March 15, 2004 letter to Canada's Labour Minister and US Labor Department

March 15, 2004

Claudette Bradshaw
Minister of Labour
Ottawa, Canada K1A 0J2

Arnold Levine
Deputy Under Secretary for International Affairs
Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20210

Dear Minister Bradshaw and Deputy Under Secretary Levine,

Thank you for your letters of December 15th and 18th in response to our letter of October 7th regarding the functioning of the Tri-National Working Group on Occupational Health and Safety.

We note your interest in the creation of a fifth subcommittee of the Working Group to examine the NAALC complaint process and the specific complaints filed since 1994 related to occupational safety and health. Please allow us to explain again our proposal for a fifth subcommittee.

As you know, the NAALC process has generated six complaints that related to occupational safety and health, including the Han Young case (US NAO 97-02), the Washington apple harvester case (MX NAO 98-02) the Echlin case (US NAO 97-03 and CN NAO 98-1) and the Autotrim/Customtrim case (US NAO 2000-01).

In each of these cases, the investigating National Administrative Office found significant evidence of persistent failure to enforce the existing workplace health ands safety regulations in the United States and Mexico. In each case, the investigating NAO called for measures to address and correct these deficiencies via Ministerial Consultations between Mexico and the United States.

These NAO complaints contain a wealth of information concerning the obstacles and difficulties facing workers in these two countries in securing enforcement of existing workplace health and safety regulations. The proposed resolution of these complaints also highlighted the necessity for governmental action to correct and eliminate these obstacles.

Yet none of the four existing subcommittees of the Tri-National Working Group are addressing the problems actually encountered by workers on the job, nor the problems encountered when workers have attempted to get government agencies to actually do their jobs. These key issues, described in detail in the complaints and the NAO reports, are totally absent from the Working Group’s current generic discussions of best practices, voluntary protection programs, chemical labels, electronic resources and the like.

The fifth subcommittee, as we envision it, would have as its central task a thorough examination of the actual NAALC experience since 1994 and what lessons this experience holds for future trade agreements, several of which are now pending approval or are currently in negotiation.

The questions which the fifth subcommittee should be charged in answering include:

  • How "user-friendly" has the NAALC complaint process been for both workers and employers in the cases filed to date;
  • How comprehensive and accurate are the NAO investigations of the complaints from the perspective of the NAO office staff, submitters and employers;
  • What have been identified as obstacles to effective enforcement of existing regulations in Mexico and the United States;
  • What remedies have been proposed to reduce or eliminate these obstacles;
  • How effective has been the Ministerial Consultation process in actually correcting the problems described in the complaints and confirmed by the NAO investigations;
  • What are the lessons of the NAALC process for protecting labor rights, particularly workplace health and safety, in other trade agreements.

To effectively answer these questions, the proposed fifth subcommittee must be composed of representatives of the workers and other submitting non-governmental organizations (NGOs), of the companies named in the complaints, and of the appropriate government institutions. The meetings of the subcommittee must be in the public arena so that interested parties who are not members of the subcommittee can follow its deliberations in a meaningful way.

It is simply not acceptable, in our view, that the fifth subcommittee mirror the activity of the four existing subcommittees which consist of government functionaries issuing perfunctory press releases following semi-annual closed door meetings. Public seminars which do not address the unexamined issues noted above, and which do not include any of the worker or NGOs submitters of the complaints, do not and cannot address, let alone remedy, the substantial obstacles to enforcement of workplace safety regulations in North America identified by the NAALC process itself.

Given the public interest in the protection of labor rights and workplace safety in trade agreements – members of the U.S. Congress have already communicated with Secretary Chao on several occasions – the Tri-National Working Group must address the critical issues raised by the NAALC complaints and the reports of its own NAOs. Moreover, if the NAALC process is to have any credibility with the citizens of North America, it must address the profound disillusionment felt by the workers whose NAO complaints have been "resolved" by Ministerial Consultations.

We stand ready to propose representatives, in coordination of other submitters of NAALC complaints, for a fifth subcommittee of the Working Group. Naturally these representatives will require assistance for travel and lost-time expenses, or the subcommittee will not benefit from participation by those most directly involved in the complaints and their resolution.

We look forward to your prompt response and action to establish a fifth subcommittee involving representatives of the workers and other submitters of the NAALC health and safety complaints.

Sincerely yours,

Garrett Brown
Maquiladora H&S
Support Network
Monica Schurtman
Associate Professor
University of Idaho
College of Law
Martha Ojeda
Executive Director
Coalition for Justice
in the Maquiladoras

cc: Secretary Elaine Chao, Washington, DC
Secretary Carlos Maria Abascal Caranza, Mexico City
Undersecretary for OSHA John Henshaw, Washington, DC
US NAO Deputy Secretary Lewis Karesh, Washington, DC
Canada Director General Gerry Blanchard, Ottawa
Canada NAO Secretary Kevin Banks, Ottawa
Senator Edward Kennedy, Washington, DC
Congressman George Miller, Washington, DC