- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

MEXICO CITY (AP) — More than a dozen legal Mexican and Central American migrant workers recruited by U.S. companies filed a complaint yesterday, claiming they were abused and denied rights guaranteed by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The complaint, filed with the Mexican government under the companion labor agreement to NAFTA, maintains that 16 migrant nonfarm workers from Mexico, Guatemala and Panama suffered labor abuses in the United States but had no way to file a complaint or to access U.S. courts.

Lodged with the help of eight American and Mexican labor and migrant organizations, the complaint calls on the Mexican government to ask the United States to better enforce its own labor laws.

Backers of the petition say labor enforcement issues for legal migrants are taking on increasing importance now that President Bush is proposing a temporary-worker program for Mexican migrants.

“It doesn’t help the laborers to have a guest-worker program, to have a visa, if in reality — as we are seeing with this testimony — labor laws are not respected,” Karina Arias, a representative of the Mexico City-based migrant support group Sin Fronteras, said at a press conference.

One of the Mexican migrants, Manuel Camero, said he spent $2,000 on transportation, overcrowded housing and protective equipment for a job with an Idaho reforestation company, then never received a paycheck.

The company even tried to charge workers for their Social Security cards, Mr. Camero claims. He said he fled the job with other workers after they were threatened by the business owner.

“I don’t have any need for vengeance,” the 60-year-old father of four said. “But I think that across the United States, which is a country of laws — where the law means something — these types of abuses are occurring with people who go there needing work to make money for their families.”

The migrants filing the complaint lacked the money to hire their own legal counsel. And they were not entitled to be represented by public legal-aid offices in the United States because they are not farmworkers, said D. Michael Dale, executive director of the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project in Portland, Ore., one of the groups helping the migrants.

Legal Services Corp. — the private, nonprofit corporation established by Congress to ensure legal assistance to poor Americans — provides aid to migrant farmworkers but not to most aliens who hold nonagricultural jobs, corporation spokesman Eric Kleiman said.

“Our mandate is clear. Our resources are limited. We do the very best we can,” he said.

While NAFTA’s side labor agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, doesn’t require any particular labor protections for migrant workers, “what it does say is that whatever laws you have, whatever rights you do recognize under your own law, that you enforce them,” Mr. Dale said.

“Remedies are supposed to be fair, transparent and reasonably inexpensive,” he said. “Congress has seen fit to provide that for U.S. workers. It should do the same for these workers.”

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