US President George Bush has formally appealed to Congress to give the go-ahead to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to signify the nation's "commitment to democracy and prosperity for the entire Western Hemisphere."

Bush spoke yesterday as his administration prepared to pass legislation to Congress to implement the US trade pact with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic.

"Today, CAFTA presents us with an historic opportunity to advance a free and fair trading system that will bring benefits to all sides", Bush said.

He explained that the deal would secure trade benefits presently experienced by Central American and Dominican Republic exporters, leading to "good jobs and higher labour standards for their workers." 

CAFTA would also mean that consumers in Central America and the Dominican Republic would gain access to lower-priced US goods such as textiles.

Following the President's remarks, US Trade Representative Rob Portman said that CAFTA would benefit American exporters, particularly those in the agricultural and textile sectors. 

However, the agreement - which received preliminary approval from the US House of Representatives earlier this month - has been criticised by a number of US labour groups and textile companies, who are concerned that the deal will damage their business.

CAFTA has also been attacked by Democrats, who say that labour provisions set out in the bill are too weak.