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CAFTA labor complaint filed

The first grievance under the trade pact says Guatemala fails to protect worker rights.

April 24, 2008|Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Guatemalan and U.S. labor groups filed a complaint Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that Guatemala had failed to uphold its own labor laws as required under the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The complaint alleges that, despite provisions in the pact requiring workers' rights to be protected, Guatemalan trade unionists have been threatened, fired and even assassinated -- including a union official who was shot dead in front of his young children last year. The groups called on the Bush administration to initiate dispute settlement proceedings, which could result in fines of as much as $15 million annually against the Guatemalan government.

The action is the first of its kind under CAFTA, a trade deal whose members are the United States, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. But the complaint underscores a long-standing criticism of U.S. trade policy by American unions, which contend that labor protections in trade agreements are largely meaningless because they aren't enforced.

Human rights groups and unions have lodged nearly two dozen complaints with U.S. authorities over labor issues in trade pacts since 1994. None has resulted in sanctions or fines against trading partners, according to Thea Lee, policy director of the AFL-CIO, which filed Wednesday's complaint with six Guatemalan unions.

That record, she said, is a big reason that organized labor opposes the pending Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Congress has delayed voting on that deal in part over concerns about violence against trade union leaders in the South American nation.

"We would like to see some evidence that our government is willing to enforce the labor provisions in any existing" free-trade agreement before entering into new ones, she said.

Charlotte Ponticelli, deputy undersecretary of Labor for international affairs, said her agency would "thoroughly review and investigate these allegations within the parameters set by the CAFTA agreement."

The petition filed Wednesday includes five separate cases of alleged labor violations against members of unions representing apparel, agricultural and port workers.

The most high-profile case is the death of Pedro Zamora, general secretary of the Union of Port Quetzal Company Workers. That union has had contentious relations with Guatemala's government, stemming from worker firings that ended up in court.

According to the complaint, Zamora was ambushed in front of his home Jan. 15 of last year by a car full of people who fired about 100 gunshots at his pickup truck. Zamora was struck 20 times. His 3-year-old son was shot in a leg and the abdomen but survived.

Lee said eight Guatemalan trade unionists had been murdered since the trade agreement was implemented in that country in 2006. She said no arrests had been made.

"If workers in other countries are shot down . . . for trying to organize a union, their wages are artificially suppressed," Lee said. "That becomes a competitive problem for American companies as well as for American workers."

Trade advocates say the pacts give the U.S. leverage it wouldn't otherwise have.

"Without a [free trade agreement] we could not even look into these matters," said Gretchen Hamel, spokeswoman for the U.S. trade representative's office in Washington.

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marla.dickerson@latimes.com

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