Central America: CAFTA Moves Against Labor

September 25, 2007

Although it is not the only labor union operating in El Salvador’s maquiladora sector, the Union of Textile Industry Workers (STIT) is arguably the most successful. In November 2002, STIT secured collective bargaining rights for workers employed at a Tainan Enterprises clothing factory outside San Salvador. Taiwan-based Tainan had reacted to initial organizing efforts by firing key union supporters and eventually closing the maquila in April 2002. STIT in coordination with the Center for the Study and Support of Labor (CEAL) organized an international campaign that pressured Tainan into negotiating with the union. The result of the negotiations was Just Garments, a factory that reopened under Tainan ownership but with STIT worker representation. The union is in the process of buying out Tainan, having secured a 55% stake in the factory so far.
Given the weak labor protections in El Salvador and throughout the region, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which also includes the Dominican Republic, does not augur well for the replication of the Just Garments experience. Many critics of CAFTA say the agreement’s sections devoted to the protection and enforcement of labor standards are little more than cosmetic. A March 2004 Human Rights Watch report characterizes CAFTA’s labor provisions as remarkable for their lack of enforceability.
The trade agreement, for example, does not require the laws of participating states to comply with standards established by the UN and the International Labor Organization (ILO). Instead, it simply encourages nations to make every effort to observe these international norms. The only enforcement mechanism included in CAFTA contemplates fines for nations that fail to uphold domestic labor laws. The fine system, however, is such that nations are likely to remedy violations only if doing so is more cost efficient than paying the fine. Therefore, the fines will likely be viewed by the offending nation as simply a cost of doing business. What’s more, tariff benefits by member-states are only suspended if the violating nation fails to pay the fine, not if they fail to address the labor rights abuse.
On December 17, 2004, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly was the first in Central America to approve CAFTA. Representatives of the Popular Resistance Movement-October 12 (MPR-12) occupied the Assembly for several hours on December 16, while protestors filled the plaza below. Because of the delayed start of the legislative session, representatives met through the night. At 3:30 a.m. on December 17, representatives of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the Party of National Conciliation (PCN) and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) voted to alter the day’s agenda to include CAFTA. The Legislative Deputies of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) protested this breach of protocol, delaying a vote until late in the morning. But the trade agreement passed with 49 votes in favor, and 35 against (the United Democratic Center joined the FMLN in opposing the measure). In the wake of its ratification, sectors of Salvadoran civil society have raised the argument that CAFTA is unconstitutional, and as a constitutional alteration requires a two-thirds majority to be legally passed.
The rest of Central America seems to be slowly falling in line behind El Salvador. On March 3, Honduras became the second nation to pass CAFTA after adopting similar early-morning tactics to slip the measure onto the congressional agenda. In early March, Guatemala’s legislature passed the trade deal amid violent street protests and similar claims of procedural inconsistencies. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has maintained public opposition to the trade agreement, but some speculate that certain FSLN legislative representatives may vote otherwise. Meanwhile, efforts in Costa Rica to argue that CAFTA’s constitutional violations require a two-thirds majority to pass the legislature have met with little success. However, Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco has hinted that he might call a national referendum on CAFTA because of widespread opposition to the deal.
For a number of reasons, deficient labor provisions among them, the U.S. House of Representatives continues to be about 40 votes shy of ratifying CAFTA. For the measure to pass the House, the text will likely have to be revised, thus obligating Central American legislatures to ratify the revised version if they want to be party to the trade agreement.

About the Author
Ben Plimpton coordinates the Human Rights Program at the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad in El Salvador, a member organization of the Sinti Techan Network visit: http://www.cis-elsalvador.org a member organization of the Sinti Techan Network
http://www.redsintitechan.org .


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.