As the Senate votes to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement, we take a look at the controversial trade pact and how the Labor Department tried for a year to block the release of a government-funded study that criticized labor standards in Central America. We speak with Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Bama Athreya of the International Labor Rights Fund. [includes rush transcript]
The Senate voted Thursday to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement by a 54 to 45 vote. 10 Democrats voted for the trade pact while 11 Republicans voted against it.
The trade agreement, known as CAFTA, would eliminate most trade restrictions between the United States and six Latin American countries: Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
Thursday’s Senate vote set the stage for a showdown in the House where the trade pact faces overwhelming opposition from Democrats and enough Republicans to make the outcome uncertain.
The House Ways and Means Committee voted to endorse CAFTA yesterday in a 25 to 16 vote, and the full House is expected to take it up after Congress returns from its Independence Day break.
Critics of the trade agreement say it provides too little protection to US sugar producers and too little enforcement of labor standards in Central American countries.
Earlier this week, news emerged that as the White House was lobbying Congress to win support for CAFTA, the Labor Department tried for more than a year to block the release of reports that harshly criticized labor standards in Central America.
The reports were commissioned by the Labor Department to an outside contractor–the International Labor Rights Fund. The studies concluded that several of the countries involved in CAFTA have poor working conditions and have failed to protect workers" rights. The studies" conclusions contrast the Bush administration’s arguments that Central American countries have made enough progress on such issues to warrant a free-trade deal with the United States.
After the Labor Rights Fund submitted their findings, the Labor Department instructed them to remove the reports from their Web site, ordered them to retrieve paper copies before they became public, banned release of new information from the reports, and even told them they couldn’t discuss the studies with outsiders.
We called the Labor Department and asked them to join us on the program today, but they declined. In a statement yesterday, Dirk Fillpot, a spokesperson for the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, said the study was "rife with unsubstantiated and unverifiable claims, questionable statistical data, and biased statements of findings and conclusions."
AMY GOODMAN: We called the Labor Department, asked them to join us on the show today, but they declined. In a statement yesterday, Dirk Fillpot, a spokesperson for the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs said the study was (quote) "rife with unsubstantiated, unverifiable claims, questionable statistical data and biased statements of findings and conclusions." Well, we’re joined right now by Bama Athreya. She is the Deputy Director of the International Labor Rights Fund in Washington D.C. After Bama, we will turn to Congressmember Bernie Sanders. Bama Athreya, talk about this report, what you found, and what the Department of Labor told you to do with it?
DR. BAMA ATHREYA: We started doing research back in 2003 on labor law and labor law violations throughout the Central American countries, and we found in each of the countries a pattern of systematic failure to enforce basic labor protections, including protections for minimum wages, maximum hours of overtime, protection against women to prevent them from discrimination or issues like pregnancy testing in the factories. We found that these laws were not enforced and that there were such problems with the labor ministries in the judicial systems in the Central American countries that the laws couldn’t be effectively enforced. This contrasts with the story that was being told throughout the entire past couple of years by the Bush Administration.
As I’m sure you and your listeners know, there’s been an active debate over the proposed Central America Free Trade Agreement, and within that debate, the Labor Department — not only the Labor Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has publicly argued that the very fact of CAFTA negotiations have improved labor conditions in these countries. Our evidence does not find any improvements in labor law enforcement or real protections for workers on the ground. And I must say we have been critical of CAFTA, because we feel it’s a step backwards from existing trade agreements. People seem to forget these countries actually do trade with the United States now and are covered by unilateral trade preference programs that have labor standards that are, in our view, better than the CAFTA labor standards.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, let me ask you, in my travels throughout some of these Central American countries, I found that the Free Trade Zones, as they’re called in many of these countries, often have worse protections and labor conditions than the actual rest of the country. Did you find that still existing now? In essence, CAFTA would make the rest of the countries of these nations Free Trade Zones, as well, right?
DR. BAMA ATHREYA: Well, I mean, you know, I do want to say once again, we trade with these countries now. We have trade agreements with them now. And so one of the things that’s been, I think, a little bit of a mischaracterization in the CAFTA debate is that the proponents of CAFTA act as though these poor countries have no right to trade with the United States unless CAFTA is passed. The very existence of the Free Trade Zones, the existence of substantial exports from these countries to the United States, show that we already trade with them. Okay? So there are already trade agreements in place.
