U.S. Proposes to Boost Nafta's Labor Standards

The Trump administration on Tuesday introduced a proposal aimed at boosting labor standards among the member countries in the North American Free Trade Agreement, but it earned an immediate rebuke from union officials for falling short.

At the current round of Nafta renegotiations, which are set to end Wednesday, U.S. negotiators put forward language that "replaces the original Nafta's toothless approach on labor with enforceable provisions to benefit workers across America," according to a statement from a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office.

USTR didn't provide specifics on the actual text, but said the new measure seeks commitments from Mexico and Canada to respect collective-bargaining agreements and other core labor standards.

Organized-labor officials were briefed on the U.S. proposal on the condition they didn't disclose specific details in the proposal. The proposal doesn't go far enough to protect workers, they said.

"It is not calculated to deal with the pressing labor issues in Nafta," said Celeste Drake, trade and globalization specialist at AFL-CIO. The union would continue to press U.S., Canadian and Mexican officials for improvements to the proposed language, Ms. Drake said.

Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union, said the U.S. proposal is similar to one in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which disappointed organized labor. Provisions in TPP built on labor commitments in previous U.S. trade deals and core international labor practices. In one of his first acts as U.S. president, Donald Trump formally withdrew from the TPP.

"We need to fix the labor issues or the deal isn't worth the paper it's written on," said Mr. Dias, who has endorsed Canada's efforts to address labor standards.

An official with the Mexican delegation didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Stronger labor provisions in a reworked Nafta are a bipartisan priority in Washington, representing an effort to keep companies from gravitating to countries with more-lax labor rules. Nafta's negative impact on the U.S. manufacturing sector was a major theme in Mr. Trump's campaign platform.

A top Democrat in Congress, Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, said this week that "dramatic change" to Nafta's labor-standards language was required before Democrats would consider voting for the revised pact. Any revisions to Nafta would require ratification by legislatures in all three nations.

More-stringent labor standards in Mexico "will help workers there climb out of poverty, while protecting American jobs and wages from a race to the bottom," Mr. Levin told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mexico's economy has expanded at an extraordinary pace since the 23-year-old trade pact came into force. But labor advocates from the U.S., Mexico and Canada say Mexico's stubbornly low pay -- the minimum wage there is $4.50 a day -- is unfair to U.S. and Canadian workers.

Of the three countries, Canada has been the most outspoken about the need for bolstering labor standards in a reworked Nafta.

Write to Paul Vieira at paul.vieira@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 26, 2017 18:58 ET (22:58 GMT)