How US ‘Free Trade’ Policies Created the Central American Migration Crisis

How US ‘Free Trade’ Policies Created the Central American Migration Crisis

How US ‘Free Trade’ Policies Created the Central American Migration Crisis

To strengthen corporate dominance, Washington steadily undermined democracy, encouraged exploitation and nourished anti-union violence in the south.


When tens of thousands of Central American migrant children streamed across the US-Mexico border last year, some in this country received them as refugees fleeing violence and poverty; others demonized the “invasion” from the south with bigoted panic. What many overlooked was that these “unaccompanied minors” weren’t just coming in search of new homes—they were actually sent; their migration had been sponsored by some of the biggest corporations in the hemisphere.

A new report from the AFL-CIO examines the migrant influx in the context of global trade programs, tracing the the migration from one key “trading partner,” Honduras, back to the chaos wrought by years of transborder economic exploitation. Labor activists say that as the United States exports misery to the south, “free trade” has plunged a generation of youth into free fall.

While free-trade deals are routinely criticized in the US for promoting the outsourcing of “American jobs,” according to the research of a union-led delegation to Honduras, the trade system is systematically undermining democracy in the Latin American nations Washington has sought to control for decades through commercial exploitation and political coercion.

Honduras presents a case study in how the regime of free trade steels the corporate dominion that is both cause and effect of Latin America’s violence and oppression. One major factor is the 2009 coup that ousted the populist Zelaya government—a right-wing plot clandestinely supported by the Obama administration—and ushered in a wave of regressive economic policies in rural and industrial sectors and intensified corruption.

…since the 2009 coup, the ruling governments have failed to respect worker and human rights or create decent work, and instead have built a repressive security apparatus to put down dissent. Numerous trade unionists and community activists who participated in resistance to the coup were killed, beaten, threatened and jailed.

While many factors have contributed to this instability, according to the report, exploitative trade has helped embolden the government’s impunity, in turn driving the brutality and displacement that sends countless families to seek refuge in the north. The current crises facing Honduran society emanate from direct political suppression as well as the economic turmoil under the massive Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).

CAFTA-DR was sold to lawmakers as a boon for US trade with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. And indeed, bilateral trade has boomed in recent years. But the cost is outsourced to workers tethered to the neoliberal export-economy model, in which multinationals have systematically weakened trade and regulatory protections. So far, the free market has allowed an estimated 70 percent of employers to violate minimum-wage and overtime standards. Meanwhile, the pauperization of Honduras’s rural sector has led to widespread displacement of small farmers.

Much of this chaos has been methodically enforced by state terror. According to the delegation’s research, “workers and community leaders spoke not only about the extreme levels of corruption, but also the increased militarization of the country, and widespread corruption among security forces.” Meanwhile, US aid for “security purposes” reached about $27 million in 2012—another typical export of Washington to the “neighbors” in the south whom Washington seeks to patrol quietly in order to maintain regional “stability.”

While labor has always struggled with anti-union violence and other attacks of civil society, the AFL-CIO reports that the new trade rules that were supposed to stabilize labor relations have only enabled more attacks, and government-backed forces are associated with anti-union oppression. Along with retaliatory firings, intimidation and violence, local labor activists told the research delegation that working conditions had declined as powerful companies have brought exploitative temporary labor schemes, child labor and discriminatory employment policies.

Although CAFTA-DR was supposed to provide a grievance mechanism for unions to raise complaints about labor conditions, activists say the trade deal has only institutionalized impunity. A complaint filed by the AFL-CIO and several local unions has been stalled since 2012—an unconscionable delay in light of the relatively efficient process that CAFTA-DR and other trade deals provide for multinationals to sue to ease trade barriers. So workers’ rights go unenforced while supranational “investor-state” tribunals allow litigation to defend “future profits.”

The mechanisms for labor complaints remain ineffective in that they “completely depend on the political will to enforce them,” according to AFL-CIO Global Worker Rights Coordinator Brian Finnegan. So in many embattled rural and industrial workplaces,

Unions and workers feel that violence whether they are trying to organize a garment maquila in San Pedro Sula, defend public education and the budgets that make it (barely) possible, or to organize rural workers to keep lands they have long held or take collective action as hired labor in a union in export-led agribusiness. Just as Mexican rural workers left farms after [the Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement] and went to Mexican cities and the US, we are seeing it in Honduras.

Unions and civil society could be supported in efforts to rehabilitate the country if Washington applied concrete pressure for government accountability on labor and human rights abuses. And in the long term, according to Finnegan, “we need to insist the US government use the labor provisions in trade agreements—as weak as they are—to make Honduras enforce its laws.”

Until that happens, the United States will continue to receive the human collateral damage fanning out of this devastated corner of Central America. Washington could help alleviate the damage by aiding refugees fleeing to the US—by granting asylum to as many as possible and halting deportations. But the root problems demand cooperative action across borders, from labor solidarity to bilateral accountability.

Unions have successfully organized in some instances, such as a flagship unionized Fruit of the Loom factory. Too often, however, free trade forces workers to trade their safety for their labor rights. Leaders of the agricultural union FESTAGRO reported “fear that union activists would suffer an increase in violent attacks and threats against their lives as the union seeks to organize sugar cane workers.”

Negotiations are now underway for a much larger trade deal—the Trans Pacific Partnership that would link twelve Pacific Rim nations—and Congress will debate whether this will help or hurt American workers. But with the CAFTA-DR, the deepest pain is inevitably borne by our “neighbors” to the south—the ones we ignore first as the free market shackles their democracy, and ignore again when their children show up at our doorstep.

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