Central America lags on labor rights for trade deal
4 May 2005
By Frank Jack Daniel
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Sitting in a dark room beneath photographs of union leaders slain in the 1980s, workers at a Guatemalan factory say they have been punched, threatened and followed by cars with darkened windows since forming a union in 2003.
Union leaders at the South Korean-owned Nobland clothing factory in Guatemala City are sometimes being escorted by international human rights observers after a series of alleged threats and violence.
Labor activists say Central America still has not done enough to meet conditions for a free trade agreement with the United States.
A skeptical U.S. Congress has refused to pass the U.S-Central America Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, for months as Democrats demand that countries enforce their work codes.
"We have presented public prosecutors with recordings of the management conspiring to crush the union, but they say it’s not evidence," said union secretary Rosa Maria Lopez.
Factory manager Young Ha Kim accepts there were problems when the factory opened but describes a recent accusation that he hit a worker in the face as impossible.
"I’m not crazy; it would be very dangerous for a foreigner to hit a worker in a factory in Guatemala," he said in the offices of the factory.
Anti-union activity is still widespread in Central America, where hundreds of union leaders were killed during the region’s 1980s Cold War-era civil wars.
SHORTAGE OF WILLPOWER AND FUNDS
Central American economy and labor ministers were in Washington in April to win over skeptics, outlining labor weaknesses and calling for financing to make things better.
"These are the weaknesses that we are highlighting with total transparency, and we are also telling the international community, well, we’ve got problems strengthening this, we need your cooperation," said Guatemala’s deputy economy minister, Eduardo Lacs.
President Bush will also host presidents from Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua at the White House on May 12 in an effort to drum up congressional and public support for the pact.
The Bush administration says the labor provisions of CAFTA are consistent with other recent U.S. free trade agreements.
The agreement requires each CAFTA country to effectively enforce its own labor laws, backed by the possibility of up to $15 million in fines per year for failure to do that.
Labor activists say the efforts to build support for the pact are intended to win over critics while hiding the real problem — government complacency.
The region’s governments are notoriously lax in making companies, such as textile factories, fulfill requirements like benefits packages and severance pay, citing fears the factories will simply go elsewhere.
"Central America’s labor ministries are under-funded and inspectors aren’t trained. When they do find problems they don’t have the power to do anything, because the governments put investment over and above enforcing labor laws," said Washington-based labor rights expert Lorraine Clewer.
Trade unionists believe CAFTA will lighten pressure on governments to update flawed work codes, while reducing the already slim likelihood of punishment for not upholding existing rules.
The three unions in Guatemala’s more than 100 textile factories all complain of death threats, harassment, illegal firings and a lack of support from government watchdogs.
In March, the International Labor Organization, or ILO, called such allegations "serious" and urged the government to order urgent investigations.
Similar stories are repeated throughout Central America.
In November, U.S. Teamster Gilberto Soto was shot dead in El Salvador while visiting transport workers to study industrial relations.
A report by the Salvadoran government human rights watchdog criticized serious flaws in an investigation blaming his death on his mother in law.
In Honduras, which has the largest textile factory sector in the region, workers say they are coerced into putting in 11-hour days without receiving overtime.
"These abuses are related to the fact that government officials offer the country as a factory destination where wages are low and where worker rights are minimal or non-existent, said Israel Salinas of the Honduran United Workers Confederation.
After years of stalled negotiations at Nobland, the union and management may be close to agreeing a new contract.
In 2003, the Guatemalan government found the company guilty of anti-union activity, but activists say the recent advances stem from leverage from image-sensitive U.S. retailers like J.C. Penney and Target, who have production at the factory.
Spokesmen for J.C. Penney and Target were unavailable for comment.
"The only reason they are at the table is the pressure that has been put on Nobland, not by the Guatemalan government, not by the U.S. government, but by the clients," said Steven Coates of labor rights group US/LEAP.