Mexican Workers Give Trade Pact Mixed Review

But middle-class consumers welcome the prospect of an open market

WHEN 14 months of talks to create a North American Free Trade Agreement succeeded this week, a sample of reactions among Mexicans ranged from enthusiasm to skepticism and indifference.

Senior industrialists and economists have long hailed the prospect of such a deal as the crowning achievement of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's career - and a necessary platform from which to launch the economy toward First World status.

"I feel the accord is good for Mexico because [the country] is going to have access to the biggest market in the world," says Armando Ruiz Galindo, who runs a major furniture manufacturing company. "It's going to have clear rules of trade, and it's going to have the chance to pass into the major league."

Juan Rodriguez Torres, a shoe manufacturer, says he is "very satisfied because this has taken a very long time. We're going to have a better country because the agreement will result in enlargement of the job market and an increase in the standard of living."

But among men and women in the street, news of the accord provoked a guarded response. "It will be fine for the big businessmen. But for the average Mexican, who can say? It probably won't make a difference," says Remo Durand, a taxi driver.

Clutching a newspaper with the banner headline "The FTA [Free Trade Agreement], Concluded," bank worker Maria Fernandez says, "The US is going to have the biggest slice of the cake. It's not trying to help anybody but itself."

Still, she adds, tempering her comment, "there will be economic benefit because it will produce jobs for the lower classes as more factories open here."

The promise of jobs does not carry universal appeal, however.

"You can earn more money selling chewing-gum on the street than working for a maquiladora," claims street vendor Jorge Martinez. "What Salinas really needs to do is raise the minimum wage."

Maquiladoras, as the United States-owned assembly plants in a duty-free area along the US-Mexico border are known, have taken advantage of low-cost Mexican labor since the 1960s. Mr. Martinez said he used to work in such a factory earning 15,000 pesos (about $5) for an eight-hour day, but now he earns as much as 50,000 pesos ($16.50) selling candy at stoplights. The minimum daily wage in Mexico is around 13,000 pesos ($4.30).

For many Mexicans the news meant nothing. Construction worker Hector Flores appeared only vaguely aware of the proposed treaty.

"I couldn't say anything. I don't read the papers and I rarely watch TV. I don't think it will have any effect on me," he says.

AMONG middle-class consumers, the prospect of an open market is an attractive one, and not only because of the lure of US-made goods. Complaints about the quality of Mexican products are legion, and forced competition for national industries is regarded as much-needed.

"It's going to teach many businesses a lesson," says housewife Ana Murillo. "Their [Mexican businesses'] quality standards are very low and their prices are too high, since they have little competition.... They're going to have to change if they want to survive."

For some smaller businesses, an open market is a daunting idea. Rafael Aguillar Lopez, who runs a graphic design firm, acknowledges the impending pressure on Mexican firms to attend more to quality.

"Among small businesses there is better infrastructure in US and Canadian firms, and so prices are often much lower," he says.

Political analyst Sergio Sarmiento affirms that labor-intensive businesses are those likely to fare best in Mexico after NAFTA is ratified: "Automobiles and - once the technology is modified, textiles - will do well, as will any agricultural area that does not involve large plots of land. Not grain, but fruit and vegetables, yes." Still, he says, "some sectors of the economy will not stand the competition. We tried to maintain an economy that produced everything.... But Mexico is not a large enough econo my for that."

Mr. Sarmiento, like many other observers, says Mexico's net balance of trade will not change very much for years. On the street, meanwhile, caution is prevalent.

"Of course, the gringos will benefit from our cheap labor," says Mr. Durand, the taxi driver. "You know what they say about our country: `Poor Mexico - so far from God, so close to the United States.' "

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