Thin Side Agreements

THE new side agreements to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) clearly have made no converts among labor, environmental, and consumer groups that watched the talks closely and that opposed the treaty even before the latest agreements were reached.

It is not hard to see why. The agreements, reached at the weekend, are at best a minimal foundation for dealing with labor and environmental concerns relating to NAFTA. But given the historical concerns on the part of many Canadians and Mexicans - that talk of partnerships with the United States often has led to domination - the side agreements can be counted as progress.

The labor agreement requires Canada, Mexico, and the US to promote freedom of association, the right to strike, the right to collective bargaining, a ban on forced labor, limits on child labor, pay parity between men and women, workers' compensation for on-the-job mishaps, and migrant-labor protections.

The environmental agreement has no enumerated set of principles beyond a general statement of commitment to high levels of environmental protection.

On either issue, no country may lower the standards embodied in its existing law, and new laws must raise standards.

The agreements have been drawn up to encourage enforcement of existing laws, rather than commit the signatories to enact specific new ones - not surprising given the issues of sovereignty involved.

A five-step process that deals with nonenforcement complaints, which can be lodged by individuals or groups, looks first for a negotiated settlement by representatives from each country. If negotiations fail, the complaint goes to a panel of experts for adjudication. If the panel rules against a country, the country has 60 days to enforce the law to the satisfaction of the complaining country. Failure to follow up could lead to a $20 million fine levied against the offending country. If the US or Mexico refuses to pay, tariffs could be levied against products from the offending industry. In Canada's case, Ottawa's refusal to pay the fine could be challenged in a Canadian court. The court's decision cannot be appealed.

This process is more convoluted than it might have been and reflects as much Canada's sovereignty and trade concerns with the United States as it does concerns about violations by Mexico. Yet Mexico's acceptance of sanctions represents a key concession by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who had opposed sanctions as an enforcement mechanism.

For President Clinton, the NAFTA package he must now sell to a skeptical Congress is virtually complete. Even with its shortcomings, the overall agreement on balance remains one that deserves support.

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