International free trade agreements have enlarged the scope of labor disputes for the United States government. Recently, the AFL-CIO joined a large coalition of Honduran trade unions to ask the United States Department of Labor to take measures to protect workers’ rights in Honduras. The petition asks the Department of Labor to take all necessary actions to prompt the Honduran government to address labor right violations in the Central American country. In terms of international politics, this is a dangerous move for the Honduran people because of the history that the United States developed with Honduras during the latter half of the 20th century. Under the cover of the Cold War, the United States consistently interfered with Honduran politics in what became apparent violations of Honduran sovereignty.
Perhaps this is how desperate Honduran workers are and how drastic the exploitation of workers is in Honduras. According to the coalition of Honduran trade unions, the country’s government has failed to adhere to national and international labor laws, allowing multinational corporations to abuse workers at increasing rates. The violations include failure to provide safe working conditions, child labor, and limits on the rights to assemble and bargain collectively. These violations are prohibited by law but the Honduran government has consistently failed to enforce the law. In fact, there is well documented data demonstrating that Honduran government officials have taken bribes from prominent corporations urging them to ignore the rule of law.
To a certain extent the United States shares fault within this conflict. Since the institution of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), American corporations have swarmed to Central American nations seeking cheap labor. The agreement lowered tariff barriers in trade between the United States and Honduras and, to a lesser extent, it also created labor standards that both countries are supposed to be upholding. However, as Honduran workers testify, their government has not kept its part of the deal when it comes to labor standards.
This has been a consistent story in almost all of the countries that have entered into free trade agreements with the United States in the last decades. From 1994, when Mexico, the United States, and Canada created NAFTA, to the new agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, the United States has opened markets for its corporations to seek cheap labor outside its borders. The lack of labor law enforcement in most of these countries allows corporations to abuse the populations of the host country. If the same jobs were offered within the United States, the cost of production in fields like agriculture, and manufacturing would increase tremendously do to the labor protections that exist within the United States.
To stop such practices, the Labor Department could set restrictions on corporations committing such violations but these would have little effect because it would be unable to enforce any restrictions outside of its borders. For this reason, the AFL-CIO and the Honduran unions are asking the Labor Department to impose sanctions on the Honduran government instead. By imposing tariffs on Honduran imports that are manufactured or grown by corporations, the United States government can diminish the monetary gains made by those who violate the law in Honduras. In some instances, this would require violating the treaty itself but this is not a farfetched idea since the Honduran government has already violated the treaty by failing to maintain reasonable labor standards.
The other side of the coin is that tariffs would be a disincentive for corporations to employ people in other countries. In certain circumstances, this would hurt the Honduran people because, to some, an abusive job is better than no job at all. This is especially true among the poorest workers in Honduras. However, the coalition between the Honduran unions and the AFL-CIO proves that the labor movement is willing to make sacrifices to make progress. The alliance recognizes that it is impractical to fight for labor rights in one place if another is suffering abuse. At its core, the struggle for fair labor standards is a collective one and this principle transcends international borders. To see and article detailing the alliance between the AFL-CIO and the coalition for Honduran trade unions, visit this link.