Late in September 2018, the United States, Mexico, and Canada negotiated a new trade agreement, the United States- Mexico-Canada Agreement, intended to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. President Donald Trump, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed the new agreement during the G20 Summit in Argentina in November. However, all three countries still need to ratify the agreement. While most stakeholders—including labor and business groups—seem to favor a new agreement, there are still many concerns about whether workers in all three countries will be better protected by the USMCA than they had been by NAFTA. A panel discussion during the International Occupational Hygiene Association conference in Washington, D.C., last September brought together speakers from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. to share their perspectives about NAFTA, its impact on worker protection, and the opportunities to improve those protections in the future.
Commission for Environmental Cooperation: “
North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation
Government of Canada: “
Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement
.” International Labor Organization: “
Conventions and Recommendations
.” International Labor Organization: “
ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work
.” IOHA 2018: “
OSH Panel Discussion: Are Workers Protected by the NAFTA Labor Side Agreement? The Lessons Learned and Missed
” (September 2018). Office of the United States Trade Representative: “
Agreement between the United States of America, the United Mexican States, and Canada Text
” (November 2018). Office of the United States Trade Representative: “USMCA Chapter 23: Labor” (
).  Office of the United States Trade Representative: “USMCA Chapter 24: Environment” (

The Secretariat: "North American Free Trade Agreement." United States Department of Labor: “
North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation
” (September 1993). Wikipedia: “
United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement

