – even gradually – the three North American economies to unfettered trade, investment and a general right to do business, NAFTA would undermine many of the protections afforded labor, the environment and community well-being in all three countries. Critics feared – and continue to fear – that in an effort to enhance profit-making and create incentives for private investment, institutions and legislation that had been created through long, arduous, contentious interactions between the state and a broad variety of social, labor and political movements would be quickly wiped away.

Now as LaBotz and Alexander report, the Mexican business community and their allies in the governing National Action Party (PAN) would like to go one better than NAFTA by enacting a labor law reform that would redefine the way workers are hired and fired, diminish their on-the-job negotiating power and heighten the ability of all investors to create a more "flexible" (i.e. unprotected) climate for investment and labor relations.

Paradoxically, this reform is not without its supporters in Mexico's old "official" labor movement. This irony is demonstrated in David Bacon's stories about the support given to the unfettered right to do business by the bought-out, old-ruling-party-affiliated trade-union movement. Workers, that is, face not only the voracity of global capital but also the venality of the not-yet-vestigial organs of Mexico's still-corporate state.

NAFTA, of course, is not simply an isolated treaty, but a key – even iconic – part of a larger global offensive against all "inefficient" barriers to profit-making and private investment. That's why investors in Mexico have not been required to channel their investments into employment-generating activities, and only minimally to consider the health, safety and environmental consequences of their investments.

This offensive against barriers to profit-making, generally called "neoliberalism," has been strongly supported by the international financial institutions, the U.S. government and most of the global business community. That's why for both sides, NAFTA has become a powerful touchstone in all free-trade debates and in struggles for labor rights in the Americas.

Vol. 39, No. 1 July/August 2005 NACLA Report on the Americas

méxico | tlcan/nafta | (archives) |