NAFTA, an acronym for the North American Free Trade Agreement, has been in the news lately. Implemented in 1994 to facilitate trade between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, it was supposed to lower tariffs and boost the economies of all three countries. Jobs were supposed to increase and everyone would live happily ever after.
This has not happened. As one foreign minister of Mexico remarks, “NAFTA was an agreement for the rich and powerful in the U.S., Mexico and Canada; an agreement that effectively excludes the ordinary people of all three societies.”
A recent TV program detailed just what has happened as a result of NAFTA in one U.S. A well-known vacuum cleaner company moved its operations from the Midwest to a border town in Mexico. The American workers who had been making $15 an hour plus $5 in benefits lost their jobs overnight. The prospects for these workers to find any comparable-paying jobs in their area are bleak. Now families are left without a viable income, no health insurance and face a difficult, uncertain future.
When this company relocated in Mexico they hired workers there at approximately $1.57 per hour. Benefits include lunch and bus fare to work. This translates into a monthly income of approximately $250 to $300. These vacuum cleaners still cost just as much or more in the U.S. So who gets the windfall profits? It must be the company’s top brass and the stockholders.
This is not an isolated case. This has happened over and over again in the 14 years that NAFTA has been in existence. Communities and workers in both Canada and the U.S. have been devastated.
I have seen the negative effects of NAFTA in the Mexican border city of Reynosa. I have been to some of the shantytowns where many of these workers and their families live in abject poverty. Many live in one-room shacks they have built using scrap materials. These shacks are located on undesirable land that floods every time there is a heavy rain. Children playing near polluted water-filled dump sites are in danger of falling in and getting hurt, becoming sick or drowning. Food is scarce, and children have to scrounge to find something to eat.
When we drive into Mexico on our ministry trips we pass the manufacturing sites of many companies whose names and products are well known in the U.S. Several years ago I met a retired American businessman who was visiting the colonia where we were working. He was going shack to shack to make sure workers knew what their rights were. Evidently some American and Canadian bosses were trying to circumvent local laws and cheat their employees even further. They were adding insult to injury by denying workers basic rights. Have they no shame?
Since it costs a month’s wage to send a child to school in Reynosa for one year, families have to choose which child they will send. They certainly can’t afford to send all of them. This is why our ministry supported 147 children last year with school supplies, backpacks, uniforms and shoes so they could go to school. This month we will be there again helping more children find a way out of the grinding poverty in which they live.
Defenders of NAFTA argue that the damage to workers in all three countries is exaggerated. I don’t think so—certainly not from what I’ve seen. NAFTA was supposed to make things better for workers. This has not happened. Things are worse instead.
Is it any wonder that Mexican workers cross the border illegally in search of a better life? Earning $6, $7, $8 or more per hour is a fortune compared to the $1.57 they can earn at home. I believe the tide of illegals would be greatly reduced if they could earn a living wage in their own country. Many who do come to the U.S. don’t really want to be here, but conditions are so bad back home that they feel forced to risk everything, even their lives, to come.
One of my former students told me that her mother came here illegally so she, the daughter, could get an education. Her mother was planning to return home as soon as her daughter graduated from 12th grade. I met a pastor in Reynosa who spent seven years as an illegal in the U.S. so he could earn enough to provide a home for his family. He is now back in Mexico.
To those who claim illegals are lawbreakers and need to be deported I offer Jesus’ words: “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). It is easy for us to condemn others for sins we don’t commit ourselves.
This is a complicated problem requiring understanding and compassion. There are no easy, quick-fix answers. We need to be less condemning and more Christ-like in finding solutions.
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