Official Addresses CAFTA-Vote Snag; Says More U.S. Funds Could Help Back Central American Labor Laws

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Byline: Jeffrey Sparshott, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Bush administration's top trade official yesterday proposed an infusion of money for Central American countries to better enforce labor laws as the White House tries to sway Democrats to vote for a regional free-trade agreement.

"I do believe this will be helpful ... in getting members to come on board," U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said of a proposed "long-term, sustained commitment" to labor enforcement and monitoring.

Congress is expected to vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement this or next month. The pact would create trade and investment rules for the United States, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Democrats have objected to the labor provisions in the pact, which require countries to enforce their own laws but do not specify rules or standards. Coupled with opposition from lawmakers in sugar-producing states and some districts with textile manufacturing, CAFTA's passage is uncertain.

CAFTA allows a slight increase in sugar imports, and some manufacturers are worried that loopholes would allow foreign fabrics easier access to the U.S. market.

Mr. Portman, speaking yesterday to Hispanic business leaders, acknowledged lax labor law enforcement in the CAFTA nations. He said he would work with Congress, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to organize a donor's conference before the end of July that would identify funding to improve the situation.

Congress appropriated $20 million this year for labor and environment enforcement in the region. Yesterday's proposal would create a new source of funds that would fund labor programs over several years, though Mr. …