Helping Labor Through Trade
By Robert B.
Monday, April 19, 2004
(Copyright © 2004 The Washington
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
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
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
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.