Protecting Workers in a Global Economy Chile, Next in Line for NAFTA Membership, May Prove a Test Case for International Labor Rights

Article excerpt

Lilian Rodriguez, Chilean seamstress, has a message for Richard Gephardt, US Democratic congressman: Don't give up the international battle for labor rights.

As the United States continues to haggle over whether labor and environmental issues should be part of future international free- trade agreements, particular attention is falling on Chile.

One reason is that Chile stands next in line to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States, Canada, and Mexico. NAFTA includes both labor and environment sections. Even though some analysts consider those provisions weak, many free-trade advocates oppose including them in future trade accords. But the focus on Chile is also because the labor laws of this toothbrush-shaped country on South America's Pacific coast are themselves controversial. For some observers, labor legislation here, inspired by the antiunion sentiments of Chile's military dictatorship, which ended in 1990, remains the weakest in South America. The result has been long workdays, weak collective-bargaining power, and little worker protection in Chile, critics say. But others say labor law - "rebalanced" after the 1973 coup from an entrenched pro-labor tilt - has played a central role in the "miracle" that has given Chile a decade of record economic growth and poverty reduction. And, they say, it stands up well against US labor law. After President Clinton traveled to Santiago, Chile, last month to talk with hemispheric leaders, Representative Gephardt, a champion of labor rights, said he didn't like what he heard. Faulting the absence of a commitment to give labor issues equal weight in trade talks with business concerns, the Missouri Democrat said trade accords without protections for laborers would continue to earn his thumbs-down. Gephardt was the engine behind opposition that derailed the Clinton administration's push for "fast track" trade negotiating authority last year. If the future is indeed in a global economy, Gephardt told a recent AFL-CIO convention in Washington, "then the workers of Brazil, Mexico, or Argentina should have the same rights as American workers." Such talk is music to Ms. Rodriguez's ears. The hand-finishing worker at a small knitted-goods workshop in Santiago says that if the sweaters she makes from Korean yarn for Asian investors are to be sold in markets around the world, then her labor rights should be an international issue as well. "Workers should have some basic rights," she says, "and then you can go on to free-trade agreements." In Chile, collective bargaining by industry - textile workers, miners, carpenters - is prohibited. All negotiations are limited to the individual company. And unions are generally allowed only in companies of 25 workers or more. So businesses often split into small companies to avoid collective bargaining, leaving workers on their own. At boss's mercy Legal strikes are limited to a small window of time during contract negotiations. Seasonal workers, particularly on Chile's extensive fruit and vegetable farms, are not protected under collective-bargaining rights. Firing employees is at the employer's discretion. "We went from one of the more protective labor laws {before the coup} to one of the most flexible," says Hugo Yaes, a lawyer with the Labor Ministry's research department. …