Labor and CAFTA

CAFTA is on the front-burner in the US Congress this month. Stories are appearing daily about one interest group or another opposing or favoring the treaty. Sugar interests are against the treaty; the high tech industry favors it. The Chicago Tribune ran a story this week about the impact of labor conditions in El Salvador on the prospects for passage of CAFTA:

[L]abor advocates and others say there is an entrenched anti-union culture that contributes to poor working conditions in El Salvador and much of Central America, despite laws that guarantee the right to organize.

Those working conditions are among the objections in Washington to a free-trade treaty the U.S. signed with El Salvador and five other nations in the region last year. The issue will soon hit the floor of the U.S. Congress, which will decide this spring whether to ratify the Central America Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA....

Trying to clean up that image, Salvadoran President Tony Saca last year overhauled the Labor Ministry and sent a message to employers that the government was no longer going to turn a blind eye to labor abuses.

But critics allege that the pro-business government's crackdown has been more about smoothing the way for CAFTA than changing a bitter employer-union relationship that was deeply politicized during the country's 1980s civil war.

The effort has begun just as the region is losing crucial, low-paying jobs to China and other Asian countries. That has pressured employers to lower labor costs and push for more "flexibility," rather than improving labor conditions, activists say.