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April 06, 2004

The Next NAFTA Debate

Forget recent trade deals. The deals with Singapore and Chile were with countries with decent labor laws and conditions in place.

But the coming debate on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) promises to reopen every issue from NAFTA, primarily the issue of whether we will continue to give preferred trading status to countries that violate labor rights. As an example:

Marina del Carmen Leiva, a 32-year-old mother, struggles to keep her job earning $152 every month bent over sewing machines, making clothes for famous American brand-name companies.

The pressure to produce garments quickly is so great, she says, that she and her co-workers are regularly refused permission to visit the bathroom or get a drink of water for fear it would slow the line.

Okay, the right to pee is not usually highlighted as a core labor right, but the right of workers to organize to demand basic dignity is-- and countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua don't meet those basic standards.

Here is what an El Salvador government official says-- its deputy ombudsman for human rights-- says about labor rights in the country:

"This is quite a hostile environment for workers, where the business and government sectors see protecting workers' rights as going against the country's economic interests," he said. "Cafta protects the fundamental rights of businesses but not the labor rights of the citizens."
And Recent reports confirm the checkered history of labor rights in the country. "Deliberate Indifference," by Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group, which states that employers in El Salvador fire or suspend trade union members and leaders without penalties and keeps unofficial black lists of workers considered troublemakers.

No one expects workers in CAFTA to make as much as US workers. But they should have the right to organize for as high wages as THEY WANT. That is the core labor right-- not the same wage levels but the same right to stand up for your own interests.

Posted by Nathan at April 6, 2004 08:40 AM