WASHINGTON — In the four years since the enactment of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, labor rights and worker protections in the region have not significantly improved, according to a report released Thursday.

This story first appeared in the May 26, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental organization, studied U.S.-funded programs in the region for three years and concluded that despite some advances, overall efforts have been insufficient to resolve the CAFTA countries’ historical labor issues.

Persistent problems include: forced overtime, illegal dismissal of workers, blacklisting, gender discrimination, illegal closures of factories and impediments to forming unions.

When the U.S. negotiated CAFTA, the governments of the other signatory countries — Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — reached a consensus about how to improve labor rights in their nations. That was followed by a U.S. commitment to provide about $20 million of funding. Those funds were pledged to a number of projects in the region working with local governments and companies.

The money was coordinated through the State Department’s democracy, human rights and labor bureau, the Labor Department’s International Labor Affairs Bureau and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Spokeswomen for the State Department and the Labor Department said officials had not reviewed the study and declined to comment. U.S. AID did not comment by press time.

The Washington Office on Latin America’s recommendations to improve workers’ conditions included continued support of programs that are working, direct funding to labor unions and strengthening labor provisions in the agreement.

Labor rights and protections have historically been sticking points in the negotiation of free trade agreements, including the existing North American Free Trade Agreement and pending trade accords with Colombia and Panama.