The Labor Department worked for more than a year to maintain secrecy for studies that were critical of working conditions in Central America, the region the Bush administration wants in a new trade pact.
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The contractor hired by the department in 2002 to conduct the studies has become a major opponent of the administration's proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA.
The government-paid studies concluded that countries proposed for free-trade status have poor working environments and fail to protect workers' rights. The department dismissed the conclusions as inaccurate and biased, according to government and contractor documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
Senate Finance Committee, which approved the agreement by a voice vote Wednesday, sent it to the full Senate for consideration this week or after the Independence Day recess.
The contractor is the International Labor Rights Fund.
In a summary of its findings, the organization wrote, "In practice, labor laws on the books in Central America are not sufficient to deter employers from violations, as actual sanctions for violations of the law are weak or nonexistent."...
Behind the scenes, the Labor Department began as early as spring 2004 to block public release of the country-by-country reports.
The department instructed its contractor to remove the reports from its Web site, ordered it to retrieve paper copies before they became public, banned release of new information from the reports, and even told the contractor it could not discuss the studies with outsiders.
The department has now worked out a deal with the contractor to make the reports public, provided there is no mention of the federal agency or government funding.
At the same time, the administration began a pre-emptive campaign to undercut the study's conclusions.
Used as talking points by trade-pact supporters, a Labor Department document accuses the contractor of writing a report filled with "unsubstantiated" statements and "biased attacks, not the facts."
The contractor's deputy director, Bama Athreya, blamed U.S. Trade Representative officials for circulating the document and citing passages that won't be included in the final versions of the reports.
One lawmaker said he was shocked that a federal agency charged with protecting the rights of Americans workers would go to such lengths to block the public from seeing its own contractor's concerns before Congress votes on the agreement.
"You would think if any agency in our government would care about this, it would be the Labor Department," Sen. Byron Dorgan (news, bio, voting record), D-N.D., said....