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United States: Accept Andean Proposal to Add Non-Discrimination Provision to U.S.-Andean Free Trade Agreement

Letter to United States Trade Representative Robert Portman

Ambassador Robert Portman
United States Trade Representative
Office of the United States Trade Representative
600 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20508

Dear Ambassador Portman:

I am writing regarding a workers’ rights concern that has arisen during the ongoing U.S.-Andean Free Trade Agreement negotiations between the United States, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

It has come to our attention that during these negotiations, the Andean countries have proposed to include the elimination of employment and workplace discrimination on the list of “internationally recognized labor rights” identified in the accord. Parties to the agreement would be required to enforce existing domestic non-discrimination laws if this right were added. The United States has, however, reportedly not accepted this proposal.

We urge you to reconsider this position. We believe that it is wrong and misguided for the United States to resist the efforts of the Andean countries to strengthen non-discrimination provisions in the U.S.-Andean Free Trade Agreement.

As you know, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for strong labor rights provisions in free trade agreements between the United States and its trading partners. We believe, specifically, that trade accords should protect workers’ right to be free from workplace and employment discrimination—one of the four core labor rights identified by the International Labor Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which all ILO members have an obligation to uphold. To this end, we have recommended that trade agreements require that countries’ labor laws adequately protect this right and that countries effectively enforce those laws.

To date, unfortunately, these requirements have not been enshrined in any of the free trade agreements negotiated under the Bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2002. Instead, recent agreements demand only that countries implement existing labor laws, defining “labor laws” as those provisions governing five explicitly enumerated “internationally recognized labor rights.” The elimination of employment and workplace discrimination is not included among those rights. As a result, countries are neither required to ensure that their domestic anti-discrimination laws comply with international standards nor are they required to enforce their existing laws.

Adopting this approach in the U.S.-Andean Free Trade Agreement would allow documented patterns of discrimination in the Andean region to continue. We note, in this regard, that the U.S. Department of State found in its 2004 Country Reports on Human Rights that workplace and employment discrimination are serious problems in the Andean region. The reports identified sexual harassment, in particular, as a pervasive problem in all three countries. The State Department found that in Colombia, “[w]omen faced hiring discrimination, were disproportionately affected by unemployment, and had salaries that were generally incompatible with their education and experience.” In Ecuador, “pay discrimination against women was common” and “women received 65 percent of the pay received by men for equal work.” In Peru, “racial and sexual discrimination in employment advertisements . . . continued to occur.”

Human Rights Watch applauds the Andean countries’ proposal to include language in the U.S.-Andean Free Trade Agreement that would require them to address these problems. If the United States truly seeks to promote labor rights through trade and be a world leader on workers’ human rights, at a minimum it should accept without delay the Andean countries’ proposal to help protect the most vulnerable workers from discrimination.


Arvind Ganesan
Business and Human Rights Program
Human Rights Watch

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