By Liz Haight, ILRF Intern

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) presented their three-year study of the impact of DR-CAFTA on May 21. The report, entitled “DR-CAFTA and Worker’s Rights: Moving from Paper to Practice” evaluates the progress in the White Paper’s recommendations for improving labor rights in the DR-CAFTA countries.

New Image DR-CAFTA is a free trade agreement that passed in 2005 between the US and Central American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic joined shortly thereafter. You can check out ILRF’s webpage dedicated to CAFTA for more specifics.  It almost did not pass due to concerns over labor conditions. In fact, in 2005, ILRF testified on Capitol Hill about many concerns regarding CAFTA.  To help secure a favorable vote in the Senate, US Trade Representatives supported funds that would be used for projects to strengthen trade capacity building and labor rights practice and enforcement based on recommendations outlined in the “White Paper,” which some saw as simply a tactic to get DR-CAFTA passed in Congress.

This White Paper report, titled “The Labor Dimension in Central America and the Dominican Republic- Building on Progress: Strengthening Compliance and Enhancing Capacity,” is a self assessment for the member countries of DR-CAFTA with recommendations on how they can improve labor rights and conditions in their respective countries. The countries agreed to make these improvements and wrote the White Paper. The White Paper identifies six areas of focus in order to improve the labor conditions and standards. The six “priority areas” are:

  • Reforming labor laws and improving implementation
  • Increasing the budget and personnel needs of the labor ministries
  • Strengthening the judicial system for labor law
  • Establishing protections against discrimination in the workplace
  • Eliminating the worst forms of child labor
  • Promoting a “culture of compliance”

From the outset WOLA and ILRF urged Congress to reject DR-CAFTA because it does not adequately promote respect and reform for labor rights. WOLA began monitoring DR-CAFTA, labor conditions, and the White Paper objectives in 2006. ILRF in conjunction with partners in Central America produced research concerning labor law implementation in Central America at the time that CAFTA was being debated.  In addition, ILRF published, again with the support of partners in Central America, reports in 2006 regarding labor rights violations in the sugar industries in many of the Central American countries.

WOLA’s new study reports on the labor conditions that have not improved despite the objectives of the White Paper. The study evaluates the progress (or lack thereof) in the priority areas identified by the White Paper. In its research, WOLA found that, despite the stated commitment of the governments to implement the White Paper recommendations, abuses such as violence against unions and union leaders, illegal closure of factories, gender discrimination, child labor continue.

The report concludes that the funds invested were insufficient in resolving the long-standing labor problems and the impunity of the employers. It notes systematic violations that continue to infringe upon worker’s rights. There have been instances of intimidation against union leaders, high levels of impunity of employers, and declining numbers of unions. Even graver abuses include the assassination of union leaders in Guatemala.

The report concludes that labor conditions in DR-CAFTA countries have not improved based on years of study, a conclusion reiterated by interviews with union representatives, labor lawyers and human rights organizations. WOLA anticipates that the labor conditions will only worsen in Central America due to the current global economic crisis. WOLA’s report makes suggestions for the Obama Administration and Congress to impact labor conditions in these countries. The report recommends strengthening enforcement mechanisms through employer sanctions, providing direct support to labor unions, and urging the governments to establish laws that regulate employment subcontracting. WOLA hopes that their report will also be useful in the debates on pending trade agreements with Panama and Colombia.