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Making Trade Work for Workers

By U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez  and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.

Work connects us. Today, because of international trade and globalization, we can draw direct lines between ourselves and workers in every corner of the world. We are connected not only because the goods we purchase may come from the other side of the globe, but because as working people, we all share the same aspirations: a decent living, safe and healthy workplaces where workers’ rights are respected, and a fair share in growing prosperity.

That’s why, as detailed in Standing Up for Workers: Promoting Labor Rights through Trade, released jointly today by the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Trade Representative, 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. The benefits of trade for the global economy are vast, but it takes strong leadership and sustained effort to ensure that these benefits are broadly shared and support a growing and vibrant middle class around the world and here at home.

The United States has a variety of trade mechanisms at its disposal to promote labor rights around the world, and they are being used to an unprecedented extent. The Department of Labor and USTR are in the vanguard of this effort, along with our partners in other U.S. agencies and in coordination with the International Labor Organization and civil society partners. Some of the initiatives underway that are outlined in the report include:

  • The first-ever labor case brought under a free trade agreement, filed against Guatemala under the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement 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.
  • Sustained constructive engagement with Colombia on implementation of the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights, initialed in 2011 to address longstanding concerns relating to violence against labor leaders, impunity for such acts, and labor rights.
  • An Initiative to Promote Fundamental Labor Rights and Practices in Myanmar, which aims to establish a partnership to advance labor rights and protections for workers as Burma enters a pivotal stage of its political and economic development.
  • Leveraging relevant trade benefits programs in Bangladesh, Swaziland, and Haiti to address a range of serious labor problems, including lack of worker voice, building and fire safety concerns, acts of violence and intimidation towards union organizers, and employment-related sexual harassment.
  • Formal consultations under the United States-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement to address concerns related to 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.

Finally, we are moving to establish the strongest trade agreement labor protections in history for nearly two-thirds of the global economy under the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As a starting point, these agreements must include the groundbreaking provisions from the “May 10, 2007” bipartisan Congressional-Executive Agreement, including that countries “adopt and maintain” in their laws and practices the fundamental labor rights as stated in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

That wasn’t always the case. Two decades ago, when the United States entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, labor provisions were in a side agreement and lacked a full enforcement mechanism.

Today, the Obama administration is taking a different approach and laying the foundation for an international trading system that defends the dignity of workers. And we are committed to redoubling our efforts to ensure compliance with our trade agreement’s labor provisions, responding more quickly to address labor concerns and making our agreements an even more effective tool for raising and resolving labor problems.  We are proud that President Obama is a leading architect of that future, and we are committed to ensuring that our trade partnerships work for workers at home and around the world.


To read the report "Standing Up for Workers: Promoting Labor Rights through Trade", please click here.