CAFTA’s Hollow Reforms (5/23/05)

In Guatemala sexual harassment is not illegal. In El Salvador and Honduras hundreds of thousands of children work illegally. The minimum wage for a Nicaraguan manufacturer worker is $55.74 a month, less than what a U.S. union worker with a similar job will make in a day.

There are also reports in Central America of worker blacklists, physical abuse by employers, and foreign companies closing operations after being informed that workers want to form a union. None of these countries are in compliance with international labor standards. I could go on for pages. And actually I have, by reading the U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights report.

"The enforcement of labor laws in the region needs more attention and resources," said assistant U.S. Trade Representative Peter Allgeir in testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee last month.

That might be the understatement of the year. Maybe if Allgeir had read the State Department’s assessment for the countries in Central America he may have given a statement more indicative of the urgent need for broad reforms. Then maybe CAFTA would actually contain provisions which would help ameliorate these social problems.

Yet Allgeir and other supporters of CAFTA argue that this trade agreement, as is, will help improve people’s lives in the region by supplying more "attention and resources."

CAFTA will accomplish this apparently by allowing these countries’ governments to enforce their own domestic laws. Great strategy, especially in light of the fact that the State Department’s report for Honduras reveals that the International Labor Organization "has noted that various provisions in the labor law restrict freedom of association┬ů"

And what happens if countries like Honduras fail to "consistently" enforce their labor laws? According to Allgeir, "they face the prospect of monetary penalties that will be directed to solve the problem."

Essentially, countries would pay themselves for violating their own laws and then be trusted to use this money to fix their own inadequacies. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Guatemalan Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, who also testified to the House Ways and Means Committee, shares these concerns.

"The current model is deficient," said Ramazzini. "I am confident that we can repair it so that trade works for all. To do so, we must all look at trade policies from the bottom up—from their impact on the lives and dignity of poor families and vulnerable workers across the hemisphere."

We can repair CAFTA, but it’s going to take some patience and work. Because Congress relinquished its right to improve trade agreements by granting President Bush Trade Promotion Authority, CAFTA must be rejected and then renegotiated. Now I can already hear free traders screaming ‘but we can’t wait. In this fast paced global economy we run the risk of being left behind.’ If that were the case then President Bush wouldn’t have sat on CAFTA last year due to political reasons during the elections.

I am not an isolationist. Nor are Americans faced with the choice of either passing this trade agreement or adopting isolationist policies. There is middle ground. That middle ground is drafting trade agreements while including workers and other segments of civil society at the bargaining table. This "bottom up" approach would be truly democratic and would create the space to have provisions and enforcement mechanisms included that would not only protect human rights and labor rights, but improve upon them.

"The real question is how will conditions get better if we stiff-arm the region?" former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said recently.

But how will they get better if we do nothing to address these conditions? If there is a time to use tough diplomacy, it is for the advancement of human rights. The future of international trade hangs in the balance with this vote on CAFTA, since it is widely viewed as the stepping stone to passing the hemispheric-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas.

If CAFTA passes we can expect more of the status quo, which enriches transnational corporations at the expense of democracy and human rights. But if it is defeated it will bring us a step closer to the possibility of having international trade policies that put the livelihood of people over transnational capital’s insatiable appetite for extravagant profits.

Now get to work!

Cyril Mychalejko is the assistant editor of, an online magazine about activism and politics in Latin America.