The negotiations toward a renewed North American Free Trade Agreement were already rushed, and that was worrisome enough. Pushing them into overdrive over the past few days is even worse – and puts the needs of workers at risk.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland flew down to Washington at a moment’s notice last week for a sudden round of talks to reach an “agreement in principle” for a new NAFTA deal. Teams of negotiators have returned to Washington and may have a deal done in just a few days.
The time pressures to reach a new trade deal are mounting. The Summit of the Americas meets this weekend in Peru. The Mexican presidential election ramps up soon after, with an anti-NAFTA candidate gaining momentum. In a few months, U.S. mid-term elections will be in full swing.
As well, at the end of this month, the temporary reprieve given to Canada and Mexico on steel and aluminum tariffs is set to expire – after which Canadian goods will be hit with a 25 per cent tariff on steel, and 10 per cent on aluminum.
Sparking a trade war within NAFTA will make a new deal all the more difficult. As well, U.S. President Donald Trump has tied the tariffs to reaching an agreement on NAFTA.
With all this, it is hardly surprising that negotiators are feeling some political urgency to reach a deal.
The rest of us, however, must not get caught up in artificial deadlines. We cannot forget what is really at stake with these negotiations, or what the priorities of those at the table need to be.
Simply put, NAFTA doesn’t work unless it works for all workers.
For a quarter century, workers across North America have lived through the consequences of the original poorly negotiated NAFTA, now being renewed.
They have watched as factories that were once the backbone of communities downsized and too often disappeared, taking away good jobs and bright futures for the next generation.
We’ve seen an economy rooted in stable jobs, and the expectation that each generation will do better than the last, devolve into a gig economy and young people wondering if they’ll ever do as well as their parents.
We can and must do better. Renegotiating NAFTA provides a generational opportunity for the federal government that must not be wasted or rushed. A new agenda on trade, starting with NAFTA, that puts the needs of workers and their communities first is key to building a strong future for workers across North America.
The government cannot abandon that ideal just to meet some foreign political agenda.
Too much is at stake to get this wrong, or to expect workers, their families and local communities to sign on to and believe in vaguely worded promises in any agreement in principle that might be reached this week.
Workers have been down that road before in trade deals, and cannot be expected to believe in hope and empty promises of an agreement in principle, but offer few details to back up what we can expect to be some pretty big promises about jobs and future prosperity.
Without details of what has been negotiated on auto and rules of origin, for instance, a key holdup in the talks so far, it is impossible to assess what the impact is likely to be on the industry or the communities that rely on it.
Likewise, nice words in an agreement in principle about protecting the rights of workers are meaningless without real teeth behind them. Workers and their families in all three countries deserve no less.
So far, NAFTA has helped encourage a flood of jobs to go to Mexico in search of lower wages. Any new deal that allows Mexican workers to continue to be paid a fraction of what Canadian and American workers make won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.
Canada cannot be pushed or be allowed to be rushed into any deal. The current, apparently crucial, round of negotiations are quietly being held - and in place of the usual round of talks that had been expected for this week, under greater public scrutiny.
This is no way to renegotiate a trade deal that has such a sizeable impact on our economy and thousands of jobs. This is about our future. This is about setting a new template for global trade rules. The federal government needs to get this right, and to take as much time as that requires.