the globalization of poverty in the late 20th century is unprecedented in world history. this poverty is not, however, the consequence of a ‘scarcity’ of human and material resources. rather it is the result of a system of global oversupply predicated on unemployment and the worldwide minimisation of labor costs.

--michel chossudovsky, the globalisation of poverty: impacts of imf and world bank reforms

nafta and undocumented workers

by dean spade

The fact that NAFTA is designed specifically to enrich corporations by allowing them access to cheaper, unprotected workers is especially clear in the case of undocumented workers. NAFTA creates a multi-national agreement between mexico, the u$, and canada that empowers corporations to operate with more freedom, but only further undermines the rights of people working in those countries. Undocumented workers, a group traditionally subject to severe abuses and with very limited access to the laws that are supposed to protect workers, are left more vulnerable than ever by NAFTA and NAALC.

Currently, although undocumented workers are supposed to have some protection in the US under the Fair Labor Standards Act and other laws, immigrant workers are prevented from enforcing their statutory rights because the Department of Labor is required to investigate immigration status of workers and report suspected violations to the INS. If undocumented workers want to exercise their rights to minimum wage or safe working conditions or their rights to organize, they cannot call on the government to enforce what legal protections they may have without becoming targets for adverse actions by the INS. Even in instances where reporting labor law violations will not create immigration consequences for undocumented workers, widespread fear of deportation and lack of access to information and assistance keeps them from asserting their rights.

The unprotected status of undocumented workers greatly benefits employers. Keeping undocumented workers unprotected guarantees that US employers will have a group of vulnerable employees who can be paid extremely low wages, and be denied basic protections in the workplace such as safety equipment, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation. From an employer perspective, it is worth the potential penalties that might be imposed if they are caught employing illegal workers because of the savings they get in not paying into social insurance programs and paying very low wages.

Because the availability of an illegal, unprotected workforce benefits business, and NAFTA and NAALC were designed to provide even more benefits for business, these agreements exacerbate the dangerous situation of undocumented workers. While Clinton supposedly established NAALC to protect the interests of labor, the failure of the agreement to provide any protection demonstrates that this was never the intention. If the drafters of NAALC had wanted to protect workers, they could have at least copied the format of the European Union (the European version of NAFTA), which includes a minimum standard of specifically enumerated workers’ rights to all nationals from member countries, regardless of immigration status, within the free trade region. As it currently stands, NAFTA gives benefits of “free trade” or multi-nationalism to business, but workers are still restricted by national lines. This means that the unprotected class of illegal workers, upon which vulturous business can feed, remains in tact. If NAALC had been anything more than an empty promise to pacify labor interests in the US, protection for immigrant workers could easily have been provided.

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