WASHINGTON — The House New Democrat Coalition took a tough stance against the Central American Free Trade Agreement on Wednesday, citing concerns for workers’ rights and calling on the Bush administration to renegotiate what they claimed is a flawed pact.
Those opposed to CAFTA are stating their case as the President gets ready to send the agreement to Congress for approval.
Four leaders of the 42-member House coalition said at a press conference on Capitol Hill that CAFTA “rolls back” workers’ rights protections that already exist in the Caribbean Basin Trade Preference Act, and noted the administration’s budget priorities “undermine efforts” to provide assistance to U.S. workers displaced by trade.
The coalition traditionally has been pro-trade and has supported other pacts, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D., Calif.) said, “All trade agreements are not created equal. Clearly, in this circumstance, we have countries…that have the lowest threshold of labor laws, a history of not being able to enforce those laws, and they need money and capacity-building in order to do that. We don’t believe we’ve gotten the best deal we can get for workers in those countries, and there is virtually nothing for workers here in the U.S., including having [Trade Adjustment Assistance] money slashed every year.”
The TAA program offers enhanced unemployment benefits for workers who lose their jobs due to imports.
The four House lawmakers, who also sent a letter to Bush on Wednesday, had a laundry list of complaints about CAFTA and admonished the administration for not reaching out to the coalition for input.
However, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said after the press conference, “We’ve had numerous meetings specifically targeting the new Democrats,” and said they met with coalition co-chair Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.) twice.
The administration recently has self-initiated a review of three Chinese apparel and textile export categories as part of the safeguard process for possible quota restraints, and accepted for review industry safeguard petitions. These are moves that many trade experts said were meant to garner support from textile-state lawmakers for CAFTA.
Tauscher said, “We don’t want this to be a typical White House, West Wing, QVC situation where it is ‘What can I get for you, what can I buy for you,’ in exchange for a CAFTA vote.”
Democratic lawmakers and union activists assert CAFTA does not abide by core standards established by the International Labor Organization, such as allowing collective bargaining, enforcing minimum wage requirements, eliminating child labor and discrimination in the workforce.
In a statement circulated at the press conference, new U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman said: “Now that I have been confirmed, I look forward to reaching out to Democrats to discuss the clear benefits of the Central American-Dominican Republic agreement to U.S. workers, farmers and service providers, and to make clear how the agreement can improve labor conditions in Central America and the Dominican Republic.”