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Agency Blocked Release of Central American Studies

A labor rights group's findings were critical of working conditions in the region.

June 30, 2005|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Labor Department worked for more than a year to maintain secrecy for studies that were critical of working conditions in Central America, the region the Bush administration wants in a new trade pact.

The contractor hired by the department in 2002 to conduct the studies has become a major opponent of the administration's proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA.

The government-paid studies concluded that countries proposed for free-trade status have poor working environments and fail to protect workers' rights. The department dismissed the conclusions as inaccurate and biased, according to government and contractor documents reviewed by Associated Press.

The contractor is the International Labor Rights Fund.

In a summary of its findings, the organization wrote, "In practice, labor laws on the books in Central America are not sufficient to deter employers from violations, as actual sanctions for violations of the law are weak or nonexistent."

The conclusions contrast with the administration's arguments that Central American countries have made enough progress on such issues to warrant the free-trade deal.

The Labor Department began as early as spring 2004 to block public release of the country-by-country reports. It told the contractor to remove the reports from its website, ordered it to retrieve paper copies before they became public, banned release of new information from the reports, and even told the labor rights fund it could not discuss the studies with outsiders.

The department has now worked out a deal with the contractor to make the reports public, provided there is no mention of the federal agency or government funding.

At the same time, the administration began a preemptive campaign to undercut the study's conclusions.

Used as talking points by trade-pact supporters, a Labor Department document accuses the contractor of writing a report filled with "unsubstantiated" statements and "biased attacks, not the facts."

Dirk Fillpot, spokesman for the Labor Department's Bureau of International Labor Affairs, said the agency and an independent evaluator concluded the contractor "failed to meet the academic rigor expected to fulfill its contract" and the relationship was terminated June 10.

The competitively bid contract totaled $937,000. Fillpot said $250,000 would be refunded to the Treasury.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who supports the trade agreement, said he was familiar with drafts of the reports and believed they would be "widely dismissed as a fraud." He accused the contractor of producing "a propaganda piece" and concealing "its rabid anti-CAFTA bias."

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