The Obama administration has taken some nice first steps toward a more worker-friendly vision of global trade. New free trade agreements pushed by the Bush Administration, such as those with Colombia and South Korea, are apparently getting some deep re-thinking – or at least, being put on the back burner while the new Administration sorts out climate change, health care and domestic trade union rights. And refreshingly, on July 16, the new United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced a more proactive strategy to enforce labor provisions in existing free trade agreements. Here’s what’s new under the sun.
First, a bit of explanation about what he’s talking about. Existing free trade agreements from NAFTA on through the most recent deals require our trade partners- at least on paper- to enforce their labor laws and to try to live up to international labor standards. So what’s so striking about USTR Kirk saying that the Administration wants to make sure existing language in our trade deals is enforced?
In truth, no prior administration has ever sought to actually take the initiative when it comes to these provisions. Instead, we have assumed that of course all our trade partners are enforcing labor rights protections- except when someone points out they aren’t. In other words, enforcement of these provisions has been carried out largely on a complaint-driven basis. This model can’t really work, as the people who are most affected- the most exploited workers in the countries with which we trade- just don’t have practical means to access the mechanisms that have been set up for filing complaints. Thus, not surprisingly, very few complaints get filed, no matter how many abuses actually occur. Even when complaints do get filed- for instance, my organization, ILRF, filed about a dozen cases on behalf of Mexican workers in the early years of NAFTA- those cases take years to resolve, and workers see little return for the effort of engaging in the process.
But there is no downside to the US Trade Representative taking a new look at how we enforce these deals- and, we hope, finding a better way to do it. Real enforcement of the labor provisions in trade deals would be a win-win for both US workers and workers overseas. Promoting policies that protect workers in other countries makes good sense for the US, economically. Creating decent and sustainable jobs that raise developing country workers into the middle class is a win-win for workers and businesses, as it expands markets for US and global products. That has long been the main moral argument for more global trade- although few have cared to deal with the ugly reality that many workers in export industries in these countries have been getting sweatshop jobs, not decent jobs, and have not been able, in their lifetimes, to afford the goods they are producing.
Poor working conditions in developing nations not only strip laborers in those countries of their rights, but also create unfair competition in the global labor market. This global "race to the bottom" leads to degradation of conditions, to the increase in ‘sweatshop jobs,’ here at home. We need to bring up the bottom for everyone.
It’s great that USTR Kirk wants to hold trading partners accountable for labor rights, and would be even better if the new Administration sought ways to hold investors- the multinational companies that chase cheap labor around the globe- accountable as well. This would get us past the current ‘free trade’ model to one of what we might call fair trade. For example, we should be supporting terms of trade requiring that investors who benefit from trade deals agree to a floor of decent wages and working conditions that ultimately enable workers to lift themselves out of poverty, and should reward governments that institute laws and policies to regulate ‘footloose’ investors and require companies to make long-term commitments to investments- and their workforce- in developing countries. This is in all of our long term interests.
Bama Athreya is the Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum.