Study of the impact of DR-CAFTA on labor rights reveals precarious conditions, impunity, and the risk of decline


After three years of studying the impact of the free trade agreement DR-CAFTA on labor rights, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) published a study today that reveals that labor conditions in the DR-CAFTA countries have not improved and violations have not diminished regardless of promises made by the member countries to improve labor rights and the millions of dollars invested by the United States to meet this objective. Moreover, WOLA anticipates the labor situation in Central America will deteriorate further due to the global economic crisis.

WOLA’s study entitled, DR-CAFTA and Worker’s Rights: Moving from Paper to Practice evaluates the progress countries have made with regard to objectives stipulated in the “White Paper” a self-assessment written by the CAFTA-DR governments at the signing of the free trade agreement on how to improve labor rights in their own countries. The “White Paper” was followed by the subsequent investment of $20 million annually for implementation of its defined objectives. The study assesses whether there has been progress since the signing of the agreement in terms of repression against union leaders, illegal closure of factories, gender discrimination, and child labor, in addition to whether the level of impunity for these violations has decreased.

WOLA’s report concludes that the investment directed at implementation of labor projects was insufficient to resolve the historical labor problems and the impunity with which many employers act. Labor abuses in the DR-CAFTA member countries continue unabated and include: the obstruction of the right to form unions, illegal dismissals, forced overtime, blacklisting, gender discrimination, and the illegal closure of factories. Most worrisome is the assassination of union leaders; in Guatemala, since January 2007, six union leaders have been killed, four of them in 2008. Moreover, the governments have been slow to approve priority labor legislation identified before the signing of the agreement.

“The principal problem is the lack of respect for labor rights by employers and the impunity they enjoy,” said Vicki Gass, WOLA Senior Associate for Rights and Development and author of the report. This week, Vicki Gass, Arturo Ruiz, Secretary General of the USTAC union of Guatemala, ISP Coordinator in Guatemala, and ITF Coordinator for Central America, and Norma Estela Mejia Castellanos, Vice President of the Sitrajerzeesh Union in Honduras, will hold meetings with members of U.S. Congress and Obama Administration representatives to discuss the labor conditions in the member countries, the conclusions of WOLA’s report, and recommendations for the future. “More has to be done. The efforts in the region have been valid, but are insufficient,” Vicki Gass emphasized.

The WOLA study recommends the governments promote a culture of respect for labor rights by strengthening enforcement mechanisms and imposing fines on employers that violate rights, and further proposes the U.S. government provide direct support to the unions and NGOs who actively work to promote labor rights. WOLA also exhorts the Obama Administration to renegotiate the free trade agreement, so that labor violations carry the same weight and penalties as commercial violations, and to establish a more rapid process for submitting complaints and resolving conflicts. Lastly, WOLA urges the Obama administration to learn from the lessons of DR-CAFTA and implement them in the negotiations for the pending free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

“The United Status should support efforts to strengthen labor rights and combat impunity in the DR-CAFTA countries by renegotiating the agreement, increasing the weight and penalties for labor violations so they are equivalent to commercial violations,” concluded Vicki Gass.

For more information, contact:

Vicki Gass, Senior Associate for Rights and Development

Office: 202-797-2171, cell: 202-415-7226, vgass [at]