By WfP Nicaragua Team

“What I would like and what I hope for (my country) is that in every Free Trade Zone there be a union and that workers would not be mistreated and would be paid a just salary. But that can’t be so one has to continue working like always because that can’t be.” -Free Trade Zone Worker, Nicaragua 

This quote comes from a meeting between a Witness for Peace delegation and a Nicaraguan Free Trade Zone worker, recorded (with interpretation). The delegation came to Nicaragua to learn about the Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) and how it has affected the lives of our Nicaraguan partners. The speaker shared with the group the challenges she has faced working for many years in the Free Trade Zone textile factories that CAFTA helped to propagate. When she began working, she suffered a lot of verbal abuse at her job. She had bosses who screamed and threw things at her. She was obligated to work overtime and didn’t receive adequate medical care or sick leave. 

The most recent factory she worked at was quite different. Despite the owner’s attempts to fire workers who were trying to form a union, workers were successful in gathering enough signatures so that is the factory had to recognize them. The union has made big changes in the factory. Our speaker had access to a medical clinic, better safety equipment, and a subsidy for food and transportation; she was not required to work overtime; and, most importantly, had someone to go to if she had any kind of problem.

Working in a factory with a union, she told the group, is not common in her region. Anyone who is found organizing a union will be fired and added to a list shared among all of the Free Trade Zones of people not to hire. Even her daughter who saw the benefits the unionized factory brought her mother is afraid to sign demands for a union in her factory for fear of getting caught. She needs the job.

Nicaragua is supposedly a CAFTA success story. Its GDP is rising steadily and the enforcement of the labor section of CAFTA has been celebrated. When talking to workers, however, we often hear a different story. Many of the workers, often single mothers, are grateful for the jobs created by these factories. The unfortunate truth is that in a development model such as that of CAFTA, where those at the negotiating table are the most powerful corporations, profits are given more value than just salaries and healthy work environments.

Witness for Peace has seen similar situations play out in the other countries in which we work. Since the signing of the bilateral trade agreement with Colombia, violence against union workers has increased making Colombia one of the most dangerous countries in the world for a union member. Mexican workers have seen a decrease in real wages since the signing of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.)

Today negotiations are happening behind closed doors for the biggest free trade agreement yet. The Transpacific Partnership (TPP) will include 12 nations and the consequences will be catastrophic for workers across the globe. We know what Free Trade Agreements have done to workers. While corporate profit trumps workers rights, these agreements will not benefit workers. Take action to demand that the TPP come out from behind from closed doors, and that workers have a seat at the negotiating table. Audio from the “Labor Radio” program from KBOO Radio in Portland.