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El Salvador routinely flouts its international law obligations to protect and promote workers’ human rights, in both public and private sectors. Domestic labor legislation falls short of international standards, and the existing laws are not effectively enforced. If abused workers seek legal redress with the Labor Ministry or the labor courts, they have little hope of success. Employers, therefore, fear few, if any, negative consequences for violating their workers’ human rights, and, as a result, labor rights abuses are widespread. It is imperative that this situation be addressed immediately so that workers in El Salvador no longer have to sacrifice their human rights for their paychecks.

To protect and promote workers’ human rights in El Salvador fully, labor laws must be brought up to international norms. Penalties for anti-union discrimination and firings should be strengthened. Requirements for union formation should be amended so as not to impede organizing. And the numerous legal loopholes that employers exploit to circumvent existing freedom of association protections, through tactics such as forced resignations, anti-union suspensions, and blacklisting, should be closed. Social security laws should also be amended to ensure that, when an employer illegally retains workers’ social security payments, the workers do not suffer the consequences through the loss of free health care.

Improved labor laws will mean little in practice if the Labor Ministry fails to develop the political will to enforce them. Labor inspectors should uphold labor legislation through inspections conducted strictly according to legislatively established mandatory procedures. The Labor Directorate should fulfill its legal obligation to facilitate union registration and do so by fairly and objectively administering laws governing union formation. In all cases, the Labor Ministry should refrain from participating, directly or indirectly, in employer labor law violations.

El Salvador’s international law duties require such reform. No additional incentive should be necessary to compel the changes. Nonetheless, CAFTA presents an opportunity to improve respect for workers’ human rights in El Salvador, and throughout the region, by including meaningful consequences, such as fines or sanctions, for failing to uphold labor rights. Importing countries, like the United States, have a responsibility to demand such strong labor rights provisions to protect the rights of workers, such as those in El Salvador, from whose toil their citizens and corporations reap rewards. The United States should not shirk this responsibility by letting this opportunity slip away.

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December 2003