WASHINGTON — The Bush administration “suppressed” a report highlighting labor violations in Central America as the President is poised to seek Congressional approval of a key trade pact the U.S. has signed with those countries, Rep. Sander Levin charged on Tuesday.

Levin (D., Mich.) an opponent of the Central American Free Trade Agreement and its labor provisions, said the study commissioned by U.S. Department of Labor on conditions in parts of the developing world, including the CAFTA region, bolstered the arguments that violations are rampant and the accord’s labor provisions are inadequate.

“These suppressed reports confirm that the basic rights of working people in Central America are systematically repressed,” Levin said during a conference call with reporters. “In CAFTA, the basic standard is ‘enforce your own laws’ and that is a double standard.’’

Levin said the Labor Department for a year had refused to release the International Labor Rights Fund report, denying a request he made last year under the Freedom of Information Act. After an appeal, Labor on April 22 sent Levin a copy of the study, but it did not distribute it publicly.

The department, which had provided a $900,000 grant to pay for the report, has since tried to distance itself from the nonprofit International Labor Rights Fund. In a letter to that group last month, the department said the studies contained “serious flaws” and did not meet the agency’s standards.

CAFTA would provide Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic free-trade benefits similar to those extended to Mexico and Canada under NAFTA. It is expected to face an uphill fight in Congress. The battleground will be the House, where blocs of Republicans, including Textile Caucus members, have joined Democrats who said they will vote against CAFTA because they say its duty-free benefits could trim more manufacturing jobs and assert its labor provisions are weak.

Lawmakers and union activists assert that because foreign countries require lower minimum wages and lesser safety and health standards than the U.S. — allowing workers in apparel factories to be exposed to toxic chemicals sometimes used in finishing processes with less safety equipment than is mandated in the U.S. — it is unfair to give their products duty-free entry to the U.S., as CAFTA would.

This story first appeared in the May 4, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

CAFTA is intended to improve labor law enforcement in Central America through a “comprehensive three-track strategy,” said a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. It includes a dispute settlement system that funnels back fines countries pay to help remedy the problems, the identification of core labor issues and $20 million in trade capacity funds appropriated by Congress to help improve labor problems such as child labor.

 “There is no renegotiation,” the spokeswoman said.

She did not respond to Levin’s charge about suppressing the report.

The study highlighted labor law violations in the Central American manufacturing sector. It cited two reports released by the Guatemalan labor monitoring organization Coverco concerning 1999 violations of workers’ rights at suppliers to Liz Claiborne Inc. and 2002 violations at Gap Inc. suppliers. Employees of the contractors were alleged to have been forced to work compulsory overtime.

After the Coverco report, Gap officials said they had addressed the complaints and would work with the factories to ensure the problems would not recur in the future. U.S. labor activists have described Claiborne as responsive to the complaints of abuse in its suppliers.

Officials at Claiborne did not respond to calls Tuesday. Gap officials were unable to respond by press time. Representatives of Levi Strauss & Co., which was also cited in the report, could not be reached.

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