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September 25, 2003 - Salvador, Bahia, Brasil

May I extend a warm greeting to the distinguished Ministers and colleagues gathered here, to representatives of COSATE and CEATAL and of the international organizations that support our work, and to all participants in this XIII Inter-American Conference of Ministers of Labor.

I would like to thank Minister Jaques Wagner, Chair of this Conference, for the warm welcome and the hospitality of the government of Brazil in this beautiful city, Salvador de Bahía. May I congratulate you, Minister: I am certain of the success of this Conference under your pro tempore Chair.

I am pleased and honored to address you on behalf of the North American sub-region, in which my colleagues are two great women with a deeply humane sensitivity: Minister Claudette Bradshaw and Secretary Elaine Chao. The theme of this plenary session is “Current Labor Conditions in the Hemisphere”, and I am going to comment on existing challenges faced by Canada, the United States and Mexico. We all know that conditions in our three countries are far from being homogenous and, of course, our interests do not necessarily coincide. Nevertheless, if our challenges are seen from a human perspective, common goals are stronger and we may strengthen ties to achieve social justice and the common good.

Let us remember the uneasiness and the expectations of all three countries as we negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement. Opening markets to free trade caused the same reaction in our three countries: fear of job loss through competition and, at the same time, hopes of benefits from the higher competitiveness of the region as a whole. Our governments consulted society and the negotiations reflected the concerns as well as the hopes of ample parts of our population.

Reality has calmed fears and has largely responded to expectations, although this does not mean that we wish to deny the challenges and the difficulties of the process. The North American Free Trade Agreement gave the region greater opportunities for trade and investment, and has helped to raise the standard of living of our people. Trilateral trade has more than doubled since 1994, rising from 289 billion dollars to 604 billion. Throughout most of the period since 1994, until the year 2000, employment levels have increased significantly in all three countries.

Even so, adjustment to free trade has been difficult in certain sectors. Our people share the need, with good reason, to foster employment for all and to protect those who are displaced and defenseless in the face of today’s fierce competition.

As President Fox said in Cancun, during the Inauguration of the V Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization, “Agreements make us stronger, and do not divide us, when we draw closer to our common goal. I invite you to face together our pressing challenges in consolidating a stronger, fairer multilateral trading system and a world economy with a human face, which is more open and prosperous for all.” (end of the quote)

In Mexico we do not forget that each unemployed person is not just a statistic, but hardship for an entire family. In light of our desire to create conditions which will allow greater job opportunities, under freer and more competitive trade and, at times, unfavorable economic conditions, we endeavor to implement inclusive policies, support training and foster greater productivity and competitiveness. We are convinced that, through the solidarity that lives in human hearts, we must add cooperation to competitiveness, without letting the State take over people’s free initiative to do that which they know how, want to, and must do.

I believe that this is true in all countries in our Hemisphere. Creating good jobs is the best way to address the problems of poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity. This is a priority for practically every government in the hemisphere. Labor ministries can play an important positive role in poverty reduction by ensuring that workers have access to high quality training, by helping labor markets work more efficiently, and by raising labor standards, which can promote higher investment, greater work force commitment, social and political stability, and a more even distribution of income.

We must also recognize that there are also important limits to what labor ministries can do to promote job creation, since this depends upon the rate and quality of investment, which in turn depends upon factors such as political stability, the rule of law, good infrastructure, and an educated work force. The Declaration and Action Plan of the Third Summit of the Americas recognizes that all of these aims are mutually supportive and should be pursued together.

I would like to dwell on the principles that guide our actions in Mexico. We have programs that provide training for unemployed persons, that encourage self employment or that give assistance to administer small and medium enterprises. We have created systems to evaluate and certify skills and promote access to the labor market for certain population groups, such as ageing adults or persons with disabilities. We have a wide net of services to link demand and supply of employment, through electronic means, telephone, printed materials, or job fairs. But we have something beyond this. All of these actions are part of a new vision, a set of guiding principles which underlie our policy, and which we call the New Labor Culture.

Workers, employers, and government are developing a labor culture which responds to the new circumstances of the world of labor. We do not seek change to sacrifice the triumphs of labor, but rather, through social dialogue, to encourage more jobs and to find room for mature and creative convergence and modernization.

In Mexico we have found macroeconomic stability. Now, the challenge is to build an economy which is based on greater well-being, the reduction of poverty, more jobs, and higher family incomes. For Mexico it is essential to diversify external markets and develop its internal market, improve domestic purchasing power and facilitate every person’s access to credit and savings.

Thus, we are fostering and consolidating a New Labor Culture in which the core element is a person’s dignity. Human beings are the origin, driving force and purpose of all economic activity. This vision of the person at the center leads us to productive practices and values in the world of labor, where each person gradually becomes more and more conscious of both their rights and obligations and each firm of its social responsibility.

The New Labor Culture leads us to changes in labor laws, practices, and institutions so as to facilitate an environment of peace and harmony. It fosters new ways for participants in the world of labor to relate to one another, so as to promote work as the expression of a person’s dignity, and as a means for personal fulfillment. It fosters decent work, free of labor risks, as well as training for higher productivity and greater competitiveness of firms. All of this must be achieved through a permanent dialogue among government, workers and employers, through mutual understanding, gradual change, legality and the inclusion of all social actors.

This vision is analogous to the objectives that Canada, the United States and Mexico have set forth in the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, the NAFTA side agreement. We have decided to cooperate to improve working conditions and living standards, to promote the labor principles set out in the Agreement, and to encourage cooperation so as to promote innovation and rising levels of productivity and quality.

Our joint activities clearly demonstrate our shared desire to improve working conditions and to raise living standards for workers in our respective countries, evidenced by our efforts in the areas of child labor, safety and health, migrant workers´ rights, and work force development. There is room for new areas of cooperation. In the United States and Canada, for example, Income security programs like unemployment insurance can help give workers the stability they need to invest in their children´s education, and to avoid losing their savings and falling into poverty. In Mexico unemployment insurance will only be possible through dialogue and agreement between workers and employers, under the coordination of the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare.

Through cooperation we have found that there are similar issues that all three countries confront. We try to train workers so that their skills match those in demand for production. We find that there is an important role for government in facilitating the job match process through employment services. We face a growing labor force participation by immigrants, whose labor rights must be protected according to the labor laws in each of our countries.

In regard to social dialogue, our three governments in North America have brought labor organizations, employers, non governmental organizations, academic institutions, and the public together in a constructive way to focus public and private sector initiatives on important labor matters.

Much has been said about our agreement’s mechanism for dispute resolution. Those who think of the agreement as an instrument for sanctions forget its main feature, which is cooperation. Fortunately, developments through nine years of the agreement’s operation demonstrate its usefulness, especially because there has been no need to use the mechanism for dispute resolution and, even less, for applying sanctions.

Mexico maintains that the dispute resolution provisions of the North American Agreement for Labor Cooperation are a last resort, and a lose-lose scenario. Governments must make every effort to find solutions to problems by favoring cooperation and dialogue above all.

To sum up: The challenge before governments, employers, and workers in our countries is to lay out public policies for national and international solidarity, which through decent work, as fostered by the ILO, can enable conditions for the full development of persons, families, and society. This is the responsibility of society and government. We must continue to develop the right ways to strengthen and expand international cooperation, so as to share our experiences and best practices in the world of labor. Finally, we are conscious that we need to make sure that the benefits of free trade reach all the countries of our Hemisphere, and all persons, by building economies that have a truly human face and heart. That is, the main issue is not to seek trade integration at any price, but to find a just, equitable and humane way to achieve integration.

Thank you.