The Obama administration filed a complaint against Guatemala last week over its lack of labor rights. The complaint, using provisions of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), is the first time Washington has pursued such a case against a free-trade partner.
"With this case, we are sending a strong message that our trading partners must protect their own workers, that the Obama administration will not tolerate labor violations that place U.S. workers at a disadvantage," U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk told steelworkers in Pennsylvania.
Kirk said the U.S. was "very concerned" that the problem of labor-related violence was becoming "increasingly serious" in Guatemala.
Last year, the International Trade Union Confederation named Guatemala the second most dangerous country for trade unionists after Colombia. In 2009, 16 labor leaders were killed in Guatemala.
A democratic government was restored to Guatemala in 1996 after a peace accord that ended nearly 20 years of civil war, but the government has remained divided and weak.
In April 2008, the AFL-CIO and six Guatemalan worker organizations filed a public submission under CAFTA alleging the Guatemalan government violated its labor commitments, including failing to effectively enforce its labor laws.
After reviewing the submission the U.S. Labor Department issued a public report confirming significant weaknesses in Guatemala's labor practices.
Since then, the U.S. conducted an 11-month examination, which found that Guatemala did not uphold its obligations to ensure the freedom of assembly, right to collective bargaining, right to organize and decent working conditions.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said the Obama administration would vigorously enforce labor obligations under U.S. free trade agreements.
"We are committed to ensuring the U.S. businesses and workers compete on a level playing field and that labor rights are respected in our trading partner countries," she said in a statement.
Unions from both countries welcomed the news.
In Guatemala, David Morales, secretary general of the agro-industrial union, told Agence France-Presse, "It's a first step in the fight to guarantee that labor rights are respected."
United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said he commends the Obama administration for addressing workers' rights in Guatemala, unlike the Bush administration, which turned a blind eye to the situation.
"Workers in Guatemala have lost income, their jobs and, in some cases, their lives attempting to exercise their basic rights," he said in a statement.
"While the previous administration ignored the systemic violations of these rights," Gerard said, "the president has begun the process to ensure that these rights will be respected. That's an important and vital change in the enforcement of our trade laws."
However Gerard noted that such violations of workers' rights is not limited to Guatemala.
"Today's action must be followed by efforts to address problems ranging from those in our neighbor to the south, Mexico, to an end of violence and denial of rights in Colombia to actions elsewhere in the world," he said.
Guatemala has agreed to meet with the U.S. in a formal consultation to resolve the issue. If the dispute heads into an arbitration panel, a ruling against Guatemala can lead to fines totaling $15 million a year, with the money dedicated to improving enforcement of labor laws, officials say.
Although unions see the move as a step forward, most oppose the Obama administration's plan to pursue free trade policies and a neoliberal agenda.
The White House has said it wants to double exports over five years and ratify free-trade pacts with South Korea and other nations including Colombia and Panama, which many unions oppose.
Labor organizations point out that free-trade agreements send manufacturing jobs abroad, often to countries where labor laws are not enforced and wages and conditions are poor.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised the Obama administration for filing the labor rights complaint against Guatemala.
"We sincerely hope that these consultations will signal meaningful and lasting change for Guatemalan workers," he said. "If workers cannot exercise their rights under the law without fear of violence, labor law enforcement means little, and trade agreements cannot deliver the promised widely shared benefits."
Photo: Women work on a plantation at El Tejar, Chimaltenango, west of Guatemala City. (AP/Moises Castillo)