On Eve of Trade Talks, Group Reports Salvador Labor Abuses

New York Times


study by a prominent human rights organization has found widespread abuse of labor rights in El Salvador just as final negotiations are to begin for that country and four Central American neighbors to create a free trade agreement with the United States.

The study, conducted by Human Rights Watch and scheduled to be released today, documented many examples of violations of workers' rights in El Salvador's manufacturing, textile and transport industries. The 110-page report also criticized the enforcement of labor laws and what it called the inability of many Salvadoran workers to fight labor abuses through the legal system.

The study was released ahead of talks scheduled next week and aimed at forming a Central America Free Trade Agreement, or Cafta, and could raise pressure on negotiators to strengthen provisions in the agreement on workers' rights.

Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, is hoping to conclude talks with El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Mr. Zoellick also said last month that he would negotiate to bring a sixth country, the Dominican Republic, into the agreement.

Carol Pier, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, who prepared the report, said the organization was not opposed to the creation of Cafta. But she said the current proposal did not encourage stronger protection of workers' rights in El Salvador, a country of 6.5 million that has closely aligned its fortunes with those of the United States since adopting the dollar as its currency in 2001.

The study recommended that Cafta insist on labor laws that meet international norms.

The study mentioned constraints to enforcing labor laws in El Salvador, where 37 inspectors cover a work force of about 2.6 million.

Based on investigations conducted in February in two Salvadoran cities, San Salvador and Santa Ana, and follow-up interviews and research from February to September, the study included interviews with workers, union officials, labor lawyers, representatives of industry groups and labor ministry officials.

In one example described in detail, employees at Confecciones Ninos, a textile factory with about 300 workers that sold products to American companies like Wal-Mart and J. C. Penney before closing in March 2002, said management had failed to pay overtime, provide paid vacations, grant permission for doctor visits and allow regular use of restrooms.

Government officials in El Salvador have been awaiting the release of the report for weeks. Miguel E. Lacayo, El Salvador's economy minister and the country's chief negotiator in the Cafta talks, said his government was already taking steps to address labor rights abuses.