Montreal -- The World Trade Organization praised El Salvador Wednesday for taking steps to open up its economy, but ignored a damning report from a global grouping of trade unions that accuses the country of dismissing workers' rights, particularly in export processing zones (EPZs), known locally as 'maquilas.'
In a report submitted to a WTO review body for its second examination of the Central American nation's trade policies and practices, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) said "respect for trade union and other human rights in El Salvador has been worsening as a result of the authoritarian behavior of the current government."
"The WTO should draw to the attention of the authorities of El Salvador the commitments they undertook to observe core labor standards," the report added. Speaking from ICFTU's Brussels headquarters Thursday, the report's author Collin Harker said, "It's obvious that these commitments, although on paper, [are] not being met in practice."
The ICFTU report accused the government of President Francisco Flores of falling foul of international protections such as guaranteeing employees the right to form public sector unions, ensuring enforcement of laws against various types of discrimination, and defending the rights of unions to collective bargaining in EPZs.
Those protections became legally binding when El Salvador, one of the WTO's 145 members since May 1995, ratified treaties drawn up by the WTO and International Labour Organization.
However, publishing the findings of its review Wednesday, members of the WTO praised the Flores government for creating new trade and investment channels, in part by adopting the U.S. dollar as a national currency, negotiating fresh trade agreements, reducing tariffs and opening its service industries -- especially in the financial, telecommunications, and energy sectors -- to investment.
"It is clear that El Salvador has made great strides towards building an efficient market-based economy in a relatively short period of time and from a particularly difficult starting-point," said the review body. "EPZs have played an important role in fostering El Salvador's integration into the world economy, generating jobs and attracting investment."
ICFTU has long documented working conditions in the country's EPZs - industrial areas set up with special incentives, such as tax "holidays," to attract foreign investors. It cited an official study of four of the largest zones three years ago that found "a clear anti-union policy...whereby any attempt at organizing was repressed."
A more recent example of anti-union discrimination, according to the union's report, occurred at the Tainan company, which makes clothes for major United States labels. After a long struggle--that included strikes, petitions, and appeals to the parent company in Taiwan--the union was recognized.
"Shortly afterwards, however," the report noted, "the company began suspending and dismissing workers again, claiming a lack of orders." In fact the firm, which has since closed its El Salvador plant, was sub-contracting orders to non-union workers, says the report.
While the ICFTU made known its opposition to El Salvador's treatment of workers in writing, on Thursday activists in the United States occupied the country's consulates in New York and San Francisco, according to the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
In a statement the group said the action was in solidarity with a march in San Salvador to oppose the government's pro-free trade and privatization policies.
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