By Camille Mori, Staff Writer

The new trilateral trade agreement between the US, Mexico, and Canada is a beacon of hope for better working conditions in our global supply chains. The new agreement, which is simply named the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA, has many similarities to NAFTA. It differs in its inclusion of opening up Canadian dairy markets for US farmers and increased percentage of car manufacturing that has to occur in the US to qualify for zero tariffs. One exciting difference for workers within the manufacturing industries is the labor provisions. This was a component borrowed from the abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, developed by the Obama administration to answer NAFTA’s criticisms, and seems to be a common issue for both parties. The provisions ensure that the US will not lose manufacturing jobs to Mexico as a result of corporations manufacturing in factories with forced labor conditions or paying workers less than minimum wage.

Before understanding how the USMCA labor provisions impact the textile industry, it is important to note that NAFTA failed to enforce their accord for the protection of workers. The Human Rights Watch monitored and reported on the failures of NAFTA to protect workers, and produced a report to outline their shortcomings. Although it was stated that NAFTA should uphold certain labor standards, there were no processes outlined for enforcing this standard. Now, with the USMCA, it has been determined that an independent counsel will be consulted in resolving disputes between the three countries.

The US has a few pending requests for Mexico to update their labor laws once the agreement is put into place. Some key issues are: freedom of workers to unionize, the ability to negotiate their own labor contracts, improved rights for women in the workplace and better wages and working conditions. These issues not only plague the automotive manufacturing industry, highlighted throughout these negotiations, but also the garment and textile manufacturing industries.

According to an analysis of census data from Queens College, New York City’s garment manufacturing workforce has declined by 95%  since it’s peak in the 1950s. A bulk of this decline has happened in the last thirty years. The US Department of Commerce reported, apparel, leather, and allied product manufacturing lost 912,000 jobs in the US, declining by 84 %. This shift in garment manufacturing production has been mainly from the US to China, but also to Mexico, where garment manufacturers have benefitted from perks of free trade as a result of NAFTA. The New York City garment industry is a shell of what it once was: with garment factories dwindling to those who cater to the luxury industry on one end, to sweatshops flying under the radar and selling to brands looking the other way. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the labor movement was heating up in New York City. Some of its strongest leaders were women from the garment industry. As unions gained power and demanded better working conditions and rights, the cost of production clothing increased. Eventually, the globalized economy allowed corporations to source factory production in countries with weak unions and few labor rights regulations to drive their prices back down. New free trade agreements made it possible to produce clothing in foreign countries, like China and Mexico, at a lower cost. Since the garment manufacturing industries were in their nascency, they didn’t have the labor rights and protections that had forced prices up back in the US.

Now that trade policies are incorporating labor rights provisions, what does the future of a globalized supply chain look like? The next step in the puzzle is how to implement enforcement strategies for these provisions. The US has an opportunity to step forward and be a leader in demanding better human rights in our supply chains. Although the creation of new labor rights provisions may be coming from a protectionist stance, to make it unaffordable for countries to produce products at the minimum wages agreed upon, these policies and their enforcement have major implications for how we view labor rights issues in countries where US products are being produced. From the cars we drive to the clothing we wear, the USCMA has the potential to drive up the standards of how we treat the people who produce them.