Vol. XII, Bulletin No. 3                                               March 1, 2007
Congress at Decisive Point on Trade Policy

No matter that the UN International Labor Organization charges Colombia with having a bad set of labor laws.  No matter that, year after year,  more union leaders and activists get assassinated in Colombia than in any other country in the world.  No matter that a major supply of illegal drugs to the United States comes from Colombia.   No matter that cut-flowers, another major Colombia export to the United States, are produced in sweatshops.

Now the Bush White House wants Congress to approve a free trade and investment agreement with that violence-plagued and semi-free country.  To the applause of business groups in both countries, and over the strong objections of labor groups in both countries, Bush signed the proposal last November.

Congress is now faced with the choice of making a quick decision -- yes or no, without any amendments -- on approving the Bush trade agreement not only with Colombia but also with two other Latin American countries, Panama and Peru.  Odds are that the House of Representatives, reflecting the majority opinion of voters in last November's elections, will say no. But pressures to say yes are enormous. 

Not the least of pressures is the one exerted on Presidential candidates in the Senate soliciting unprecedented millions in campaign contributions from corporate leaders who want to retain the worker-hostile trade and investment system that has made them fabulously rich.

Another Pressure, This One To Endorse President's Trade Power

At the same time, President Bush is also pressing Congress to renew the President's Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which expires on June 30.  It's the law that was called "fast track" until its supporters realized that the label exposed the hurry-up procedures that Congress is being asked to impose on itself.  But thank God, the vote on "fast track" (sorry, TPA) itself will not be hobbled by a rush-rush, yes-or-no, sorry-no-amendments-allowed procedure.  Nor are committee hearings and floor debate restricted. 

So, still smarting from succumbing to the Bush administration's pressure for quick approval to launch the Iraq war, many Senators and Representatives are in no hurry to continue delegating to the President the power Congress has under the Constitution to regulate commerce.  Yet the Administration and its supporters keep marshaling argument after argument. 

Among the new ones is this: Congress urgently needs to pass TPA now to come to the rescue of the World Trade Organization's Doha multilateral trade round, which collapsed amid serious disagreements last July.

Must the U.S. Rush To Save the WTO's Doha Round?

But does Doha require rescue?  In the opinion of at least one noted economist, Dani Rodrik of Harvard's School of Government, a Doha failure "would hardly be a disaster." He finds that World Bank and WTO officials have "hugely inflated claims about the benefits that the Doha round would bring,...but look closer at those claims, and you will find that they are built on a house of cards."  Robust trade will continue, because "the world economy is more open today than it has ever been, and will remain so even if the Doha talks collapse." 

He explained his position in detail after a November 2005 WTO summit in Hong Kong produced no significant results.  He then reconfirmed those views briefly in a January 30 New York Times article by Times reporter Louis Uchitelle.  He told Uchitelle that the movement of goods, service, capital, and production across borders is "open enough as it is," and that this is not the moment to lower trade barriers another notch.  Why not?  Because, Rodrik said, it is time to concentrate on improving domestic social policies, which with free trade make up "two sides of the same coin."

In any case, with Iraq, immigration, and so much else on its platter, Congress should take the needed time to reach a sensible consensus on dealing with the complex Doha issues. Unless, that is, Congress has such high confidence in the performance of President Bush and his trade team that it gives them a hasty carte blanche.

Corporations Push Bush Trade Policy

The line-up of corporate power is staggering. The National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other institutions of U.S. business are conducting an all-out lobbying campaign to have Congress stay the course on the Bush administration's failed international trade and investment policy.  Not all businesses have the same view on trade liberalization.  

Take Levi Strauss & Co., which in support of its pioneering code of labor conduct, has a public policy statement on "progressive trade liberalization."  The key parts of that statement:

    “We firmly believe that labor provisions – including key workplace standards and worker rights provisions, with effective enforcement measures – should be an integral part of all bilateral, regional, or multilateral trade negotiations to protect worker rights in an environment of increasing globalization.  We are a leader in publicly and effectively advocating this position and have been doing so since 2000.

