Time to trade for a second. The White House is currently trying to push the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) through Congress. As it stands right now, more and more Democrats are opposing the agreement, for a wide variety of reasons, and some Republicans who represent districts that would be adversely affected are speaking out as well. So it’s not likely to pass, which looks like a good thing. Now in general, I don’t much mind free trade agreements, but this one is particularly egregious in its specifics, especially the fact that it would allow the five Central American countries to “lock in” their current labor standards, which are largely atrocious. (CAFTA also comes bearing protectionist gifts to the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, by imposing restrictions on Big Pharma’s generic-drug competitors abroad. Why this sort of practice gets called “free trade” is beyond me.)
But back to the labor standards. How atrocious are they? Well, Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) has been trying to find out, and has been asking the Bush administration for Labor Department reports on working conditions in Central America, but all to little avail. First he filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Denied. Then, after a few more congressional maneuvers, the Labor Department finally relented. So the released report is here (pdf). The labor laws and working conditions, not surprisingly, are dismal—and keep in mind that, under, CAFTA, Central American governments would no longer need to “afford internationally recognized worker rights,” as they do under the current Generalized System of Preferences. Central American workers would get screwed, with little hope that they could raise their standards of living over time. And yes, it’s no surprise that the Bush administration tried to keep these reports hidden for so long, but it’s appalling all the same.