NAFTA’s predecessor, the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, went into effect on Jan. 1, 1989. In 1991, bilateral talks between the U.S. and Mexico began, which Canada eventually joined. NAFTA went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994. The website of the government of Canada credits NAFTA with “creating the largest free trade region in the world, generating economic growth and helping to raise the standard of living for the people of all three member countries.”  On May 18, 2017, U.S. Trade representative Robert Lighthizer informed Congress that President Trump intended to begin negotiations with Canada and Mexico with respect to NAFTA. The new agreement between the three countries was announced on Sept. 30, 2018.  NAFTA had two supplemental side agreements, the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) and the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC). The IOHA panel discussion focused on the NAALC, also known as the Labor Side Agreement. This Labor Side Agreement included 11 principles:
  1. freedom of association and protection of the right to organize
  2. the right to bargain collectively
  3. the right to strike
  4. prohibition of forced labor
  5. labor protections for children and young persons
  6. minimum employment standards, such as minimum wages and overtime pay, covering wage earners, including those not covered by collective agreements
  7. elimination of employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, sex, or other grounds as determined by each country’s domestic laws
  8. equal pay for men and women
  9. prevention of occupational injuries and illnesses
  10. compensation in cases of occupational injuries and illnesses
  11. protection of migrant workers
Of these eleven principles, only three were subject to trade sanctions: labor protections for children, minimum employment standards, and prevention of occupational injuries and illnesses. The agreement was intended to compel all three countries to ensure compliance with their own respective labor regulations. At the IOHA session, Garrett Brown, CIH, MPH, FAIHA, who served as the panel’s U.S. representative, discussed the complaint mechanism built into the Labor Side Agreement. This mechanism allowed any Mexican civil society group to take a complaint about Mexican non-compliance to the Department of Labor in Canada or in the U.S. Brown was involved in the filing of two complaints under NAFTA. According to Brown, “Almost all of the analyses of NAFTA have shown that it produced benefits for transnational corporations, while for everyone else—workers, family famers, and small businesses in all three countries, the social and ecological environment on the U.S.-Mexico border—NAFTA has been a net loss.
“The roots of the problem,” Brown said, “are that there is ferocious competition between corporations roaming the world in search of the lowest possible production costs and the most accommodating governments, and there’s a huge labor pool of people so desperate for work that they are unable to refuse any work—no matter how dangerous or unhealthy.” Canada’s Paul Gallina, PhD, LLM, DOHS, a professor of law and employment relations at Bishop’s University in Quebec, observed that “Mexico is a chief ‘winner’ in terms of new jobs, but Mexicans work longer hours under poorer working conditions than there are in the other two NAFTA countries.” David Rodriguez, project manager at Innovare EHS, S.A. de C.V. in Mexico City, said that “There have been improvements in worker injury and illness rates in Mexico, but there is still much work to be done to protect our workers.” Rodriguez explained that Mexico has promulgated eleven standards that affect industrial hygiene, including chemical exposure monitoring, noise, and heat stress. “Mexico has a very strong regulatory framework related to industrial hygiene. The challenge in Mexico for all companies doing business in the country is to comply with the current regulations. Another challenge is applying these regulations to small and medium businesses, which represent nearly 40 percent of the total business in Mexico,” Rodriguez said.  Rodriguez noted that Mexico has free trade agreements with 46 countries and 32 Reciprocal Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements with 33 countries. Mexico is also a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. However, the agreement with the U.S. and Canada is its most important economically and represents 48 percent of its gross domestic product. Of the three countries, Mexico has the lowest minimum wage, and most of its small businesses don’t have access to health and safety professionals. 
The USMCA attempts to address the minimum wage issue, which makes Mexico more attractive for manufacturing. For example, the USMCA establishes a “rule of origin” for the car manufacturing industry that requires 75 percent of a vehicle to be manufactured in the country of origin, and 45 percent to be manufactured in places where workers earn at least $16 per hour. The new Mexican government is also working to raise minimum wages as part of its new labor policies. The USMCA contains 34 articles. Unlike NAFTA, which governed workers’ rights and environmental protection through side agreements, the text of the USMCA addresses these issues directly (article 23 focuses on labor and article 24 on the environment). However, the USMCA’s protections for workers invoke the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Rights at Work, a voluntary, non-enforceable guideline, instead of the stronger ILO conventions, which are legally enforceable in countries that have ratified them. The USMCA’s labor article includes the following provisions:
1. Each Party shall adopt and maintain in its statutes and regulations, and practices thereunder, the following rights, as stated in the ILO Declaration on Rights at Work:
(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; 
(b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor; 
(c) the effective abolition of child labor and, for the purposes of this Agreement, a prohibition on the worst forms of child labor; and 
(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
2. Each Party shall adopt and maintain statutes and regulations, and practices thereunder, governing acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.
NAFTA contained similar requirements in its side agreement, so it is still not clear whether the new agreement will improve protection of worker rights. The USMCA will allow countries to sanction one another for labor violations, but workers’ rights groups remain concerned about enforcement. These groups are particularly uneasy about the USMCA’s requirement to demonstrate that a violation is “part of a recurring pattern.”  The USMCA also remains controversial among business leaders, who are concerned about tariffs on steel and aluminum. The new agreement includes a 16-year sunset clause but also requires that the agreement be reviewed every six years, at which time the three countries can decide to extend it. For analysis of the USMCA by the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, see the sidebar below. 
It is not yet clear what worker protections will be provided under the new trade agreement, but the panelists at IOHA agreed that trans-national standards for work and occupational health need to be established and enforced. As industrial hygiene professionals, we should stay informed about the issues and convey our concerns to our elected officials about the importance of ensuring that the new agreement provides sufficient protection of workers’ rights related to health, safety, and fair labor practices. By opening these communication channels, we can make the industrial hygiene profession more visible, strengthen the global health and safety community, and help ensure that people are protected at work.   
is a past president of AIHA and past chair of the American Board of Industrial Hygiene. She is employed by DuPont in Wilmington, Del.
The author thanks Garrett Brown, Andrew Cutz, Paul Gallina, and David Rodriguez for their contributions to this article.
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It is not yet clear what worker protections will be provided under the new trade agreement.
Analysis of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (aka NAFTA 2.0)
From the U.S. Trade Representatives’ office:
“The new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is a mutually beneficial win for North American workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses. When finalized and implemented, the agreement will create more balanced, reciprocal trade that supports high-paying jobs for Americans and grows the North American economy.”
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From the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:
“Early indicators . . . show numerous wins for U.S. business including on digital trade, intellectual property, financial services, and agricultural trade. In these and other areas, the USMCA is truly a 21st-century trade deal. However, the agreement appears to mark a setback on investment protections and access to government procurement opportunities. . . . We are very disappointed that the steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico, along with retaliatory tariffs on $20 billion of U.S. exports, still remain in place.”
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From the AFL-CIO:
“We encourage the [Trump] administration and Congress to continue working with us to deliver a fair and just agreement for working families. In addition to enforcement provisions, that means securing tools to combat outsourcing in key sectors such as aerospace, meat packing, food processing and call centers; tightening auto rules of origin; and eliminating rules that keep prescription medicine prices sky high and interfere with the creation of workplace safety and other public interest protections.”
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From Public Citizen Global Trade Watch:
“The NAFTA 2.0 text includes some improvements we have long demanded, as well as the addition of damaging terms we have long opposed in other pacts. It also reveals that more work is needed, especially with respect to ensuring the swift and certain enforcement of labor standards and environmental standards.” Read more (
Will the New North American Trade Agreement Improve Worker Protections?

NAFTA’s Lessons