Levin Cites Critical Reports On Central American Labor

National Journal's CongressDailyPM


Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., today released a series of reports commissioned by the Labor Department on labor rights in Central America which Levin said confirmed his claim that laws in the region do not adequately protect the right to organize in accordance with international labor standards. The reports, performed by the International Labor Rights Fund under contract with the Labor Department, highlight labor rights shortcomings in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica that for the most part have already been identified in State Department human rights reports and in a 2003 report by the International Labor Organization. But one labor source said they help counter claims by Bush administration officials that the ILO report found Central American laws in harmony with core international labor standards. "The ILO report often gets mischaracterized. It does not exonerate the Central American countries," the source said. "Yes, there are problems with enforcement, but there are problems with the law too."

Those problems, according to the reports released by Levin, include in El Salvador a lack of a right of reinstatement for individuals fired because of union affiliation; a requirement in Honduran law that unions be composed of at least 30 members, which companies can get around by subdividing their enterprises, effectively preventing unions from organizing; and a provision in Nicaraguan law that allows employees to be fired for organizing provided they are paid twice the normal severance amount. Administration officials note that United States labor law also falls well short of international standards, and that Central American governments have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years in both strengthening their laws and enforcing those laws. A fact sheet from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative points to new regulatory limits Costa Rica has placed on solidarity associations that employers use to bypass unions, and notes that no incidences of violence against trade unionists have been reported in Guatemala since 2002.

Levin first filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the reports in May of last year. He claimed the Labor Department "suppressed" the reports before releasing them to his office last month, one day after he threatened to file a resolution of inquiry seeking their release. A Labor Department spokesman provided to CongressDaily an April 22 letter to the International Labor Rights Fund in which Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs Arnold Levine cited "serious flaws" in the research and confirmed that the Labor Department "will not endorse or otherwise associate itself with the reports" in any way. "Many of the statements reflect particularly biased points of view with respect to the benefits of trade liberalization and the value of the commitments undertaken by the parties to trade agreements to enforce domestic labor law, without any discussion of other opinions," Levine wrote. Meanwhile, Minority Whip Hoyer today said Democrats in the House would vote "overwhelmingly against" CAFTA. Senate Minority Leader Reid told Bloomberg News in a recent interview that Democratic opposition would likely doom the trade pact in the Senate as well. Business groups have mounted a campaign to pass the trade deal.

-- by Martin Vaughan