Washington, D.C.—The United States Trade Representative (USTR) announced today that the United States will seek the establishment of an arbitration panel against the Guatemalan government for failure to enforce its own labor laws. The labor laws include the right of association, the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and acceptable conditions.
“This is the first time under DR-CAFTA that the U.S. has taken this step, which is important. However, the failure of the Guatemalan government to enforce its labor rights was apparent during the negotiations of DR-CAFTA and after the deal was signed,” stated Vicki Gass, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and author of the study DR-CAFTA and Worker’s Rights: Moving from Paper to Practice. “Labor rights violations and crimes of harassment and violence directed at workers continue to be a problem in Guatemala, as they were decades ago,” she added.
As documented in her study, the Guatemalan government has repeatedly promised to improve the labor conditions in the country. In 2004, the government overturned a controversial constitutional court decision that ruled it unconstitutional for the Labor Ministry to impose administrative fines against companies that violate labor laws. Yet, six years have passed and employers continue to violate labor laws because they do not face meaningful sanctions and the trade benefits received under DR-CAFTA remain unchanged. Even today’s announcement indicates that the USTR was forced to make this decision because the Guatemalan government could not agree to yet another enforcement plan.
The USTR’s action sends a message to our trading partners regarding labor rights.“U.S. lawmakers should draw two lessons from the Guatemala experience,” said Vicki Gass. “First, trade agreements need to include stronger sanctions; otherwise, governments can promise any action but not deliver. Secondly, the U.S. government should wait for demonstrative actions before signing trade deals, especially with countries that violate labor laws, such as Colombia.”
Vicki Gass, Senior Associate for Rights and Development
Joseph Bateman, Program Assistant