Mexican labor leader says free trade deals kill jobs

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It was 11:34 a.m. yesterday when President Bush announced he would be fast-tracking the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia.

Half an hour later, at a forum on the North American Free Trade Agreement, Benedicto Martinez Orozco, the co-president of a Mexican trade union, told a filled hall at the United Steelworkers Building just how bad an idea the free trade agreements are.

In the first two years after Nafta was signed, Mr. Martinez said, thousands of small and midsize Mexican companies found they could not compete with the multinational companies that suddenly flooded the Mexican markets.

"In the first years thousands of middle-sized businesses closed, and that left thousands more workers without jobs," Mr. Martinez said through an interpreter. "Bigger companies bought up businesses, and we started to see the concentration of industries."

The result, he said, was that there were many people who became very rich, while now 14 years later, about half the population of the country, is either underemployed or unemployed.

In just the last six years he said, wages have deteriorated by 60 percent; so while the minimum wage is 51 pesos, or between $4.50 and $5 a day, a kilogram of meat, which is about 2 pounds, costs 70 pesos.

In Mexico, Mr. Martinez said, the climate for workers and their ability to organize has gotten more harsh since Nafta was passed, as large corporations have pressured the government to change its labor laws. Recent regulations have limited collective bargaining and restricted the ability of workers to strike.

The issue of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement has come up in the Democratic presidential primary with Sen. Hillary Clinton having come out against the agreement while her chief strategist, Mark Penn, was meeting with the ambassador from Colombia and promoting the agreement. Mr. Penn apologized for meeting with the Colombian delegation, prompting Colombia to fire his public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller. He also has since stepped down as Sen. Clinton's chief strategist.

While Sen. Clinton has come out against the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was given the "Colombia is Passion" award by Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe in June, for his faith in the country.

Dan Kovalik, the general counsel for the United Steelworkers, traveled to Colombia in February to talk to President Uribe about the history of killings of trade union organizers in the country. Just this year alone, he said, 17 unionists have been killed by members of the paramilitary in the country. Since 1986, 2,500 union leaders in Colombia have been killed.

"Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists," he said. "We cannot reward a country that continues to suffer this anti-union violence."

While Mr. Kovalik was careful to note that the United Steelworkers has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary, he said when Colombia's President Uribe said he was concerned about the effect a Barack Obama administration might have on trade with his country, he did not express the same concern about Sen. Clinton or presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.

Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699.


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