Reports Raise Concerns About Labor Standards in CAFTA Countries, Foe Says


By Stephen J. Norton, CQ Staff

Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., said Tuesday that recently released government reports he fought to make public for over a year confirm his contention that labor conditions in Central America fall short by international standards.

How the reports were handled, as well as their findings will likely stoke disagreement about labor provisions in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and a related pact with the Dominican Republic. The agreement with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua was completed last year.

Levin, one of the Ways and Means Committee's leading Democratic voices on trade issues, opposes the proposed pact, which Congress is just beginning to debate. Supporters acknowledge that CAFTA still lacks the backing needed for congressional approval.

The reports were compiled for the Labor Department by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) and subcontractors in 2003 and 2004. They analyze and critique inadequacies in the laws and practices of individual CAFTA countries to safeguard labor rights, particularly the right to unionize.

The Labor Department made the reports available to Levin 12 days ago. The department was critical of the research techniques and said it does not endorse the findings. But Levin said the "reports confirm that the basic rights of working people in Central America are systematically repressed."

Levin filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the documents on May 26, 2004. When Labor denied the request, Levin appealed the decision in October. The reports were made available on April 22, a day after Levin announced he would seek a congressional inquiry.

Labor Department spokesman Dirk Fillpot rejected talk of stonewalling. He referred to an April 22 letter from the department to the ILRF citing efforts to clear up confusion about the focus of the reports and concerns about the data before any public release.

Levin was skeptical, noting the release came as he turned up pressure on the department. He said he had spoken with the ILRF and had seen correspondence that placed blame for the reports' shortcomings with the Bureau of International Labor Standards, a Labor Department agency.

Levin said the reports' findings about labor protections in CAFTA countries are backed by his reading of other analyses by the State Department and the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency.

The Bush administration argues the laws of CAFTA countries meet international standards; the challenge is making sure they are enforced. Supporters of the trade pact say the agreement would help by providing U.S. financial assistance to help raise labor standards in CAFTA countries.

But Levin said the reports found the laws to be inadequate. He wants to renegotiate CAFTA to make basic labor rights enforceable with trade sanctions, a practice he says is more effective than imposing fines for failure to enforce local labor laws as allowed under the agreement.

Source: CQ Today

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