Latin America: GAO reports on FTA labor violations

On Nov. 13 the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), an agency that investigates federal spending for Congress, released a report on the US government's handling of labor violations in countries with which it has "free trade" agreements (FTAs). Recent FTAs, such as the 2004 Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), have requirements for participating countries to meet certain standards in labor practices. The GAO claimed to find progress in this area in the partner countries—but also "persistent challenges to labor rights, such as limited enforcement capacity, the use of subcontracting to avoid direct employment, and, in Colombia and Guatemala, violence against union leaders."

"US and foreign officials said that El Salvador and Guatemala—both partners to CAFTA-DR—as well as Colombia, Oman, and Peru have acted to change labor laws," according to the report. There was also progress in fighting anti-union violence in Colombia. Data from the nonprofit National Union School (ENS) indicated that murders of union members and labor activists fell from 102 killings in 2003 to 35 in 2013. However, the violence continues, and the report notes that according to observers "although murders of unionists are a serious concern, threats of violence against union members also create a significant deterrent to workers organizing." The report gave no evidence for improvements in Guatemala. "[T]he extent of the problem is unclear because disaggregated statistics on violence against unionists are not collected," the GAO wrote. One union cited 63 cases of union leaders or members being killed from 2007 through 2013 because of their union activities; labor activists said the Guatemalan government hasn't acted adequately on these cases.

The FTA labor clauses require the US to have a mechanism for filing complaints about alleged labor violations by member countries. The GAO found that "[s]ince 2008, the Department of Labor (DOL) has accepted five formal complaints…and has resolved one, regarding Peru." The unresolved complaints are from Guatemala (2008), Bahrain (2011), Honduras (2012) and the Dominican Republic (2012). One likely reason there are so few complaints is that "union representatives and other stakeholders GAO interviewed in partner countries often did not understand the submission process, possibly limiting the number of submissions filed." The failure to resolve the complaints quickly, according to people interviewed, "may have contributed to the persistence of conditions that affect workers and are allegedly inconsistent with the FTAs."

US agencies have provided $275 million in labor-related technical assistance and capacity-building activities for FTA participants since 2001. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) responded to the report with a Nov. 13 statement charging that "[w]hile the words and promises may be put on paper, this report demonstrates that we are unable to hold countries responsible when they break those standards." She cited the poor results as a reason not to pursue the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive FTA that would include Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru and the US, along with Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam. (GAO announcement, Nov. 13; Politico, Nov. 14)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, November 16.