What you need to know about the NAFTA renegotiation

In May 2017, the president announced his intent to renegotiate the free trade agreement known as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In effect for over 20 years, NAFTA irrevocably tied the economies of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. When NAFTA originally passed, proponents promised it would lead to job creation in North America, improved living standards for workers, and protection of the environment. Unfortunately, the agreement has increased inequality and environmental degradation, as well as weakened the rights of workers.

The renegotiation of NAFTA is a crucial opportunity to make sure our trade policy aligns with our faith values of human dignity, care for creation, and pursuit of the common good.

What does our faith teach us about free trade agreements?

Jesus tells us that he “came so that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

Trade policies at their core should promote the ‘abundance of life’ through environmental, economic, and social well-being. Free trade agreements must be evaluated by their human consequences and moral dimensions. Too often we see such agreements prioritize the interests of transnational corporations over local communities, workers, and the environment. These agreements must not benefit the few – they must benefit everyone.

Pope Benedict XVI made it clear in his encyclical Caritas en Veritate the terms on which we must evaluate economic policy:

The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly - not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered. (No. 45)

Pope Francis developed Pope Benedict’s call to include all creation. In his speech to the “Second World Meeting of the Popular Movements” in 2015, he reminds us that our Catholic values demand we pursue just and equitable economic and environmental policies: 

The first task is to put the economy at the service of peoples. Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money. Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service.

What do the Columbans think about free trade agreements?

Columban missionaries live and serve in many countries party to free trade agreements, including Mexico and the United States. We see how these agreements often disproportionately benefit a small number of individuals, governments, and corporations while leaving the majority of people struggling to live and putting the environment at risk.

In Mexico, a maquiladora is a manufacturing operation,and many were established
as a direct result of NAFTA. They are often characterized by poor working conditions
and exploitative labor practices. 

We believe any economic model must reflect the Gospel values of solidarity and justice for the vulnerable, as well as dignity for all workers, and respect for all of creation. When trade agreements are negotiated in secret between governments and corporate advisors and favor the interests of transnational corporations, they make it more difficult for governments and local communities to defend the rights and protections of workers and the environment. This model does not reflect these values.

We have witnessed the impacts of free trade agreements including:

  • Driving migration because people cannot access dignified employment in their home communities
  • Prioritizing the investment rights of mining corporations at the expense of a local community’s access to clean water
  • Limiting access to healthcare and medicine by increasing prices through monopoly protections for corporations

Around the world, Columbans have created and supported initiatives to create local, sustainable economies that provide for dignified work and opportunities for the community. For example, Columbans in the Philippines work with the indigenous Subanen community to create a livelihood project called Subanen Crafts. Read more about this project here and check out some of their products here.

What do the Columbans have to say about NAFTA?

Columbans have ministered to marginalized communities on the US/Mexico border for the past 20 years. We have experienced firsthand NAFTA’s damaging consequences. These include the displacement of Mexican farmers, increased pollution at the border, and a lack of enforcement of worker protections in the industries that relocated from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico after the agreement.

Columban Father Bill Morton, pastor of Corpus Christi parish in Rancho Anapra, Mexico, describes how NAFTA contributes to migration and the instability of Mexican communities.

Columban Father Bob Mosher is the Director of the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, Texas. He sees firsthand what has happened to workers because NAFTA has eroded labor protections.

"At the U.S.-Mexico border, we see the effects of similar free trade agreements like NAFTA on workers' rights. Many people were laid off from a Lexmark company's "maquiladora" assembly plant in Juarez because they wanted a better wage than $33 a week and the right to organize a union. Without employment for many months, these workers continued to protest their firing, and are a living embodiment of the negative effects of trade agreements like NAFTA, which make it easier for companies to treat their workers unjustly, without any accountability, and is unconcerned with requiring a decent, living wage for them in the signatory countries."

Mexico, Canada, and the United States should use the renegotiation of NAFTA as an opportunity to align our trade policies with the values of the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching.

What is the faith-based vision for a renegotiated NAFTA?

Ensure just labor practices
NAFTA should ensure stable jobs with decent wages, protect worker’s freedom to organize, and promote worker health and safety across all three countries. The agreement must adopt robust and enforceable labor standards so workers are protected from corporations whose bottom line is profit at the expense of dignified labor.

Care for creation
The agreement must prioritize long-term ecological sustainability by including strong environmental standards in addition to a commitment to curb climate change. We cannot afford to implement trade agreements that undermine our ability to fight climate change. Without across the board environmental standards, corporations can outsource polluting practices, often endangering the most vulnerable communities. Instead, a renegotiated NAFTA should impose higher duties on goods whose production has high carbon emissions.

Expand access to affordable medicines
The prioritization of pharmaceutical corporations over patients through monopoly protections on medicines can put life-saving drugs out of reach for many. NAFTA should not add any extension to monopoly protections. Instead, public health protections should be included that enable the U.S. and other countries to promote the human right to health.

Eliminate Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)
This provision grants corporations the ability to sue governments over their domestic laws that they believe would cause them actual or potential future loss of profit. These lawsuits are often used to undermine the ability of governments to develop and enforce regulations in the best interest of their citizens, causing a chilling effect on labor, environmental, health, or other public interest protections. NAFTA should enable affected communities to determine the policies that will best protect their environment and people.

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