On Wednesday, April 23, U.S. and Guatemalan labor groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, changing the workers’ rights provisions of CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) are being violated. The petitioners allege that union members in Guatemala are not only being routinely harassed, threatened and intimidated, but that union leaders have been assassinated.
Since 2006, when Guatemala became a trading partner in CAFTA (whose other signatories include the U.S., Dominican Republic, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua), eight trade unionists have been killed. The most brazen murder occurred in January, 2007, when Pedro Zamora, the charismatic president of a port union, was gunned down in front of his home by a carload of assailants in broad daylight.
Five separate complaints were filed on Wednesday, alleging violations against members of six unions affiliated with agriculture, seaport shipping and textile industries. The complaints seek punitive damages from the Guatemalan government—a remedy “guaranteed” by CAFTA’s workers’ protection language. These fines can run as high as $15 million per year. As to the prospect of the Guatemalan government actually being found guilty and having to fork over the money, no one is holding their breath.
There have been dozens of formal complaints filed by labor organizations and human rights groups since 1994 (when the first of these agreements was implemented). Not a single one has resulted in sanctions against the alleged offenders. After conducting what they described as “thorough investigations,” the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it had found no violations. None. In other words, so far, every trading partner in the world has a perfect, unblemished human rights record. What were the odds?
It’s time we asked ourselves, Which of those so-called “free trade” agreements have actually fulfilled their ambitious promises to recognize workers’ rights and protect the environment? Which countries, if any, have made an effort to live up to the ambitious, idealistic language contained in those provisions? By “live up to,” we mean provide evidence that the government is willing to vigorously prosecute businesses who are in violation.
It’s also time that we acknowledged a simple, discouraging fact: In countries where labor unions are violently opposed by government and business interests, a treaty isn’t likely to make much difference. Businesses and their government cronies will find a way to get around the wording. Consider: Have Mexican labor unions flourished under NAFTA? Have Honduran labor unions flourished under CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement)? Have Latin American workers at the bottom of the economic ladder benefited significantly from “free trade”?
In truth, whether NAFTA, CAFTA or the proposed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, it was a consortium of financial and manufacturing interests who initially pushed for these deals, and who did so for reasons that were not only largely incompatible with workers’ rights and environmental protection, but, in many cases, in direct contradiction to them.
While we’re at it, we need to acknowledge another fact: These trade agreements were glorified money grabs, plain and simple. They were business deals. As for the “human rights” and environmental provisions spelled out in their language, those were merely palliatives, a means of getting them approved by Congress. Does anyone really believe that maintaining the viability of labor unions even entered into the equation?
Of course, what you hear from free trade proponents is that, imperfect as they may be, these trade agreements are the only means we have of fixing a bad situation. Without them, the U.S. would have no legal right to intervene in a country’s commerce. Indeed, without the existence of CAFTA, that formal complaint filed last Wednesday would not have been possible. According to free trade advocates, these trade agreements offer the U.S. the “human rights” leverage it never before had.
While this argument may be true in theory, in the real world it’s not only false and misleading, it’s insulting. If the respective governments (including the U.S.) are unwilling to enforce the provisions of the law — despite the “opportunity” for interested parties to file their petitions — those provisions are all but meaningless.
Worse, being on the books in the form it is, this language implies that the situation has improved and that the necessary steps are being taken, which is untrue. This argument is also amusing, in that it exposes the ways in which American politicians and businessmen cherry-pick their positions.
Take the anti-Communist hard-liners, for instance. They objected to the U.S. signing arms limitation treaties with the Soviet Union on the grounds that the Soviet leaders couldn’t be trusted to uphold their end of the bargain. But these are the same people who are falling over themselves trying to get these free-trade agreements ratified, even when there is zero evidence that the signatory governments have any intention of adhering to the human rights requirements.
Similarly, many of these free trade fundamentalists (“We need to engage these regimes, not snub them!”) are the same people, the very same zealous holdouts, who, for decades, have opposed lifting the trade embargo with Cuba. Apparently, those snappy, “let’s engage these regimes” arguments didn’t apply when it came to Fidel Castro. Go figure.
We need to drop the pretense and get real. Why should we expect a coalition of big business and government to consider giving labor unions a fair shake, particularly in Latin American countries, where (as it once was in the U.S.) government-sanctioned violence against unions is standard procedure?
We have to stop feigning shock and disappointment when these treaty provisions are violated. That certain countries continue to terrorize labor unions should not come as a surprise. The only “surprise” is that an outside observer would honestly believe these governments ever had the slightest intention of complying . . . or that the U.S. would risk throwing a wrench in the works by punishing a valued trading partner.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at email@example.com