    “We are resolute in our commitment that future trade agreements must include strong language on labor protection at their core.  These protections should include effective measures and processes to ensure compliance – including recourse under the World Trade Organization dispute settlement proceedings if necessary – to enforce them.”

In my article, "Corporate Social Responsibility: a Fledgling Movement Faces a Crucial Test," in Dissent magazine's winter issue, I quote  Levi Strauss' policy and hold it up as a model for Nike and other corporations.  There's been no sign that any followed Levi Strauss' lead.

Levi Strauss also has a good statement, "Advancing Our Corporate Values," about the company's work in "social and public policy advocacy."  So far there is no public sign, in the current Congressional public debate on trade liberalization, that Levi Strauss has given voice to its progressive views.

A very rare business organization registering a strong dissent against the Administration's trade agenda is the U.S. Business and Industry Council, which represents mainly small and medium-sized manufacturers resisting the corporate exodus to foreign lands.

Thank God for the WTO's Small Favors

It is nearly nine years late, but the World Trade Organization has finally started to follow the advice that President Bill Clinton offered at a 1998 Geneva ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the WTO and its forerunner, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. In a lengthy speech on "a new vision of trade," Clinton urged the WTO to begin working together with its close neighbor, the UN International Labor Organization.  He suggested they make certain that open trade "respects the core labor standards that are essential not only to worker rights but to human rights."

So now the two sister global institutions, both headquartered in Geneva, have begun to work together at the staff level. Are they talking about how, for example, they might turn the world's sweatshop-infested Export Processing Zones into "globalization at its best," as a book published by the Institute of International Economics suggested four years ago? Well, no, not quite.

Research Findings Published on Trade Links To Domestic Policies

Last month the WTO secretariat and the International Labor Office (the Organization's secretariat) announced the publication of a joint study on "Trade and Employment: Challenge for Policy Research" by Eddy Lee of the ILO's Institutional Institute of Labor Studies and Marion Jansen of the WTO's economic research and statistics division.

Theirs is not a policy paper, but a 114-page review of research literature on the link of trade and investment policies on the one hand and labor and social policies on the other hand   The study's main conclusion is that these two sets of policies "do interact" and that "greater policy coherence" between the two can have positive impacts on economic growth and "thus ultimately on their potential to improve the quality of jobs around the world."

Indicating the nature of the breakthrough that this was for the ILO's relations with worker-unfriendly WTO, the International Trade Union Confederation hailed the report "as an unprecedented step forward towards achieving genuine coherence in the way the world's major institutions work together."  But not, please note, a step toward genuine policy coherence.

Study Ignores How China's Labor Policies Affect Trade

While welcoming some of the research findings (e.g., the widespread lack of social safety nets), the ITUC statement pointed to serious problems that the study ignores:  "Possibly the major omission," the world union group said, "...is analysis of the effect of China's policy of suppressing worker rights, and thus wages, both on China's workforce and on those developing countries whose economies face ruin by unfair competition from China."

Typical of research studies, this one recommended more research.  Of course the study did not recommend studying how WTO's own trade and investment policies redistribute income and wealth globally from labor to capital and from the poor to the rich.  Instead, for example, it suggested research into how to get the right "policy mix" in reallocating resources ("from old to new products, from good to bad firms") and creating buffers "against the most negative consequences of job loss."  In other words, the focus is still on domestic economies.

Back in 1998 Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. characterized Clinton's speech as expressing "a major shift in America's approach to global economics" (see "Major U.S. Policy Shift?  Maybe, Maybe Not").  But, as Dionne noted at the time, Clinton's speech was greeted by "resounding silence."  Nobody, even within his Administration, paid any attention.  Judging from the new report's substance and the resouonding silence that followed from policymakers, the WTO-ILO joint effort shows mighty little promise of leading to a shift in the WTO approach to global economics.

Catching Up With Globalization

"When companies were local, unions had local agreements; when companies were national, unions had national agreements.  Now in the global economy we need global agreements."

