(Washington, DC) - The United States should suspend Ecuador's trade benefits due to the country's failure to comply with the labor rights requirements of the Andean Trade Preferences Act, Human Rights Watch said today in a petition filed with the U.S. Trade Representative.
Human Rights Watch called for suspension of Ecuador's trade benefits because of the country's poor record on workers' right to freedom of association and harmful child labor. The Andean Trade Preferences Act requires the president of the United States to consider the extent to which countries protect labor rights before granting them beneficiary status. The United States has yet to rule on Human Rights Watch's petitions in 2003 and 2004, which also called for suspending trade benefits.
"Ecuador continues to fail to take its workers' rights problem seriously," said Carol Pier, labor rights and trade researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Ecuador made impressive promises on workers' rights before receiving expanded U.S. trade benefits in 2002, but since then, it has produced few real results."
Human Rights Watch highlighted key weaknesses in Ecuador's laws on workers' right to freedom of association. Workers illegally fired for union activity have no right to get their jobs back; instead, their employers face only minimal fines. Ecuadorian law does not explicitly ban discrimination against union members in hiring, nor does it clearly state that workers may form industry-wide or sector-wide unions. A minimum of 30 workers is required to form a union in Ecuador, though the International Labor Organization has repeatedly recommended that this number be lowered.
Loopholes in Ecuadorian law also allow employers to impede workers' right to freedom of association through the unlimited use of subcontracted labor to perform normal, everyday work activities. Because subcontracted workers are employed by a third party, they have no guaranteed legal right to organize and collectively bargain with the main business benefiting from their labor. Instead, if they wish to organize their workplace, they generally must form multiple unions (one for each subcontractor) and negotiate multiple times with their subcontractors, who may not ultimately even control their terms of employment. In addition, subcontracted teams often contain fewer than 30 workers, falling short of the minimum needed to unionize.
The executive decree on subcontracting issued late last year, though a positive step, does not come close to resolving this problem. Though it establishes important registration requirements for subcontractors, it fails to include sufficient restrictions and requirements to effectively deter employers from using subcontractors to undermine workers' right to freedom of association. Worse still, Ecuador has twice delayed the date by which subcontractors must register under the decree, extending the deadline a total of 10 months to the end of October.
Employers take advantage of these legal shortcomings and political foot-dragging to violate workers' right to organize by retaliating against workers for engaging in union activity, erecting often insurmountable obstacles to the formation of workers' organizations, and generally creating a climate of fear that largely prevents the exercise of freedom of association in Ecuador.
Human Rights Watch also underscored Ecuador's failure to effectively address its child labor problem. Ecuadorian law requires at least 22 child labor inspectors-one for each province-yet there are currently only 14. These 14 do not have sufficient funds for operating expenses, have received little to no training, lack basic infrastructural and logistical support, have inadequate offices and few computers, and are missing other basic supplies, including vehicles for reaching inspection sites. Those few children removed from child labor as a result of inspections still receive little assistance from the government's poorly funded and badly implemented programs for social protection.
"By sitting on Human Rights Watch's previous petitions, the United States is sending the message that it doesn't take the ATPA's labor rights requirements seriously," said Pier. "It's high time that changed. The United States should suspend Ecuador's trade benefits until there are real, meaningful improvements for workers in the country."