- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Central American and Dominican governments yesterday promised to better protect their workers’ rights, a pledge meant to blunt some of the harshest criticism that Democrats and organized labor are making against a proposed trade pact.

“What we are doing now, today, is committing ourselves to improve our [labor] practices,” said Norman Garcia, industry and commerce minister for Honduras, flanked by colleagues from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic during a Washington press conference.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) would lower trade barriers and codify investor rights for companies in the six Latin American nations and the United States.

The Bush administration touts CAFTA as a boon for U.S. exporters and a helping hand for fledgling democracies in a once-troubled region, but critics say it merely will encourage companies to flee the United States while seeking cheap labor and lax environmental standards.

Three Central American countries have approved the pact, but the U.S. Congress has not. The labor opposition, coupled with doubts from lawmakers in textile manufacturing and sugar farming districts, make final approval uncertain.

CAFTA calls for all participating nations to enforce their own labor laws and allows sanctions if they do not. The Bush administration considers that standard adequate, but critics say basic labor rights and enforcement mechanisms should be written into the pact.

“Ensuring that the CAFTA countries both adopt and effectively maintain in their laws the most basic standards of decency and fairness to working people is important to their workers, their societies and to U.S. workers,” Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, and three other lawmakers closely involved in trade issues wrote to the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office Monday.

Congressional hearings begin this month, and a vote could be taken as soon as May. Labor and trade ministers from the Latin American nations plan to tell U.S. lawmakers today that they should approve the deal.

The trade ministers yesterday acknowledged weak enforcement of their own laws and endorsed a report calling for steps to better protect workers’ right to assemble, organize and bargain — and to end child labor and discrimination against women. Officials from the six countries wrote the document.

“We are determined that this report will not gather dust, but rather will sweep away any remaining doubts about the deep importance that we attach to assuring dignity and respect for fundamental rights in our workplaces,” Mr. Garcia said.

The countries, which have been promised $15 million by the United States to better implement labor laws, said they would ask the Inter-American Development Bank and other donors for funds to execute the report’s recommendations.

The pledge is unlikely to satisfy organized labor.

The AFL-CIO, a U.S. labor federation, yesterday issued its own report calling CAFTA a “broken trade agreement” and criticizing the six would-be free-trade partners.

“Employers in the region take advantage of weak laws and lax enforcement to intimidate, harass, threaten and fire workers who dare to demand a voice at work. CAFTA allows these violations to persist,” the AFL-CIO said.

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