USLEAP: Justice in the Americas

Founded in 1987 as the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project, the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP) advocates for fundamental changes to U.S. trade policies, demands corporate responsibility, denounces violence against trade unionists, and campaigns for worker justice in agro-export industries in Latin America. USLEAP seeks a global economy in which workers are treated fairly, paid a living wage, and respected by corporations and governments.

In December 2013, USLEAP became a program of the International Labor Rights Forum .

USLEAP's former website was closed down in 2015. Some of the content has been transitioned to this page, but if you are looking for a particular USLEAP resource that isn't posted here, please contact us.

USLEAP opposes free trade agreements that do not protect workers and supports efforts to strengthen protections for workers in trade agreements. 

While workers' rights protections in Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have become successively stronger, from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), to bilateral agreements with Colombia, Peru, Panama and Chile.

However, the protections included in all of these agreements have thus far proven to be inadequate. Moreover, the newer FTAs are not fundamentally different from NAFTA and CAFTA and do not represent a new model for global trade.  

Meanwhile, the proposed mega-trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would include Peru and Mexico, relies on the same failed labor enforcement mechanisms of these past agreements. USLEAP supports efforts to block the negotiation of more FTAs using this flawed model.

U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA)

In July of 2015, ILRF and seven Peruvian unions filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) alleging that the Government of Peru is failing to comply with the labor standards contained in the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA). The complaint alleges that the Government of Peru is failing to enforce basic labor laws in its garment, textile, and agricultural export sectors, which together employ hundreds of thousands of workers who produce billions of dollars of goods for the U.S. market. For more information on the complaint and what it could mean for workers, see ILRF's press release on DOL's report confirming allegations made in the complaint.

Colombia FTA

For five years, USLEAP worked extensively to block a vote on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia, which was initally signed by both governments in late 2006.  In October 2011, Congressional approval of the Colombia FTA came despite the failure to adequately implement a Labor Action Plan and the absence of any significant progress in ending impunity for violence against trade unionists. In May 2012, the Obama Administration implemented the Colombia FTA, prematurely giving up its best source of leverage to pressure the Colombian government to improve respect for worker rights. In 2016, the AFL-CIO filed a complaint against the government of Colombia for failing to comply with the FTA's labor rights chapter.

NAFTA and CAFTA

The worker rights protections in CAFTA and NAFTA represented a big step back from those that governed U.S. trade policy with Central America and Mexico prior to the passage of CAFTA and NAFTA.  The labor standards were higher and sanctions more immediate and better targeted than under CAFTA and NAFTA.  The first CAFTA labor complaint was filed in April 2008 by the AFL-CIO and six Guatemalan trade unions.  While each stage of the complaint process has been repeatedly delayed, violence against trade unionists has increased, there has been little progress addressing other worker rights concerns, and no sanctions have yet been applied to Guatemala. 

The AFL-CIO and two dozen Honduran unions filed a CAFTA labor complaint against Honduras in March 2012. The governments of the United States and Honduras signed a monitoring and action plan in December 2015. USLEAP has been working with allies to track Honduras' compliance with the plan, and document and share information on continued violations with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Using U.S. Trade Policy to Promote Worker Rights

The passage of Free Trade Agreements has been eliminating the leverage provided by the worker rights provisions of U.S. trade programs, lowering standards and weakening enforcement mechanisms.

USLEAP, among others, has used trade pressure as a tool to support general improvements in the worker rights situation in Latin American countries like reduced violence in Colombia and labor law reform in Ecuador as well as to support workers organizing at particular worksites (e.g. Phillips-Van Heusen and Choi & Shin apparel workers in Guatemala). 

USLEAP applies trade pressure from the U.S. (e.g. threats of losing U.S. trade benefits or opposition to specific trade agreements) only with the support of workers from the region to avoid the appearance of prioritizing domestic concerns.

"Fast Track"

"Fast track" is the authority granted by Congress to the President to negotiate trade agreements that cannot be amended by Congress. USLEAP opposed the 2015 renewal of "fast track" authority without major changes in global trade rules.  Many groups concerned about free trade agreements have rallied around a new model for trade proposed by the TRADE Act: the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act.

With support, USLEAP's work on trade has:

  • Broken new ground by testing a key provision of the “May 10th Agreement,” arguing that Peru’s Non-Traditional Export Promotion Law fails to comply with minimum standards on freedom of association adopted by the International Labor Organization (ILO); 
  • Helped delay the Colombia Free Trade Agreement from coming to a vote for five years, in part by providing continuing and concise documentation on violence and impunity;
  • Helped win labor law reform, new labor courts, and increases in the minimum wage in Guatemala;
  • Helped win first convictions for violence against trade unionists in Guatemala;
  • Won legal recognition of trade unions in clothing factories in Central America;
  • Helped win a temporary delay in implementing "race to the bottom" rules for the banana trade;
  • Helped put reform labor law in Ecuador on the political agenda for both the U.S. and Ecuadorian governments;
  • Submitted worker rights petitions on Guatemala and Ecuador and backed complaints filed on Mexico;
  • Testified before the U.S. Trade Representative;
  • Organized fact-finding delegations to Guatemala, Ecuador, and Colombia, and more.

