WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, focusing on a contentious issue in the Central American Free Trade Agreement debate, said Thursday that he would seek more money from Congress to help countries in the region enforce laws intended to protect workers.

Labor rights in Central America have become a sticking point for CAFTA, a cornerstone of the Bush administration’s trade policy that may be considered by Senate and House committees as soon as next week. It requires Congressional approval.

Portman, in a speech to the Hispanic Alliance for Free Trade here, said he wanted “to work with Congress on a bipartisan plan … to put in place a long-term strategy to improve labor rights enforcement in Central America and the Dominican Republic.”

The administration said CAFTA would increase trade between the U.S. and Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic and promote investments. Some domestic textile and sugar producers oppose the accord, saying it would cost them business. However, a coalition of textile groups, led by the National Council of Textile Organizations, supports CAFTA. The group argues it would spur fabric exports to the region.

CAFTA stipulates that a country failing to enforce its labor laws may face fines of as much as $15 million a year for each violation, with the money going toward tougher enforcement of labor regulations.

Opponents of the accord, Portman said, “seem to be sort of stuck in a law library looking at labor law texts” and misunderstand that the problem is enforcement.

Portman called on Congress to increase the $20 million already appropriated to deal with Central American labor issues. He also proposed an international donors conference before the end of July to raise money that would help CAFTA countries strengthen their labor ministries, improve their labor courts and address discrimination.

In addition, Portman suggested developing a system to keep track of the enforcement of labor laws in these countries.

A leading opponent, Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.), said in a statement: “It is not ‘being stuck in a law library,’ as stated by Ambassador Portman, but workers being stuck in an oppressive regime of inadequate laws and regulations.”

This story first appeared in the June 10, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

He added, “CAFTA does not require Central American countries to adopt and enforce internationally recognized core labor standards within their laws. Instead, it uses an ‘enforce your own laws’ standard not accepted in any other area of CAFTA. We would never provide U.S. funds to facilitate a country’s enforcement of intellectual property provisions which continue to allow the piracy of U.S. products. We should not have a double standard when it comes to workers.”

Portman said CAFTA would help save jobs in the U.S. and Central America by prompting more firms to work together across international boundaries, and through such cooperation better compete.

“It enables Central Americans to keep jobs that they are losing, thousands of jobs this year alone from Asian competition, and it allows us to keep our jobs here in our country,” he said.

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