Wednesday, June 29, 2005 | The Central American Free Trade Agreement, facing widespread criticism, has not yet been presented to Congress for a vote. Instead of gathering support as the debate intensified, the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s trade policy is now opposed by a broad range of interests including agriculture, manufacturing, public health, women’s rights, state governments, consumers and environmental groups. CAFTA lacks majority support in the Senate and the House. Members of Congress who supported earlier free trade agreements now oppose CAFTA.
The lack of worker and environmental protections leads the list of concerns as CAFTA is modeled after the failed 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. At its 10-year anniversary, the verdict on NAFTA is in: It is an economic, social and environmental failure. Those of us living in the San Diego/Tijuana border region have seen NAFTA’s promises broken. Free trade translated into growing poverty, increased social inequality, economic instability, undermined labor rights and severe environmental degradation.
NAFTA failed to create sustainable economic development. As U.S. manufacturing collapsed, low-paying service jobs increased in San Diego by almost a third. The initial employment boom in Tijuana has ended as factories leave Mexico for lower-wage countries, taking with them over 240,000 factory jobs.
NAFTA also failed to create prosperity. San Diego’s pockets of poverty have more than doubled. Locally, 35,000 more children live in poverty today than in 1989. In Tijuana, full-time workers in the maquiladoras receive an average pay of only $75 a week and are forced to live in squatter settlements without access to running water, sewage, electricity or garbage service.
NAFTA failed to reduce migration from Mexico, as was promised. The number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States has more than doubled under NAFTA, growing from 2 million to at least 4.8 million. Extreme measures to control migration resulted in a 1,000 percent increase in migrant deaths, yet the U.S. government wants to expand trade policies that heighten the pressure to migrate by increasing poverty and economic instability.
NAFTA failed to protect the environment. In the landmark Metales y Derivados case, the Environmental Health Coalition joined residents of Tijuana’s colonia Chilpancingo in petitioning for cleanup of 23,000 tons of toxics at the abandoned, U.S.-owned factory. After four years, NAFTA’s environmental commission concluded that the site is a “grave risk to human health.”
But the commission has no enforcement mechanism. In 2004, the Mexican government signed an agreement with community residents to clean up the site within five years. Although this is an important step forward, it is the result of the community’s persistent demands, not the outcome of NAFTA’s toothless environmental protection commission.
NAFTA failed to protect labor rights. Twenty-eight complaints were submitted to NAFTA for resolution. The result? Two workers temporarily returned to work. Since 1994, not one independent union was recognized, nor was a single set of workplace health and safety hazards corrected through the NAFTA process.
Our experience in the San Diego/Tijuana cross-border region is a lesson for the future. Congress should reject any trade agreement that does not include the following fair trade principles:
Enforceable environmental protections. There must be provisions to prohibit countries from lowering environmental standards or failing to enforce environmental laws as a means of attracting foreign investment. Compliance with International Labor Organization health, safety and wage standards is imperative in order to reduce job flight and create a more equitable global economy.
Protection of human, labor and environmental rights over investor rights. NAFTA’s disastrous Chapter 11 dispute settlement mechanism allows foreign corporations to sue governments for loss of potential profits due to enforcement of domestic law. In some countries, the mere threat of such costly lawsuits may halt the adoption of new environmental laws or implementation of existing laws. Foreign investors must be required to act in a socially responsible way.
Compliance with established democratic governance. Trade negotiation and administration must be transparent, accountable, participatory, equitable and follow the rule of law. Trade agreements should not set new standards outside domestic regulatory processes.
Transfer economic resources to reduce inequality between trading partners. Trade agreements between countries with wide gaps in development must include assistance for less-developed countries to promote social, regional and economic cohesion and build stable, sustainable economies.
Trade that creates poverty, pollution, instability and injustice is not “free.” By defeating the Central American Free Trade Agreement, Congress will fulfill its obligation to defend basic economic and environmental rights and build prosperity and security.
Diane Takvorian is the executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition and served as President Clinton’s appointee on the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission Advisory Board.