Last Wednesday, Omar Salazar, director of Costa Rican labor advocacy NGO Asociación Servicios de Promoción Laboral (ASEPROLA), spoke as part of a lunchtime talk at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, DC. Omar discussed key obstacles to the labor movement that have arisen since CAFTA from a Costa Rican perspective, including:
- Costa Rican Ministry of Labor: They think it is the workers’ job to denounce labor rights violations. Hardly do you find people in Central America who go and seek out labor violations, Omar said.
- Courts: Judges often have no background in labor laws and are unqualified to try cases. Trials take very long, and most lawyers do not want to defend labor unions. Laws don’t exist to protect workers in these situations.
- International Labor Organization (ILO) standards: Often not followed, because local courts have declared some of its rules unconstitutional (despite the fact that its conventions should take precedence over local law).
Omar persuasively made the case that while there is more funding for CAFTA-related trade each year, the same labor violations continue to occur. Judges’ education on labor laws or labor union access to lawmakers has not changed. Omar’s talk convinced me that entrepreneurs and private organizations in these countries are rich and dangerous, which is compounded by the U.S. government wanting to strengthen labor laws that are not even currently recognized. During the question-and-answer, he pointed out that attacks on trade unions are just as bad as those in Colombia, with seven labor leaders dead and six accused criminally throughout Central America. The union movement is, however, not as strong as it is in South America.
When asked, Omar gave three reasons for why the CAFTA referendum still passed in Costa Rica:
- People didn’t understand the extent of the economic impact it would have and weren’t informed of it.
- Even with organizations against CAFTA, the referendum was put up so quickly that opposition parties and organizations did not have enough time to organize against it.
- Fear of the U.S. government– the White House released a statement the day before the elections threatening to never negotiate again with Costa Ricans if the referendum did not pass; the Commerce Dept. also said it would only do business through CAFTA. However, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid later said that Congress would have to withdraw the agreement for there to be any validity in either statement.
Plus, opposition only lost the referendum by 3.8 percent of the electorate – not at all a large number, or one that could not have been persuaded otherwise had it not been fast-tracked through the electoral system. Omar pointed out that 30,000+ people have lost their jobs since the inception of CAFTA. We need to take a closer look at how the $30 million going towards Central America from the U.S. is spent.