A Huge Victory for Labor, or a Total Sellout…or…? by mattsteinglass
May 12, 2007, 11:32 am
Filed under: Trade, United States

The big news yesterday was that Democrats in Congress had reached an agreement with the Bush administration to include labor and environmental standards in future international trade pacts. At least, that’s the way the NY Times reported it.

The unusual agreement, which came after weeks of negotiations, would guarantee workers the right to organize, ban child labor and prohibit forced labor in trading-partner countries. It would also require trading partners to enforce environmental laws already on their books and comply with several international environmental agreements.

The AP, however, noted that the US Chamber of Commerce’s Tom Donohue had a somewhat different take:

“…we are encouraged by assurances that the labor provisions cannot be read to require compliance with ILO Conventions.”

As Nathan Newman notes on TPMCafe, he’s talking about forcing the United States to comply with ILO Conventions — which current US labor law and practice violate in various ways.

Good for labor? Bad for labor? What’s up? I talked to business-community US-Vietnam sources yesterday. They said that their understanding is the deal will basically reinsert Clinton Administration-era language in free trade deals which makes them contingent on other countries observing their own labor and environmental laws, and that there don’t seem to be sanctions attached in case of violations. They’re confident nothing much is going to change.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that US legislation can’t do much to change labor and environmental policy and practice in sovereign countries like Vietnam and China, which pursue their own interests very strongly. I don’t believe this is the case. It is manifestly not the case in enforcing food-safety regulations in export agricultural sectors, for example; US- and EU-mandated food safety requirements are changing the face of the Vietnamese seafood farming industry for the better. And corporate codes of conduct mandated by companies like Nike and Timberland have had powerful effects in reshaping labor practices at Vietnamese shoe factories. Meanwhile, China is now considering revisions to its labor law which are so pro-labor that they’re opposed by US business lobbyists. The danger with making an agreement with the Bush Administration on how to write labor and environmental standards into free trade pacts is that it will set a loose standard which may prove impossible to better under subsequent administrations. So it’s critical that organized labor start pressuring Congress, right now, to make sure the language that gets included in FTAs with South Korea and so on is as aggressive as possible. It’s silly to settle for a bad compromise with an increasingly powerless lame-duck administration, when you could get a better deal if you just wait for the next guy.

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