And, you know, I mean, I think we have to look at the labor — from our point of view, we want to look at labor standards across the countries. So we weren’t focused on saying let’s compare this sector with that sector. I mean, we found systematically throughout the countries serious problems with labor law enforcement, whether it be, you know, in the maquila sector, in the banana sector, in the coffee sector. I mean, we found that it was, you know, pretty thoroughly the case that workers in all of these sectors had no meaningful or, you know, very little meaningful access to these laws.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the fact that the International Labor Rights Fund was contracted with the Department of Labor came up with their report, and then the DOL rejected it and said they are to remove it from the website, not talk about it with outsiders. What about this?
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I think that’s what we expect of the Bush Administration. They don’t play by the rules. If there are developments that take place that these guys don’t like, they fight them. In this case there was a report which came out which put a lie to everything that they’re saying about CAFTA, so obviously what you do is suppress the report. Nothing new about that.
The bottom line here, even before we get into all of the details of CAFTA, is that our entire trade policy, whether it’s NAFTA, whether its permanent normal trade relations with China, has been an absolute disaster. In this case it would be, in my view, a disaster for the people of Central America, but it’s also a disaster for the people of the United States of America.
Amy and Juan, what all of these agreements are about is the effort of corporate America to force American workers to compete against people who make desperately low wages, to continue the race to the bottom, to drive wages down in the United States, to continue to transfer manufacturing plants from the United States to developing countries, and that’s what these agreements are about, which are supported by virtually every large corporation in the country.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And your sense of the prospects for CAFTA now in the House?
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, the good news, I think, is that there has been a tidal shift in sentiment about trade in the last couple of years. A lot of — during the Clinton administration, of course, Clinton himself put pressure on Democrats to support NAFTA. Bush puts enormous pressure on Republicans, but a lot of these folks now, the Republicans go back to the districts in the Midwest, they see industry after industry wiped out. They see good paying jobs gone. They see the emergence of low-paying McDonald’s and Wal-Mart type jobs. And even these guys are waking up and saying, 'Hey, you know what? We were sold a bill of goods. It just ain't working.’
So even the vote in the Senate, which obviously was not surprising — the Senate has historically been terrible on these agreements — was better than some had hoped, from our perspective. As I think Amy indicated, the vote in the House is expected to be very close. And remember, this is — we are doing better now in opposing unfettered free trade in this proposal than we have in the past. But corporate America is putting tremendous power, pressure on Congress. The President is now beginning to do what they always do, and that is, work out little agreements with this group or that group, bring people into the White House. I’m sure campaign contributions will be flowing to those people who are prepared to vote for it, and so forth and so on.
But in the midst of all of this, I know for a lot listeners, this trade agreement, or trade agreements, in general, are not a sexy issue, but people have got to appreciate that there is a reason why, despite the explosion of technology and the increase in worker productivity in the United States in the last 20 years, real wages are down. Poverty today is increasing. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. Today, two workers in a family, often a husband and wife, have less disposable income than one worker did 30 years ago. And one of the reasons for the decline of the middle class is these terrible trade agreements that force us to compete against desperate people abroad. People should know that in Central America, 40% of the workers there make less than $2 a day, and that’s the competition that we’re going to be engaged in.
Also, I had the opportunity a couple of years ago — Charlie Kernaghan is the head of a group in New York City called the National Labor Committee, which does extraordinarily good work in exposing sweatshops all over the world. And he brought to Vermont some workers from Honduras, women, who just described to us the kind of horrendous conditions that they have to work under. And does anybody think that in tiny, poor countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, that workers are going to be able to stand up for their rights? It just ain’t the case, and it’s going to be a bad agreement for the people there and the workers in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Bernie Sanders, we’ll have to leave it there, Congressmember from Vermont, and Bama Athreya. If people want to go to your website, though the Department of Labor said remove it, can they get the report that you did for them?
DR. BAMA ATHREYA: There is substantial data on Central American labor standards on our website, and that site is LaborRights.org.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us.