The US is stepping up its efforts to ensure Guatemala enforces its labour laws under a free-trade agreement between the two countries.

It is requesting that an arbitration panel is set up to discuss the "apparent failure by the Government of Guatemala to meet its obligations" under the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), Trade Representative Ron Kirk said yesterday (9 August).

The latest move comes a year after the US requested formal consultations with the Guatemalan government over labour rights violations, and is the first case ever brought under the labour chapter of a trade agreement.

At the time, textile and apparel producers in Guatemala told just-style the dispute would not disrupt the industry or its eligibility for duty-free benefits under a central American free trade pact - and that makers took their commitment to corporate social responsibility "very seriously" and maintained the highest levels of compliance in all production facilities.

Ambassador Kirk now says: "We are sending a strong message that the Obama Administration will act firmly to ensure effective enforcement of labour laws by our trading partners."

"While Guatemala has taken some positive steps, its overall actions and proposals to date have been insufficient to address the apparent systemic failures. 

"We need to see concrete actions to protect the rights of workers as agreed under our trade agreement, and we are prepared to act to obtain enforcement of those rights when and where necessary."

The case focuses on laws related to the right of association, the right of workers to organise and bargain collectively, and acceptable conditions of work.

It is the latest move in a dispute that dates back to 2008, when the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and six Guatemalan worker organisations first made the allegations.

Subsequent reviews by the US confirmed "significant weaknesses" in Guatemala's enforcement of its labour laws, but consultations in Guatemala in September and December 2010 failed to agree on an adequate enforcement plan.

The move also comes as the The US - Colombia Free Trade Agreement continues to stumble over issues relating to labour law and violence against workers.

President Obama is keen for a resolution this year as part of his goal of boosting the US economy by doubling the country's exports by 2014 and creating new jobs.