US ramps up pressure on Guatemala over labor rights

U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael B.G. FromanOn The Money: Sanders unveils plan to wipe .6T in student debt | How Sanders plan plays in rivalry with Warren | Treasury watchdog to probe delay of Harriet Tubman bills | Trump says Fed 'blew it' on rate decision Democrats give Trump trade chief high marks US trade rep spent nearly M to furnish offices: report MORE announced Thursday that the United States will push ahead with a labor rights case against Guatemala.

Froman said that while Guatemala has made progress on implementing a labor enforcement plan forged in April 2013, there is still more work to be done on workers' rights provisions required under the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement.

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Arbitration of the case was suspended several times in the past 17 months ago after the 18-point enforcement plan was inked to give Guatemala time to show that changes were being made on the ground.

The nation was given six months and several extensions before Froman announced Thursday that it was necessary to renew legal action started in 2011.

“Our goal in taking action today remains the same as it has always been, to ensure that Guatemala implements the labor protections to which its workers are entitled," he said.  

"Litigation is a means toward that goal, not an end in itself," Froman said.

He said that the United States will continue working with the Central American country toward getting those labor laws in place.

“We remain hopeful that Guatemala can succeed in producing concrete improvements for workers on the ground, which would send a positive signal to the world that would help attract investment, expand economic activity and promote inclusive growth," Froman said. 

In July, Froman traveled to Guatemala and met with Guatemalan President Perez Molina in Washington to urge him to follow through with the remaining steps.

Guatemala continues to make progress on key concerns, including on legislation to sanction employers who violate labor laws.

But, so far, despite working with Guatemala, Froman said that insufficient data have been presented to "demonstrate that the changes made have had the desired impact on the ground."  

"There is still room for the United States and Guatemala to work together to resolve the concerns," he said.

Froman said he hoped the U.S. action would strengthen their efforts.

"We extend a hand during our monitoring efforts, and when justified, we provide additional support if progress is significant but slower than promised."

Failure to enforce its labor laws could lead to upward of $15 million a year in fines as well as a loss of tariff benefits. 

House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) said “it is high time that Guatemala be held to the labor obligations to which it committed a decade ago."

"Guatemala’s failure to enforce its labor laws weakens its economy and damages the opportunity for its citizens to earn a decent livelihood at a time when large numbers of unaccompanied minors and others are fleeing to escape violence and poverty in their home countries."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the case is a long time in coming.

"Guatemala has failed to enforce its labor laws again and again, and its workers continue to suffer as a result," Wyden said.

"Our trading partners cannot turn a blind eye to their trade obligations, including those that are in place to protect workers."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the actions demonstrate that the United States will send a clear message "to our trading partners that the enforcement of core labor rights is essential to our trade and investment relationships.”

“In the end, the focus of this process must be on improving working conditions and delivering long overdue justice to Guatemala’s workers.”