USTR - Helping Labor Through Trade
Office of the United States Trade Representative


Helping Labor Through Trade
Helping Labor Through Trade
By Robert B. Zoellick

Monday, April 19, 2004

Washington Post
Page A19
(Copyright © 2004 The Washington Post Company)

By now the ritual has become familiar. The Bush administration concludes a new free-trade agreement that wins broad support from nearly every sector of the American economy. The pact includes labor and environmental standards and enforcement provisions that far surpass those in other countries' trade agreements. Manufacturers hail the trade accord because it will support well-paid American jobs and spur U.S. exports to an important foreign market. Nevertheless, labor unions condemn the agreement and urge Congress to reject it, claiming that the trading partner lacks adequate labor laws.

Recently this scenario played out again, but in this case the trade agreement was not with a struggling democracy in Latin America, the Middle East or Africa. This time, the alleged villain on workers' rights was, incredibly enough, Australia. Now, this is a country that ranks ahead of the United States and behind only Norway, Iceland and Sweden on the U.N. Human Development Index, a broad measure of social and economic welfare.

This episode revealed the agenda of all too many of those who use foreign labor standards as an excuse to oppose trade. If the United States cannot have free trade with a high-wage, developed country such as Australia, with whom can we trade? In fact, were we to adopt the standards of the economic isolationists, it's not clear we could even have interstate commerce, let alone trade with any foreign country.

Their argument against trade with developing countries is circular: We should not open markets reciprocally with poor countries that have working conditions unlike ours, even though that trade will help overcome poverty and improve working conditions. The reality is that we can do more to improve labor and environmental conditions by promoting trade and economic growth than by isolating poor countries from the global economy.

Some say they support trade, but only if our free-trade agreements include labor and environmental provisions. Then they dismiss the fact that the Bush administration is accomplishing just that. With bipartisan guidance received from Congress in the Trade Act of 2002, the United States has a three-part strategy that is producing measurable improvements in labor rights and environmental protection.

First, partners in our free-trade agreements must commit to effectively enforce their labor and environmental laws. This requirement is backed by an innovative process to review disputes and impose fines on countries that fail to abide by their obligations. The fines are not just penalties: Funds are to be channeled back into fixing labor or environmental problems. The United States is the only country pushing for these kinds of enforceable trade provisions.

Second, we work with countries to upgrade labor and environmental laws and practices. During our free-trade negotiations, Chile reformed its Pinochet-era labor code to conform with international norms. As we negotiated a free-trade agreement with Morocco, the government revamped its labor code and passed laws to combat air pollution and strengthen environmental regulation. During negotiations on the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Guatemala markedly improved the application of its labor laws in export processing zones, including combating violence against trade unionists. CAFTA also establishes an independent process through which citizens can raise concerns about environmental issues, helping to build civil societies in developing countries.

Third, we are tackling actual enforcement problems. A recent report from the International Labor Organization found that Central American labor laws are generally in line with international standards. But the best of laws will not help if a poor country lacks the political will or, as is more common, the resources to enforce them.

The best way to help developing countries enforce good labor and environmental laws is through a cooperative effort that becomes endemic. During our trade negotiations, we urge governments to match intentions with resources. El Salvador, for example, expanded its labor enforcement budget by 20 percent and added 50 percent more labor inspectors. But our poorer trade partners need help, so the United States is combining foreign aid with assistance from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), multilateral development banks and U.S. businesses. Multimillion-dollar projects in Morocco are combating child labor and expanding education opportunities for children. A similar effort in Central America will educate workers about their legal rights and promote ways to resolve labor disputes. We are teaming with the business community and NGOs to improve monitoring of labor standards in garment factories, to train customs officials to intercept shipments of endangered-species products and to promote organic agriculture programs.

U.S. trade agreements reflect American values. The Bush administration's trade policy promotes economic growth at home and abroad, while improving labor and environmental conditions overseas. We cannot bow to the dictates of economic isolationists, whose Sisyphean changing goals only convince poor countries that our concern for labor and the environment is a pretext to shut them out of the American market. To continue producing results that improve lives at home and abroad, we need to extend not a clenched fist but a helping hand.

The writer is the U.S. trade representative.

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