Government ignores widespread labor abuse
CAFTA must include strong protections for workers’ rights.
Workers’ human rights in El Salvador are systematically violated by employers while the government disregards or even facilitates the abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a report released in early December.
In the second week of December, El Salvador participated in the final round of negotiations for the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), a proposed trade pact with profound implications for labor rights.
“Employers in El Salvador know that if they violate workers’ rights, there is little or no consequence and the government might even help them carry out these abuses,” said Carol Pier, labor rights and trade researcher for Human Rights Watch. “CAFTA must include strong tools to prevent this, but the current (CAFTA) proposal falls far short.”
The report, “Deliberate Indifference: El Salvador’s Failure to Protect Workers’ Rights,” features case studies in the private and public sectors, in manufacturing and service industries. It concludes that workers face an uphill battle to exercise their rights, regardless of the sector. Three of the highlighted companies supplied internationally known, U.S.-based apparel corporations.
Human Rights Watch found that employers delay salary payments, fail to pay overtime due, deny mandatory bonuses and vacation payments, and pocket workers’ social security contributions, preventing them from receiving free public health care. It also found that employers use myriad tactics to violate workers’ right to freedom of association.
Employers routinely fire union members and leaders, target trade unionists for suspension, pressure workers to renounce their union membership and deny jobs to union “troublemakers.” In this hostile climate, only about 5 percent of workers in the country have successfully organized.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the country’s overly burdensome requirements for union registration are “excessive formalities” that “seriously infringe . . . the principles of freedom of association.”
Even the few protections that exist are barely enforced. Labor inspectors fail to follow legally mandated inspection procedures and the Labor Ministry regularly ignores employers’ illegal anti-union conduct designed to thwart organizing drives.
If workers turn to El Salvador’s labor courts for relief, they find long delays and often insurmountable procedural obstacles.
The report notes that resource constraints are another obstacle to effective labor law enforcement, with reportedly only 37 labor inspectors covering a workforce of roughly 2.6 million. In recent years, the United States has sent millions of dollars in development assistance to address this lack of enforcement capacity and other shortfalls. But the money has done little to improve respect for workers’ human rights.
“Limited resources are a problem, but what you have in El Salvador is a serious lack of political will to protect workers’ rights,” said Pier.
The report warns that if the CAFTA proposal were adopted, the trade pact would only require countries to enforce their existing labor laws, even if those laws, like El Salvador’s, fail to meet international standards. Instead, CAFTA should require local labor laws to meet international norms and establish a transitional mechanism to ensure that countries’ labor practices meet basic standards before trade benefits are phased in.
“If CAFTA goes into effect with the labor rights provisions currently proposed, abuses like those we documented will continue,” said Pier. “El Salvador will enjoy ever-greater tariff benefits for goods made by workers whose rights are flouted.”