Trading Labor


Should United Nations bureaucrats in Switzerland tell you how to run your farm?

Of course not. But the International Labor Organization (ILO), a Geneva-based unit of the UN, exists for the purpose of encouraging particular employment policies around the world. Its regulators would be perfectly pleased to set some rules for you–and they just might, if free traders in Washington aren’t careful.

When the new Congress came to power following the 2006 elections, many pundits declared that free-trade deals were immediately kaput. It now appears that the rumors of their death were at least somewhat exaggerated: Although many of the newly elected firmly oppose all trade agreements, no matter how advantageous to the U.S. economy, a few of the new chairmen are receptive to bipartisan negotiation. One of these open-minded congressmen is Charles B. Rangel, the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

For weeks, we’ve heard encouraging news about productive talks between the White House and Rangel–and the possibility that they might lead to approval for one or more of the free-trade agreements now before Congress. Everybody understands that a deal would require the Bush administration to push its trading partners to improve their labor standards.

The Bush administration has already completed beneficial trade pacts with Colombia, Panama, Peru, and South Korea. Congress should give them the up-or-down votes they deserve under the rule of Trade Promotion Authority. And if Congress wanted to expand economic opportunity, majorities would vote yes to each of these pacts as soon as possible.

Given today’s political climate, however, that isn’t realistic. The bottom line is that these are valuable trade agreements–and if congressional approval requires a little extra legislative goosing, then so be it.

Yet it’s possible that good deals can be turned into bad ones, especially if one of these trade agreements becomes a Trojan horse for Big Labor and the ILO.

The United States has the best working conditions in the world. Our labor laws are fully appropriate. But they do not always follow ILO standards.

If one of these trade agreements were to require that both parties abide by ILO standards, then union bosses will have achieved an enormous victory through the backdoor–a victory that they could not have achieved through the normal process of politics.

Former Michigan governor John Engler (now the president of the National Association of Manufacturers) recently made this point in a letter to Rangel: “Our federal and state labor laws contain provisions for health, safety, and good governance, as well as sovereign state choices on subjects like right-to-work laws, and provisions related to public sector employees that are contrary to ILO requirements.”

Many states, for instance, forbid public employees from going on strike. “For state constitutions or laws to be subject to a foreign nation’s challenges would be unacceptable,” says Engler.

The threat to farmers is especially grave. One of the ILO’s major campaigns is against child labor. That’s fine, as long as it concentrates on the worthy cause of keeping little kids from forced labor in dangerous factories.

But will these UN bureaucrats limit themselves to this project? According to one estimate, 70 percent of the world’s child workers are involved in agriculture. The ILO in fact views child labor on farms as a major problem. Its own rulebook “specifies 18 as the minimum age for employment in agriculture in dangerous jobs and 16 for other farm jobs.”

Perhaps that’s a reasonable standard. When it comes to defining “dangerous jobs,” however, I’d trust a North Dakota wheat farmer to make responsible decisions on his own farm rather than a French-speaking regulator who lives across the ocean.

Is it “dangerous” to teach a 16-year-old how to drive a combine? And can 12-year-olds who are going to inherit the family business help out in the barnyard? Or is that an illegal farm job?

Another problem involves migratory labor. If placed under the jurisdiction of the ILO, would migrant workers win new collective bargaining rights?

These may be worst-case nightmares. But don’t assume for a minute that Big Labor’s bosses haven’t dreamed about these possibilities as best-case scenarios.

From Geneva to Washington, they’re counting on our naiveté.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, Chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.

Dean Kleckner

Dean Kleckner

Deceased (1932-2015)

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