White House Defends Record on Using Trade Policy to Promote Labor Rights
The Obama administration continued its offensive on trade policy this week by releasing a report highlighting its efforts to promote and protect labor rights in connection with trade liberalization agreements. The report addresses one of the most frequently raised objections to such pacts – that they encourage the transfer of manufacturing jobs and operations to locales with lower labor standards – as part of an effort to generate support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement expected to be concluded and possibly moved through Congress later this year.
The joint report from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Labor asserts that the Obama administration is “taking unprecedented actions to use our trade policy to promote and protect fundamental labor rights and ensure acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, maximum hours of work, and occupational safety and health.” Some of these actions that are currently underway include the following.
- the first-ever labor case brought under a free trade agreement, filed against Guatemala under CAFTA-DR for failure to effectively enforce labor laws relating to the right of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and acceptable conditions of work (the U.S. filed in November 2014 a 70-page brief detailing more than 400 alleged violations)
- sustained constructive engagement with Colombia on implementation of the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights, which was initialed in 2011 to address longstanding concerns relating to violence against labor leaders, impunity for such acts and labor rights (an April 2014 report on progress under this plan revealed mixed results)
- an initiative to promote fundamental labor rights and practices in Burma, which aims to establish a partnership to advance labor rights and protections for workers
- leveraging relevant trade benefits programs in Bangladesh (GSP), Swaziland (AGOA) and Haiti (HOPE) to address a range of serious labor problems, including lack of worker voice, building and fire safety concerns, acts of violence and intimidation toward union organizers, and employment-related sexual harassment
- formal consultations under the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement to address concerns related to the targeting of union leaders in the events surrounding the 2011 Arab Spring civil unrest in Bahrain
- an implementation plan related to working and living conditions of workers that is helping to address concerns about worker rights and working conditions in Jordan’s garment sector, particularly with respect to foreign workers; e.g., new standards for dormitory inspections have been issued, new labor inspectors have been hired and new labor legislation has been submitted to the country’s parliament
Further, the report states, the TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union would “establish the strongest trade agreement labor protections in history for nearly two-thirds of the global economy.” At a minimum, partner countries will have to adopt and maintain in their laws and practices the fundamental labor rights stated in the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The U.S. is also seeking first-ever protections relating to importing goods made with forced labor, adopting laws on acceptable conditions of work and upholding labor standards in export processing zones, and the agreements’ labor provisions would be subject to full dispute settlement and the full range of trade sanctions. This would be “fundamentally different” from NAFTA, the report notes, where “labor provisions were in a side agreement and lacked a full enforcement mechanism.”