EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — As the presidents of Mexico and the United States were about to meet in Washington, D.C., to hail the start of a new trade agreement, some House members and labor advocates were saying there’s little to celebrate.

U.S. Rep. Jesus Garcia, D-Illinois, said he voted against the newly effected U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) because it doesn’t “undo the damage” to workers’ rights caused by the previous North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) nor does it address climate change or prevent jobs from being outsourced.

“It doesn’t look like it will improve labor rights, either,” Garcia said during a Wednesday Zoom teleconference in support of a Mexican labor rights activist arrested last month while trying to organize workers of U.S.-run plants known as maquiladoras.

Eighty House members on June 30 sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to secure the release of Juarez labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas from jail in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

“We sincerely hope that all levels of the Mexican government respect labor rights, the freedom to organize independent unions […] enshrined in Mexican law and the re-negotiated NAFTA,” the letter said. “However, we question this commitment considering Ms. Prieto’s arrest …”

The lawyer was freed the following day and on Wednesday said her country’s labor laws exist only on paper because it continues to persecute independent labor unions.

Workers in U.S.-run factories in Mexico were supposed to get a big pay increase under a May 1, 2019 law, but the government allowed maquiladoras to circumvent the regulation, she said.

“Salary is barely enough to survive, they depend on attendance and punctuality bonuses,” Prieto said, adding that the factories merely cut the bonuses in half and applied the money to the workers’ regular paycheck. “Wages did not go up. The costs for the factory remained the same.”

She added that only 1% of Mexican workers are members of independent unions; the rest are affiliated with labor organizations she described as “in-house” unions accountable to the factories’ human resources departments.

“Those who want to organize independent unions are immediately fired and given a pitiful severance pay. They are blacklisted […] so that when they file a lawsuit for illegal firing they can’t find work at any other maquila. Freedom to work, which is a human right, is being violated,” she said.

Prieto earlier announced she expects to be arrested again soon because of two pending arrest warrants in Juarez for crimes similar to those she was accused of in Tamaulipas: alleged threats and lying to government officials. In Tamaulipas, she was also accused of inciting a riot and illegal detention of government officials.

“I have never met the people I am accused of detaining illegally,” she said, adding she’s pursuing writs of amparo — Mexican habeas corpus protection — to avoid arrest.

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