24 April 2024

A Second RRM Dispute Settlement Panel, And Its Implications For Enforceability Across The Biden Trade Policy

Kelley Drye & Warren LLP


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While Ambassador Katherine Tai was testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee this morning – where her testimony focused significantly on the Rapid Response...
Worldwide International Law
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While Ambassador Katherine Tai was testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee this morning – where her testimony focused significantly on the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism (RRM) under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) – her staff at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) was busy continuing to ramp up RRM enforcement.

On April 16, 2024, USTR requested composition of an RRM panel, only the second such panel requested under the USMCA. This case centers on labor issues at two Atento Services call centers in Hidalgo, Mexico, which the U.S. asserts provide services to BBVA Mexico, a subsidiary of the Spanish multinational financial services company BBVA Group.

As explained in greater detail below, the Atento case is highly significant for the RRM, for services companies in Mexico, and for U.S. trade policy writ large.

What is the RRM?

The RRM requires individual companies operating in Mexico to comply with certain Mexican labor laws as designated by the USMCA. The RRM applies to all companies operating in a priority sector in Mexico – defined broadly to include all manufactured goods, mining, and services – that produce a good or supply a service traded between the U.S. and Mexico, or that compete with a U.S. good or service within Mexico. Petitioners can initiate a proceeding by requesting that the U.S. government review a matter, or the government can self-initiate a review.

The U.S. government has brought 22 RRM cases since the USMCA entered into force in July 2020, with 15 of these occurring in the last 11 months. USTR reports that 17 cases have resulted in comprehensive remediation plans or were otherwise successfully resolved to the satisfaction of the U.S. government. Also according to USTR, these cases have resulted in US $5 million in backpay and benefits to workers, reinstatements of dozens of terminated workers, and elections in which workers selected independent unions to represent them at nine facilities. Sixteen cases have focused on auto or auto parts facilities, two on mines, one on garments, and one on processed foods. Atento is the second case focused on a service provider.

Companies targeted in an RRM enforcement action and found in violation by the Parties (the U.S. and Mexican governments) or an RRM panel – a finding called a "denial of rights" – are subject to trade sanctions on a "three strike" basis, whereby the remedies become more severe for repeat violations, including:

  1. Strike 1 – suspension of preferential tariff treatment for goods manufactured at the facility (loss of USMCA tariff preferences for goods from a facility and reversion to the MFN tariff rate) or the imposition of penalties on goods manufactured at, or services provided by, the facility;
  2. Strike 2 – application of a remedy available for Strike 1 against all same or related goods or services, from all facilities in Mexico owned or controlled by the same person; and
  3. Strike 3 – denial of entry into the U.S. of such goods.

Upon initiating a case, the U.S. government also issues a press release naming the company, and, for goods cases, usually suspends settlement of customs accounts from the facility.

As a key enforcement piece of the Trump Administration's USMCA trade package and a priority for Congressional Democrats and the Biden Administration's "worker-centered trade policy," the RRM has achieved unique bipartisan support in Washington and is widely considered to be a model – or at least a jumping-off point – for future trade agreements.

Why is the Atento case significant?

Much of the RRM caseload to-date – 20 of 22 cases – has focused on trade in goods. This makes sense, as the remedies specifically spelled out in the USMCA focus on approaches that create significant penalties for non-compliant facilities engaged in goods trade, like increasing tariff rates or prohibiting importation of goods. It seems that service providers in Mexico and RRM petitioners have viewed potential RRM services cases as a bit of an afterthought. However, by requesting composition of an RRM panel in the Atento case, the U.S. government is clearly signaling that it disagrees. The U.S. government could have taken an off-ramp before it issued this panel request – it could have agreed to a settlement, for example, or taken the Mexican government's announced actions to purportedly remediate the issue as sufficient to close out the matter – but instead it elevated the case in a way that has happened only once previously. This tells me two things about the government's views of this case: (1) the U.S. government thinks its case is strong enough to win at panel; and (2) the U.S. government has a plan for the services-related remedies it will impose if it does.

Much of the attention on Atento has focused on the first point, and that makes sense. As the U.S. and Mexico both approach Presidential elections this year that re-emphasize political touchpoints around economic protectionism and sovereignty, and with the expiration of Mexico's legitimation vote deadline that makes remediating RRM cases harder than just re-running a vote, and with the influx of Chinese electric vehicle investments in Mexico that has been called "an extinction level event" for the U.S. auto industry, the second RRM panel is a big deal.

But an analysis that stops with that first point misses the forest for the trees, because the implications of the second point are profound and could have ramifications for much of the Biden Administration's trade policy, not just the RRM. The Biden Administration has sought to frame its trade policy as distinguishable from past approaches in a number of ways, but one notable distinction comes from its decision not to pursue negotiation of traditional market access, tariff-lowering, trade agreements. Since typical trade agreement enforcement in cases of non-compliance is conducted by taking away the market access that the agreement conferred, critics of the Biden Administration's trade policy question whether the reportedly ambitious commitments it seeks in negotiations with Taiwan, Kenya, the EU, the UK, and 13 Indo-Pacific countries are actually enforceable. Without lowering tariffs, the critique goes, how will the U.S. make sure that its "worker-centered" trade policy is more than just words on paper?

It may be that the Atento RRM case is about to give us the U.S. government's answer to that question. If the panel agrees with the U.S. government in Atento and permits the U.S. to impose remedies against the call centers involved in the case, we could gain concrete insight into what sorts of trade enforcement remedies it may be contemplating in each of the other trade agreements it is negotiating.

What are the next steps in the case?

The immediate next step in the case is that the USMCA Secretariat (the Mexican section, as the respondent Party) has until April 19 to select by lot the three panelists that will make up the RRM panel. One panelist is selected from Mexico's list of panelists, one from the U.S. list, and one from the joint list. The three lists were established when the USMCA entered into force in July 2020, so it's worth noting that the U.S. chose its own panelists and agreed to the joint list during the Trump Administration.

Once constituted, the panel has five business days to confirm that the petition meets basic threshold requirements and then will issue to Mexico a request for verification. Unless Mexico objects to the verification request (in which case the U.S. would ask the panel to find a denial of rights), the panel is to conduct the verification within 30 days of Mexico's receipt of the request. The panel then has an additional 30 days from the verification to determine if there has been a denial of rights.

However, these timelines should be taken with a grain of salt. In the first case to go to an RRM panel – concerning labor issues at a Grupo Mexico lead, zinc, and copper mine in Zacatecas, Mexico – the panel proceedings have taken much longer than provided for in the USMCA. In that case, the U.S. requested composition of an RRM panel on August 22, 2023. The panel reportedly did not conduct its verification until February 26, 2024, and heard oral arguments from the parties from February 28-29, 2024. The delays in the case have been ascribed to additional time needed by the Mexican secretariat to translate documents. The Grupo Mexico panel's decision is expected soon, but the panel process has evinced some operational delays in the panel process that the Parties may want to address in their 2026 review of the USMCA.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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