Labor supporters wary of trade pact

Houston Chronicle


Factory worker Norma Escobar suspected financial troubles at the Carolina Apparel plant in La Libertad, El Salvador, when her $30-a-week paychecks started arriving late.

Soon, the factory where pants, overalls and jeans were hastily fashioned by the nimble fingers of mostly female stitchers for U.S. retailers closed. It left 350 unemployed workers for the North Carolina company short nearly $80,000 in back wages and severance pay, according to Women's Edge Coalition, a human rights group.

Marlene Lopez, a labor lawyer representing 30 un-insured workers who were pregnant when the plant closed, tells the story to illustrate the problem Central American workers already face, a problem she claims will be exacerbated if El Salvador signs on to the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The trade pact has plenty of opponents — environmentalists, sugar growers and human rights activists — but labor organizers are putting up the biggest fight.

Supporters, too, know that labor issues will be the toughest ones to overcome if the treaty is to be approved.

Patricia Figueroa, director of El Salvador's foreign investment promotion agency, who spoke at a Greater Houston Partnership-sponsored luncheon Tuesday, acknowledged the treaty faces strong opposition, especially from labor activists who are concerned not just about workers' rights in Central America but also job losses in the United States.

"The issue of outsourcing jobs has become really a political issue," Figueroa said. She noted that because the proposed treaty has drawn such criticism during the presidential campaign, Congress will likely not consider it until next year.

The U.S. Trade Representative's labor committee reported in March that the labor provisions of the agreement "will not protect the core rights of workers in any of the six countries participating in the agreement" and it represents a "huge step backwards" from other U.S. trade programs.

In addition to El Salvador, the Bush administration is pushing Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to sign onto the treaty. The Dominican Republic recently joined the agreement, which President Bush has promised to sign and send on to Congress.

Central America does have strong labor laws since it has adopted more than 200 of the International Labor Organization's agreements, while the United States has only adopted 14, said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands.

"Where they're weak is enforcement," said Brady, who is one of the agreement's biggest supporters.

Many critics of the Central American Free Trade Agreement said the pact should not be signed because it needs to include a mechanism to force U.S. companies to respect a nation's labor laws. And they said the pact will only add more low-paying factory jobs to the region.

"They aren't jobs that will help lift women out of poverty," said Marceline White, global trade director for Washington, D.C.-based Women's Edge. "This isn't a sustainable development strategy."

She cites the free-trade pact signed more than a decade ago with Mexican leaders as an example of a failed economic development tool.

Following the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, apparel and electronics factories opened in Mexico, but some companies shifted their operations to countries with a cheaper labor force, like China.

Salvadoran government officials are putting on a road show in the United States to show how easy it is to do business in the nation.

El Salvador's national currency is the U.S. dollar, and it offers one-stop shops that allow companies to launch their business in the country within a week.

Even with such incentives, at least five Salvadoran factories have closed in the last six months, leaving at least 1,500 unemployed, Lopez said.

"In El Salvador, it's no longer news when factories close and leave the country," said Lopez.

For Escobar, 22, the shutdown of Carolina Apparel left her short $746.53 in back pay and benefits and sour on the trade agreement supported by many of El Salvador's politicians.

Still unemployed, Escobar said she was blacklisted by local maquiladoras after she and other workers guarded Carolina Apparel's machinery to prevent its removal.

Workers hoped the government would sell Carolina Apparel's equipment to reimburse the seamstresses, but they're still waiting for a company official to respond to the lawsuit.

Officials with Rives Apparel, owners of Carolina Apparel, could not be reached for comment, and someone who answered the phone at the former headquarters said it's closed.