It is no accident that the Bush administration and its allies want to put the U.S.-Mexico free-trade agreement on the congressional fast track, a procedure that prohibits amendments and significantly limits debate.

Otherwise, the American people might learn the facts about this agreement, particularly its disastrous potential for workers on both sides of the border.What, specifically, do proponents of a free-trade agreement have to fear from public debate? For starters, we might get a full airing of what is going on with the "maquiladora" program, a miniature version of free trade that currently enables American firms to set up factories on the Mexican side of the border and export products back to this country with minimal duty charges.

The maquiladoras were touted as a godsend to Mexican workers - a source of desperately needed jobs and economic development. What actually happened, though, is that hundreds of U.S. companies, lured by Mexico's comparative advantages of rock-bottom wages and lack of effective government regulations, have shut down factories north of the border and relocated them in the maquiladora areas.

During the past decade, while hundreds of thousands of American workers were losing their jobs to this form of dislocation, more than a half-million Mexicans working in maquiladora plants were joining the ranks of the most crudely exploited humans on the planet.

Earning 60 to 80 cents an hour, many of these workers live in cardboard shacks with no heat, electricity or running water. Independent sources have documented widespread instances of child labor, illegal dumping of toxic wastes and the use of old chemical drums to hold drinking water.

The Wall Street Journal noted that the maquiladoras' very success is helping turn much of the border region into a sinkhole of abysmal living conditions and environmental degradation.

Clearly, the maquiladora program has not brought the kind of development that has occurred in the Pacific Rim countries. Instead, it has turned the Mexican border region into an economic, environmental and social disaster.

A free-trade agreement with Mexico would expand this program beyond the border area to include the entire country. It would undoubtedly mean more factory relocations and more job losses in the United States.

There are those who still argue that the jobs it has brought to Mexican workers are better than no jobs at all. But are they really?

A few years ago, when Mexican wages were actually higher in dollar terms than they are today, an article in the pro-maquiladora Twin Plant News advised U.S. parent companies that they could keep their minimum wage people at the minimum wage by collecting donated clothing and blankets for their Mexican employees, because many of their houses are poorly heated, if heated at all, and warm clothing and blankets feel good on those cold nights.

As for food, the magazine suggested a free kilo of tortillas each week or a few kilos of frijoles.

If these jobs are so good for Mexican workers, why do workers need handouts to survive?

And to those who talk glowingly of the Mexican market of 88 million people that a free-trade agreement would open to American producers, what do they propose be sold to people who earn $25 for a 48-hour week?

These are the kinds of issues that proponents of the U.S.-Mexico free-trade agreement want to avoid. Fast-track authority would help them do it by limiting the debate before Congress to one simple question: Are you for free trade or against it?

In this scenario, proponents are sure to argue that the agreement is a necessary step for America to compete in an era when Europe is heading rapidly toward a single market. But the proposed Yukon-to-Yucatan common market, which would include Canada, has little in common with that of the European Community.

For instance, the European Common Market contains a social charter establishing rights to a minimum wage, social assistance, collective bargaining, vocational training and health and safety protections. The Europeans also have created a $68 billion Regional Development Fund to narrow the gap in per capita income between rich and poor countries - a gap that is only one-fifth as wide as the one between the United States and Mexico.

As currently described, the proposed U.S.-Mexico free-trade agreement would contain none of these social dimensions. And fast-track consideration would prevent Congress from insisting that such provisions be included.

In this way, the insistence on fast-track consideration speaks volumes about who this agreement is really intended to help.

The fact is that trade is good for workers on both sides of the border only when it is carried out side by side with minimum standards on wages, benefits, safety and environment. Without them, it merely serves as a vehicle for capital to locate where labor is cheap and government governs least.

The problems of poverty and economic development in both the United States and Mexico are too serious to be left solely to the interests of private capital. And the proposed free-trade agreement between the two countries is far too serious a matter to be kept from the realm of public debate and left largely to these same interests.

We need a full airing of views so that the American people can decide for themselves whether this agreement is in their long-term interests.

Undoubtedly, they will see it for what it is - a golden opportunity for the rich to get richer at the expense of the working poor.

1991 New Perspectives Quarterly

Distributed by L.A. Times Syndicate