Those who have been closely following the saga of revamped free trade in North America will know well that the fate of the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement (USMCA) could very well be decided on the degree to which lawmakers are able to suspend their cynicism over labor reforms in Mexico to buy into the labor-enforcement provisions set out in the agreement.
Democrats in Congress want to see labor-enforcement provisions within the USMCA made stronger, clearer and part of the actual agreement (as opposed to a side letter). Their demands stem from the fear the USMCA will do little to curb the flight of manufacturing jobs from the United States and into Mexico where workers are paid less and there are fewer regulations with which to contend.
These concerns are fair and warranted, but both Mexico and Canada have unequivocally stated they do not intend to reopen negotiations. Mexico in particular, which just recently passed a labor reform bill that will allow workers to vote on unions and their labor contracts via secret ballot, has said no further concessions will be made.
All three parties have dug in their heels, making ratification of the USMCA seem unlikely in the near term. And yet the agreement’s ratification is crucial to the ongoing prosperity of all three countries’ economies and to North America’s status as the world’s largest trading bloc. Failure to ratify the USMCA won’t simply mean that free trade will revert back to NAFTA. The president has stated repeatedly that if the USMCA isn’t ratified, he will unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA, pitting himself against lawmakers in Congress and putting the future of free trade in North America in jeopardy.
Sunset can brighten gloomy outlook
While each party presents a valid position, digging in on labor provisions (and, more peripherally, environmental ones) that prolong trade uncertainty in the largest trading bloc in the world is entirely unnecessary.
There are valid mechanisms in place that Democrats can use to ensure the enacted labor reforms are enforced and that Mexico is holding up its end of the bargain with respect to labor practices.
When the USMCA was signed in November 2018, it included a sunset clause that had been a source of tension and controversy during the negotiation period. The purpose of the clause was to force the parties to revisit the deal periodically to ensure it is working as it should for all involved. In its final iteration, the clause would see the USMCA automatically terminated 16 years after its implementation. However, six years after implementation, a joint review of the agreement would take place, at which time the parties could unanimously choose to extend the sunset period to 16 years from the six-year review, with another joint review to follow six years later. Failure to achieve unanimity at any six-year interval would require additional reviews to take place each year thereafter until the initial 16-year period concludes or until a consensus is reached on how to address the complainant party’s concerns.
If that sounds awfully and unnecessarily complicated, that’s probably because it is, particularly since the USMCA allows for any one party to withdraw from the agreement at any time with a six-month notice, making a sunset clause gratuitous. Nevertheless, it is how the current text of the agreement reads and, barring the unlikely possibility of the USMCA’s renegotiation, is how the agreement will be implemented.
Drifting off into the sunset
Assuming no one party relents, the most obvious way around the impasse would be for Democrats to ratify the agreement as it is currently written with the intent to watch closely how its labor provisions are enforced in Mexico. (Precisely how the monitoring of enforcement will take place is a separate but related disagreement between the White House and Congressional Democrats.)
After six years, there will be an opportunity to review the agreement and put Mexico on notice that it will need either to better enforce the labor provisions set out in the USMCA or see the U.S. exit the agreement when the 16-year period closes. In the event the annual review gets bogged down in bureaucratic inefficiency, lawmakers and the president of the day will have the withdrawal clause at their disposal to expedite compliance.
Unfortunately this will put U.S. industry in a Catch 22 position. Those businesses invested heavily in Mexican production will have to choose either to remain steadfast in their support of Mexico’s existing cost-effective labor regime or align with USMCA detractors in Congress at that time to exert pressure on Mexico to improve enforcement of labor provisions with the understanding that their failure to do so could put free trade in North America in danger.
Relying on the sunset clause may seem to be the equivalent of kicking the can down the road. However, the interim period would offer tremendous benefit. It would provide businesses the opportunity to adapt to the agreement’s new provisions and reconfigure their supply chains to make optimal use of the USMCA. It would allow production practices in Mexico to adjust to new labor and environmental provisions. It would offer Mexican officials the chance to demonstrate to the U.S. government that they intend to honor their USMCA commitments (not just in spirit, but in practice), and would demonstrate to Mexican officials that U.S. lawmakers are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Most importantly it would allow for stability to return to North America’s trade environment and the businesses and consumers who rely on it for prosperity and cost efficiency.
It may not be a perfect solution, but it is a viable alternative to the current options of lingering trade uncertainty, or worse yet, quashing the USMCA altogether and potentially precipitating a presidential decree to withdraw from NAFTA and with it a lengthy legal battle over the president’s legal authority to do so.
Cora Di Pietro is vice president of Global Trade Consulting at trade-services firm Livingston International. She is a frequent speaker and lecturer at industry and academic events and is an active member of numerous industry groups and associations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.