June 29, 2005
The Labor Department kept secret for more than a year government studies that supported Democratic opponents of the Bush administration’s new Central American trade deal, internal documents show.
The studies, paid for by the department, concluded that several countries the administration wants to be granted free-trade status have poor working conditions and fail to protect workers’ rights. The agency dismissed the conclusions as inaccurate and biased, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
“In practice, labor laws on the books in Central America are not sufficient to deter employers from violations, as actual sanctions for violations of the law are weak or nonexistent,” the contractor, the International Labor Rights Fund, wrote in one of the reports.
The studies’ conclusions contrast with the administration’s arguments that Central American countries have made enough progress on such issues to warrant a free-trade deal with the United States.
… [T]he administration began as early as spring 2004 to block the reports’ public release … The Labor Department instructed its contractor to remove the reports from its Web site, ordered it to retrieve paper copies before they became public, banned release of new information from the reports, and even told the contractor it couldn’t discuss the studies with outsiders… [A] Labor Department document accuses the contractor of writing a report filled with “unsubstantiated” statements and “biased attacks, not the facts.”
A spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman maintains that “from our perspective, nothing has changed. [CAFTA is] a great agreement that will improve labor conditions in Central America.”
Well, no: it’s a mostly symbolic agreement that does little for labor rights or free trade, and imposes intellectual-property laws that could restrict access to vital (e.g., anti-AIDS) drugs in the region. It’s not a bad agreement, but it could have been made a lot better—for example by truly opening up America’s over-protected sugar industry.
Final versions of the blocked reports are now available from the ILRF.
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