- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

The Bush administration’s top trade official yesterday proposed an infusion of money for Central American countries to better enforce labor laws as the White House tries to sway Democrats to vote for a regional free-trade agreement.

“I do believe this will be helpful … in getting members to come on board,” U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said of a proposed “long-term, sustained commitment” to labor enforcement and monitoring.

Congress is expected to vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement this or next month. The pact would create trade and investment rules for the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Democrats have objected to the labor provisions in the pact, which require countries to enforce their own laws but do not specify rules or standards. Coupled with opposition from lawmakers in sugar-producing states and some districts with textile manufacturing, CAFTA’s passage is uncertain.

CAFTA allows a slight increase in sugar imports, and some manufacturers are worried that loopholes would allow foreign fabrics easier access to the U.S. market.

Mr. Portman, speaking yesterday to Hispanic business leaders, acknowledged lax labor law enforcement in the CAFTA nations. He said he would work with Congress, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to organize a donor’s conference before the end of July that would identify funding to improve the situation.

Congress appropriated $20 million this year for labor and environment enforcement in the region. Yesterday’s proposal would create a new source of funds that would fund labor programs over several years, though Mr. Portman did not specify an amount.

Democrats were skeptical.

“The concessions offered [yesterday] misshape the issue at hand — whether or not we require CAFTA countries to adopt meaningful labor standards,” said Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat.

Mr. Levin noted that various reports, including State Department and International Labor Organization documents, have criticized the legal environment for workers in the six nations. The reports have highlighted violations of workers’ right to assemble, organize and bargain, as well as child labor and discrimination against women.

Rep. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who is leading CAFTA opposition, said Mr. Portman’s effort showed the administration was getting desperate for votes.

“The administration has tried every trick in the book to get this agreement passed and now they are trying to buy votes,” Mr. Brown said.

Though Republicans hold a majority in the House, not all GOP members are expected to vote for CAFTA. The administration is hoping, and may need, as many as 20 or 25 Democrats to win approval.

In an unrelated development, former President Jimmy Carter this week endorsed CAFTA.

“Some improvements could be made in the trade bill, particularly on the labor protection side, but, more importantly, our own national security and hemispheric influence will be enhanced with improved stability, democracy and development in our poor, fragile neighbors in Central America and the Caribbean,” Mr. Carter wrote in a letter to lawmakers Wednesday.

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