Labor Enforcement Will Get Tougher on Trade Agreements

By Steve LeVine
July 16, 2009

The United States will preemptively investigate possible labor law violations in 14 countries with which it has signed bilateral trade agreements in the last eight years, said United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a July 16 speech to Pittsburgh steelworkers. The Obama administration is changing prior practice, in which the U.S. has examined labor practices in the countries only when complaints have been made, he said.

”We will immediately identify and investigate labor violations before they can disadvantage American workers,” Kirk said in remarks distributed by his office. “Together, we will engage governments of countries that violate the rules, to restore workers’ rights quickly. If those governments can’t seem to fix their labor problems, we will help them find a way. And if they won’t fix their labor problems, we will exercise our legal options.”

The tough tenor of the remarks contrasted with speeches earlier in Kirk’s short tenure in which he expressed confidence that the administration would soon submit for congressional approval three proposed trade agreements left over from the George W. Bush administration – with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. In part, Kirk’s remarks appear to reflect a reality in which, unless the administration can demonstrate that it is serious about enforcing existing trade agreements, there appears to be little chance of getting those proposed pacts through a Democratic majority in Congress that is relatively skeptical of free trade agreements signed during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

“To date, we have enforced our trading partners’ labor obligations only on a complaint-driven basis. Well, no longer,” Kirk said.

The speech was received generally well by industry lobbyists, who praised Kirk while urging that he still push ahead with trying to reshape the Bush-era agreements so they can pass Congress.

In a statement, the National Association of Manufacturers lauded Kirk’s emphasis on enforcement, but pushed for a renewed effort on the agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. “We can’t enforce agreements until we have them — and we want more of these great agreements so American companies get a fairer deal in world trade and create more jobs at home,” the group said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reacted similarly, but also noted that the U.S. itself recently appeared to violate an agreement with Mexico by restricting truck traffic into the U.S. “Enforcement cuts both ways,” the Chamber said in a statement. “The United States has not always lived up to its own commitments under trade agreements. … Retaliatory tariffs have already cost thousands of American jobs. Keeping our own trade commitments gives us credibility when we call on others to keep their own.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio and a leading trade skeptic, said that Kirk should not treat stronger enforcement as “a new direction in trade policy.” He said that labor isn’t opposed to fresh trade agreements as much as it wants “President Obama to negotiate new and better trade deals.”

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