That's how UNI, a global union for the telephone and other service industries, characterized the importance of signing "global framework agreements" with all multinational corporations in its jurisdiction.  UNI's latest success toward that goal occurred on December 21 when its president and the French telephone multinational, France Telecom, signed a global agreement guaranteeing respect for labor and environmental rights wherever the company operates.

The agreement covers more than 200,000 France Telecom employees, 80,000 of them outside of France. It will be monitored by UNI affiliates representing  French Telecom workers, helped by a semi-annual meeting between the company's top management and union leaders of UNI and affiliates.  UNI currently has 14 global framework agreements to its name, including one with Carrefour, the French retail giant.  All told, there are now more than 50 global agreements, counting also those of other global unions, such as the Metal Workers, Food Workers, and the Chemical and Energy Workers (ICEM).

"What's in it for the company?" ask a UNI fact sheet, and answers:

"Lots. In this era of calls for greater social responsibility, lots of companies include mission statements or solemn commitments in their annual reports. But today, with all the corporate scandals and skepticism, who believes just the words?  A global agreement is not just an employer's word.  It is a signed agreement with the people employed by the company. It gives the company's claims credibility because it allows for monitoring. With investors and pension funds paying much grater attention to company image and ethical investment, this can be a big plus for any global corporation."

Women's Voices Stifled in Vietnam

Violations of women's rights remain widespread in Vietnam, although it adopted the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) 25 years ago.  That's the charge of the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights in a 36-page report submitted to the 37th session of the CEDAW committee in New York in January.

"Economic liberalization has exacerbated gender-based rights abuses," the report states. "In [urban areas], where women account for 80 percent of the workforce in manufacturing employment, free market competition has led to 'sweatshop' industrialization, particularly in the textile and garment-manufacturing industry, one of Vietnam's major export areas."

Vo Van Ai, president of the Vietnam human rights group, told the committee that the main impediment to gender equality is "Vietnam's one Party State, with its lack of transparency and political freedom," and the "pervasive control" it exercises over the country.  He pointed out that Vietnam allows no independent women's organization, and that the sole organization permitted to represent women's interests is the Vietnam Woman's Union, established and controlled by the Communist Party.

The U.S. government could do much to improve the rights of Vietnamese women if it had the will to pursue that goal by revising current trade and investment policies. For an example of a U.S. pro-active policy on one human right, see the February 23 report of the U.S. Trade Representative on the impressive steps that the Vietnamese government, in compliance with the U.S.-Vietnamese Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), has taken to taken to protect certain human rights of intellectual and industrial property owners, whatever their nationality, Vietnamese or foreign.

The right to own property is indeed a human right, according to the Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though the BIT and the USTR report avoids the term.  But should this right trump all others?  That is a core issue confronting this Congress as it faces White House and big business demands that it must rubber stamp existing policies.

Diary: Lenten Reflection on the Holocaust

While browsing through back issues of Human Rights for Workers the other day, I came across this Diary note, published in the March 11, 1998, issue.  Its questions bear reflection in and out of the Lenten season.

During Lent this month I again thumbed through my copy of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's powerful book, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.  Reflecting on the Holocaust is, for me, a profound spiritual exercise.

After all, as the son of an ethnic German father born near the borders of present-day Austria, I might have lived through the Nazi era in Germany.  Instead of listening to anti-Jewish views in my home in Chicago (as I did as a teen-ager), I might have acted on them in Berlin or Nuremberg.  Instead of serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, I might have served in Hitler's Army or one of Germany's murderous police units.  So I can't help wondering:  

I am shaken by that thought -- the possibility that I might have remained mute amid the barbarities committed by people high and low in Nazi Germany.

My fear stems from an honest self-appraisal.  I remember the many occasions when I, as an American living in freedom, have remained silent, done nothing, about obvious injustices.  And that passivity was under circumstances when the cost of doing something, showing some courage, was mighty small -- nothing compared to what it was for people living under the Third Reich, and still is for those living in the People's Republic of China.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. XII-03         March 1, 2007           
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2007
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