Today, for the first time ever, the U.S. government announced that it will begin the formal consultations that are used to resolve trade disputes in the area of labor rights enforcement. The United States Trade Representative (USTR) announced that it will finally move forward to arbitration in the long-running dispute with the government of Guatemala regarding whether or not Guatemala is meeting the labor commitments of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA or CAFTA). In announcing the decision, the USTR stated that the goal is to improve conditions that workers face every day.
The AFL-CIO welcomes today’s announcement by the U.S. government to resume the arbitration process with Guatemala, to ensure that the government of Guatemala will live up to the very basic commitments it made to effectively enforce its own labor laws. This decision comes after a string of broken promises and missed deadlines on the part of the Guatemalan government. These broken promises have left workers behind and have contributed to the lack of decent work and security that has driven desperate families to seek refuge for their children in the United States.
Six years ago, the AFL-CIO—together with Guatemalan unions—filed a petition concerning widespread and serious labor rights violations in Guatemala—including the numerous murders of trade unionists that were not being addressed or investigated by the government.
When DR-CAFTA was signed, both parties promised to enforce their own labor laws and respect international labor standards, so that increased trade and investment would lead to better jobs and economic opportunities. Unfortunately, this has not been the reality for Guatemala’s workers.
Since 2007, more than 70 Guatemalan unionists have been murdered for exercising their fundamental rights, while many more have been fired.
On Jan. 4, a 19-year-old construction worker named Marlon Dagoberto Vasquez Lopez, a passionate young activist who encouraged other young people to get involved in civic politics, was shot and killed for his activism. A week later, someone fired shots at 11 banana workers outside their union office. One was struck by a bullet and survived.
The persistent violence and lack of decent work have also contributed to the current flow of unaccompanied minors arriving at our borders. We must recognize that one root cause of this is the lack of economic opportunity in countries like Guatemala. We can and must do better for workers, so they can prosper from trade and not be forced to send their children far from home.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in applauding the decision to move to arbitration, explained:
“Right now, government officials, industry spokespeople and advocacy groups from Pacific nations, Europe and the U.S. have been negotiating new rules on proposed international trade agreements—the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership).
“We must ensure that these agreements are indeed different from CAFTA—that the mechanisms to protect workers’ rights and the environment are powerful enough to do the job—and in a timely way. These trade deals must create good jobs for workers in the U.S. and in our trading partners.
“Broad lessons should be learned from this process. In the context of the TPP and TTIP, what happens as a result of this arbitration process sends a clear message to our trading partners that meeting their obligations and enforcing core labor rights are fundamental to our trade and investment relationship.”
America and the world need new trade rules, rules that lead to increased economic opportunities and better working conditions for workers and their families. These new rules include stronger labor protections and more effective enforcement. But, as we have long argued, there is so much more.
Workers cannot benefit from trade if they are not free to join together and act collectively to improve their wages and working conditions. The United Nations has recognized the rights to organize and bargain collectively as fundamental rights. It is time for the government of Guatemala to meet its obligations to its working people—and the world—and to defend these fundamental rights, now.