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Labor Rights Are Not Optional

The U.S. should not enforce labor laws only for people living within its borders, which is what the Bush Administration has been doing to save money. Will the new Congress correct these costly mistakes?
 
 
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Some 230 years ago, King George III taught the American colonists an important lesson: Because taxation without representation is tyranny, the public must have a voice in the making of trade policy. The new Congress should keep that lesson in mind as it attempts to devise trade strategies to promote labor rights (and other human rights) overseas. In the 21st century, policymakers should not limit the concerned public to those individuals living within U.S. borders.

The U.S. has long tried to link labor rights and trade. Under the most recent legislation authorizing the president to negotiate new trade agreements (the Trade Promotion Act of 2002) Congress required the executive branch to negotiate trade agreements that promote respect for workers rights. In hearings on the legislation, proponents argued that by linking trade to labor standards, workers overseas could organize, demand higher wages and better working conditions and ultimately, compete with American workers on expertise, quality and productivity.

But so far, this objective has not been matched by reality. Bush administration officials were not keen to press America's trade partners too hard on labor rights; they interpreted these provisions to require our trade partners to enforce their own labor laws. These policymakers did not demand that countries such as Oman or Peru revise their labor laws to meet internationally accepted labor standards before negotiating with the U.S. on a free trade agreement. Instead, they relied on the threat of a potential trade dispute to motivate these countries to make labor rights enforcement a priority. Initially, the Bush administration promised to provide considerable funds to help America's free trade partners enforce their labor laws and improve workplace conditions. Faced with other priorities, though, the administration has drastically reduced these funds.

Not surprisingly, many Democrats and labor rights proponents are strongly critical of how Bush administration policymakers have linked labor rights and trade. Although wages and working conditions have improved in some U.S. free trade partners, workers have not always benefited from these labor rights provisions. They argue that a one-size-fits-all approach won't actually improve workplace conditions in all countries. Thus, these members want future trade agreements to ensure that America's trade agreement partners bring their labor laws to internationally accepted standards, and subject the enforcement of such laws to binding dispute settlement.

But the Democratic alternative and the current Bush administration approach do little to bolster the demand in developing countries for strong labor protections. Neither approach facilitates the ability of citizens in our trade partners to participate in and monitor labor rights enforcement. In countries such as Oman, a U.S. free trade partner, workers cannot easily influence their government or obtain due process in administrative procedures. In addition, some of America's free trade agreement partners do not provide their citizens with full information about their labor rights under the law. As a result, it is difficult for activists to monitor their government and hold it accountable.

Labor rights advocates should take a page from the environmental chapters of several recent free trade agreements. In 2004, Democratic Senator Max Baucus pressed U.S. trade policymakers to strengthen public participation provisions and embed them in every future trade agreement.

The Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) is the first trade agreement built on Baucus' suggestions. It includes both a mechanism and secretariat that allows citizens from any one of the seven signatory nations to challenge enforcement of environmental laws. Moreover, the trade agreement requires policymakers to respond to these complaints. To ensure the viability of this model, the United States agreed to fund the first year of the secretariat's work. In addition to setting up a complaint mechanism, trade and/or environmental ministries in each of the CAFTA countries reached out to their constituents on the environmental chapters. They held hearings, called for public comments, and published their new regulations on the web and in print. Each environment ministry developed a website on environmental activities and outreach. USTR has agreed to replicate this model in other free trade agreements with Colombia and Peru.

But these citizen submission strategies should not be limited to the environmental chapters of free trade agreements. The U.S. government should adopt a similar approach in the labor chapters as well. As the Democrats have promised, the U.S. first should ask its trade partners to ensure that their labor laws meet internationally accepted labor standards before negotiating a trade agreement. In addition, policymakers should also include provisions that ensure public comment on labor law development and or enforcement; allow citizens to petition their government regarding labor law violations; and set up a complaint and hearing process related to labor rights. By so doing, the U.S. would be strengthening local labor movements as well as expanding grassroots pressure for democratic accountability.

America's founding fathers recognized that democracy and good governance could not flourish if the public did not participate in decision making. In the long run, good governance, like democracy, can't be exported. But the U.S. can use trade policy to help workers abroad influence and monitor labor rights in their home countries.

Susan Ariel Aaronson teaches at George Washington University and is the author (with Jamie Zimmerman) of Righting Trade: Public Policies at the Intersection of Trade and Human Rights (Cambridge: 2007).

 
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