« John Paul II on Labor | Main | Maryland Passes Wal-Mart Health Bill »

April 05, 2005

Opposition to CAFTA Grows

Both US and Central American labor activists are escalating their opposition to the CAFTA trade deal -- formally known as the U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement.

As the Daily Labor Report details (see full article below), activists highlight that NAFTA -- with similarly weak labor provisions as CAFTA - has failed to protect labor rights and the use of trade deals to undermine wage standards. In fact, CAFTA would be a step backward from present law which requires Central American companies to take " steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights" and would eliminate the enforcement tools presently available to labor activists.

On top of the bad labor provisions, health advocates criticize CAFTA's intellectual property provisions for threatening to restrict the availability of cheap generic AIDS drugs in the country. A good example is Guatemala:

Late last year in Guatemala, AIDS activists scored a big victory when a new law was passed that further opened the country's market to generic drugs. But the U.S. Embassy and Trade Representative put stern and open pressure on the government to change the law, saying it contradicted the already negotiated CAFTA. In March, weeks before ratifying the free trade accord, the government changed the law to bring it in line with CAFTA.
"Free trade" is not about freedom but about the United States overriding the democratic decisions of small countries and using the leverage of trade to lower wage standards and weaken health standards in other countries.

By Rossella Brevetti

The AFL-CIO April 4 released a new report blasting the labor provisions of the U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement and characterizing them as a step backwards from current unilateral trade preference programs.

The report comes just one day before Central American and Dominican Republic labor officials are scheduled to officially endorse a series of recommendations aimed at enhancing the implementation of labor laws in the region.

In addition to the United States and the Dominican Republic, the CAFTA countries are Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. CAFTA contains an "enforce your own laws" labor standard which has drawn strong criticism from House Democrats (see related report, this issue).

The report, The Real Record on Workers' Rights in Central America, likens CAFTA to the North American Free Trade Agreement which the AFL-CIO said also failed to include strong protections for workers' rights. "As a result, 11 years after the agreement was implemented in 1994, trade and investment among the NAFTA countries has increased, but workers have not benefitted. In the United States, nearly a million jobs have been lost to the booming trade deficit with Canada and Mexico. In Mexico, basic workers' rights continue to be denied, real wages have fallen and poverty is on the rise," the report said.

CAFTA, the report said, fails to protect the fundamental rights recognized by the International Labor Organization -- freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively; the right to be free from forced or compulsory labor; the abolition of child labor; and the right to work free from discrimination.

"Workers' rights to form unions of their own choosing and to bargain collectively with their employers are routinely violated in Central America. Central American labor laws fail to protect these rights, and Central American governments refuse to adequately enforce those protections that do exist," the report charged.

Not only does CAFTA allow such violations to persist, it "backtracks from existing U.S. laws that require Central American governments and employers to respect workers' rights in exchange for unilateral trade preferences," the report said.

Under the Generalized System of Preferences program, countries must be "taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights" to qualify for duty-free benefits. Similarly, the Caribbean Basin Initiative program instructs the president to consider "the extent to which the country provides internationally recognized worker rights" when granting benefits under the program which benefits all CAFTA countries. CAFTA would eliminate enforcement tools available under these unilateral programs, the report said.

The report took issue with claims by CAFTA supporters that CAFTA's labor provisions are in line with those of the ground-breaking U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement. While the Jordan FTA allows each of its labor obligations to be brought up under the agreement's dispute settlement mechanism, "CAFTA excludes the vast majority of its labor rights obligations from the accord's dispute resolution and enforcement mechanisms," the report stated.

Problems plaguing the labor laws in Central America include inadequate protections against antiunion discrimination; absence of explicit provisions barring employers from interfering with union activities; obstacles to union registration in some countries; restrictions on the right to organize above the enterprise level; limitations on rights of public employees; and limitations on the right to strike. The ILO, the State Department and various human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the Central American countries for not remedying these deficiencies, the report said.

The AFL-CIO report called for the rejection of CAFTA. "Without stronger protections for workers' rights, CAFTA will fail to deliver on its promises of job creation and economic development, just as NAFTA has failed. Workers in Central America will continue to face insurmountable obstacles to the exercise of their most basic rights. They will be unable to bargain with their employers for a decent share of the wealth they create and thus remain trapped in poverty," the report concluded.

Posted by Nathan at April 5, 2005 09:01 AM