Labor Rights in Guatemala Aided Little by Trade Deal

Cristina Perez said security guards sometimes locked her in the factory where she worked late into the night.
Cristina Perez said security guards sometimes locked her in the factory where she worked late into the night. (Photos By Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)
By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

GUATEMALA CITY -- Day and night, workers at the port of Quetzal on Guatemala's Pacific coast load fruit from surrounding plantations and clothing stitched in local factories onto freighters bound for Long Beach, Calif., a flow of goods that has swelled since a Central American trade agreement with the United States took force last year.

Under a provision that was crucial to getting the deal through Congress, working conditions for the longshoremen, along with laborers throughout Central America, were supposed to improve. Governments promised to strengthen labor laws, and the Bush administration pledged money to help.

But on the evening of Jan. 15, the head of the port workers union became a symbol of the risks that still confront workers who press their rights in Guatemala.

Pedro Zamora, then in the midst of contentious negotiations with management, was driving on the dusty road through his village, his two sons at his side, when gunmen shot him at least 20 times, killing him, said prosecutors in Guatemala City. One boy was grazed in the knee by a bullet; the other was unharmed.

Nearly two years have passed since the countries of Central America vowed to strengthen worker rights as they sought votes in Congress for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. Yet there has been little if any progress, according to diplomats, labor inspectors, workers and managers.

"The situation is the same now as it was," said Homero Fuentes, director of the Commission for the Verification of Codes of Conduct, a Guatemalan group hired by multinational companies to inspect local factories and plantations. "The law hasn't been reformed, and people just don't obey the law. There's a culture of impunity."

The Bush administration is facing intense resistance in the Democratic Congress as it seeks approval for new trade deals with Peru, Colombia and Panama. The tense labor situation in Guatemala and other countries covered by such deals helps to explain why.

Democratic leaders negotiating terms of the new trade pacts with the administration are demanding stringent labor protections. They argue that previous deals such as CAFTA have been too weak on labor rights, expediting the shift of manufacturing to countries where goods are cheap because workers are exploited.

The Bush administration counters that trade deals have improved the lot of laborers by creating jobs and establishing basic standards, even as it signals willingness to insert stricter rules in the new agreements to gain the assent of the Democratic leadership.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab said last month on Capitol Hill that when countries negotiate free-trade deals with the United States, "the situation on the ground for workers in those countries is vastly improved."

As the administration portrays it, problems in Central America reflect a dearth of resources, not weak law. Over the past two years, Congress has allocated $60 million for programs aimed at boosting the ability of governments in the region to enforce labor and environmental laws, delivering computers and automobiles and helping to train judges and inspectors.

Schwab urged The Washington Post to seek details from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. There, four American officials, plus two who joined by videoconference from El Salvador, would speak only on condition that they not be named. They said they had no data showing increased compliance with labor laws in Central America, though they emphasized that the programs were new.

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