The recent economic downturn has heightened anxiety about immigration and trade. Despite concerns that American jobs are being lost—and wages and job quality are being lowered by increased immigration, imported goods, and exported jobs—the United States has not taken part in the revival of labor standards enforcement that is taking place elsewhere in the world. Its trading partner to the south, Mexico, has also avoided strengthening labor standards enforcement in an effort to hold on to jobs that might otherwise depart to lower-wage countries. And, while NAFTA was the first bilateral trade agreement to include provisions for labor standards, these standards are very broad and sanctions are only selectively used to guarantee enforcement. While there is little chance of reopening negotiations to change this, each country could work independently to strengthen labor standards, impacting not only working conditions in both countries but also issues of illegal immigration and the treatment of Mexican immigrants to the United States.
With support from the Foundation, Michael Piore (MIT), David Weil (Boston University) and Andrew Schrank (University of New Mexico) will bring together a group of labor economists and immigration scholars to craft a new approach to regulating U.S. and Mexican labor markets and their interconnections. The working assumption is that policy should emphasize strengthening labor regulation instead of immigration control. Doing so would focus enforcement on the environment in which production occurs and the way business is conducted, as opposed to individuals working there. With better working conditions, native-born workers will be more attracted to available jobs, and with more native competition immigrants may be less motivated to migrate. Increased enforcement of labor standards would also limit the degree to which expanding trade in the two countries becomes a race to the bottom.
The initial meeting of the group focused on the different administrative methods of enforcement of labor standards in the United States and Mexico, and the relative efficacy of each. Differences such as which and how many agencies manage enforcement and what methods of inspection or investigation are used have a great impact on the ability of each country to improve enforcement. The next meeting will address different models of the links between labor standards and immigration rights.