Click here for more about ILRF's work on trade.

USLEAP campaigns to support banana workers who are fighting against a race to the bottom and seeking fair wages, decent benefits, justice and dignity.

  • Nearly all bananas consumed in the U.S. come from plantations in Latin America that together employ over 300,000 workers.
  • Some banana workers make relatively decent wages but more and more do not because of an accelerating race to the bottom.
  • Unionized banana workers can make $10 a day plus $10 a day in benefits; non-union banana workers make $3 a day, with no benefits.
  • More than 80% of bananas sold in the U.S. are controlled by four companies (Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte and Bonita).
  • Bananas are the most profitable item sold by grocery stores.

Check out our video, Bloody Bananas (2009):

With support, USLEAP has:

  • campaigned for a path-breaking 2001 worker rights agreement between Chiquita and its unions;
  • won (some) justice for Del Monte banana workers who were violently attacked in Guatemala;
  • won compensation for and rehiring of Dole and Bonita workers in Ecuador;
  • organized sign-on letters to Dole and Chiquita;
  • testified before the U.S. Trade Representative on Del Monte abuses;
  • met with Ecuadorian banana magnate Alvaro Noboa after he brought in thugs to attack his own workers;
  • organized fact-finding delegations to Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia;
  • led U.S. participation and co-sponsorship of a 2005 International Banana Conference;
  • secured financing for strategic planning workshops for banana workers;
  • co-sponsored production of a special report on labor violations in Dole operations around the world, and more.

USLEAP campaigns against impunity for threats and assassinations of trade unionists in Latin America, particularly in Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia.

Of the 11 countries where trade unionists were assassinated globally in 2015, seven were in Latin America.

Colombia consistently leads the world in number of trade unionists murdered, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).  

  • Over the past two decades 2,500 unionists have been murdered in Colombia, more than in the rest of the world combined.
  • In 2015, 20 trade unionists were murdered.
  • According to the Escuela Nacional Sindical, since the U.S. Colombia free trade agreement went into effect in 2011, workers have suffered over 1,933 threats and acts of violence– including 105 assassinations of union leaders.  
  • Very few people are prosecuted or convicted for these murders, with the AFL-CIO estimating the rate of impunity at about 87% and an even higher rate of impunity for threats: 99.8%.

Guatemala is also one of the world's most dangerous countries for trade unionists, according to the annual survey by the ITUC. 

  • Violence has increased significantly since the ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2006.
  • No trade unionists were murdered in 2006, the year of CAFTA’s implementation, but since 2007, at least 70 trade unionists have been killed in Guatemala, and only 18 cases of murdered trade unionists have been prosecuted since 2004 (Source: Solidarity Center).  

Honduras has seen violence against trade unionists and other human rights defenders escalate significantly since the 2009 coup.  Impunity is also rampant.

  • At least 31 trade unionists have been killed in Honduras since 2009. 
  • Since April 2015, 14 unionists have been threatened or attacked – one killed and one disappeared (Source: Solidarity Center). 

With support from allies, USLEAP has accomplished the following in recent years:

  • Proposed and obtained media stories in major publications, including a 2015 piece in the Nation on trade unionists under threat in Honduras;
  • Launched urgent action alerts to demand action in response to specific attacks and threats;
  • Helped draft and promote Congressional sign-on letters calling on the U.S. State Department to pressure Honduras to address threats against activists;
  • Supported legislation and advocacy initiatives to uphold human rights conditions on U.S. security aid to Central America.
  • Hosted visits by labor activists from Latin America to Washington, D.C. for meetings with allies, members of Congress, and the U.S. Trade Representative;
  • Met with the Ambassador to Guatemala and Vice Minister of Human Rights in Honduras to express concern about impunity for murdered unionists;
  • Provided updates on violence and impunity to members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of State, and others;

Sindicalistas bajo amenaza

Carrying forward USLEAP's long-standing focus on violence against trade unionists in Latin America, Sindicalistas bajo amenaza (“Trade unionists under threat”) highlights cases where urgent action is needed, gives updates on past cases, and features the stories of the brave men and women who continue to organize workers despite serious risks to their safety.  By sharing their stories we hope to shine a light on how violence and threats continue to undermine the fundamental right to freedom of association across Latin America, while also putting governments (and other actors) on notice that the world is watching. We are grateful to the 21st Century ILGWU Heritage Fund for support for this work, including the following interviews:

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