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Jailing Of Labor Activist Raises Concerns About Mexico's Readiness For USMCA

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, a new trade deal goes into effect that will govern more than a trillion dollars in trade. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA as it's known, replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. As part of the new deal, Mexico must change its labor laws and add strict protections for workers. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the recent jailing of a Mexican labor activist is raising concerns that Mexico may not be ready to live up to its obligations.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Three weeks ago, officers in the border state of Tamaulipas surrounded labor rights lawyer Susana Prieto in a restaurant parking lot.

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SUSANA PRIETO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The outspoken activists did what she always does - pulled out her cellphone.

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PRIETO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Narrating as officers usher her into a police vehicle, Prieto says she knew sooner or later the governor would come after her. Her 23-year-old daughter Maria Fernanda Pena Prieto says officials falsely charged her mother with inciting a riot and making threats. She says she feels helpless.

MARIA FERNANDA PENA PRIETO: The life of your mother is out of your hands, and specifically, the human rights and labor rights of thousands of workers along the Mexico-U.S. borders is on the line.

KAHN: Susana Prieto helped lead a series of wildcat strikes last year that brought wage increases and benefits to workers in foreign-owned factories along the border. The Tamaulipas governor declined NPR's requests for comment. Ben Davis of the United Steelworkers in the U.S. says Prieto's arrest just weeks before the USMCA goes into effect sends a terrible message.

BEN DAVIS: This is giving the finger to the USMCA and, you know, everything that the Democratic unions in Mexico and the U.S. are trying to do.

KAHN: Under the new trade pact, Mexico has agreed to allow free and independent union elections with secret ballots and a new rapid response plan to settle labor disputes. Mexico's secretary of labor, Luisa Maria Alcalde, says while the arrest of Prieto is in the hands of the state government, federal officials are monitoring the case closely. She stresses that Mexico is committed to ushering in a new era for workers.

LUISA MARIA ALCALDE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "This is really the most important change to labor relations in Mexico in the last 100 years," she says. And she adds the new laws will change the unequal balance of power in labor relations. However, law professor Manuel Fuentes at the Metropolitan Autonomous University is skeptical.

MANUEL FUENTES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says, it's one thing what's written in the trade pact. It's another how it will be implemented. For example, Fuentes says, the USMCA requires Mexico to renegotiate all current union contracts in the country to ensure that workers are truly represented. Ninety percent of all contracts have been imposed on workers, he says, without their participation. Gladys Cisneros is a program director at the Solidarity Center in Mexico City, a group affiliated with the AFL-CIO. She says under the USMCA, Mexico will also have to clear a huge backlog of labor disputes. And the courts have been shut down because of the coronavirus.

GLADYS CISNEROS: It's not the most reassuring landscape, by any means, but this was going to be challenging no matter what.

KAHN: Under the new accord, Mexico has up to four years to fulfill its commitments. But there is a more pressing deadline. By Wednesday, Mexico's Congress has to pass a series of laws to be in compliance with the USMCA. That vote won't happen until tomorrow.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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