Politicians Keep Promising Free Trade Agreements Can Protect Workers. We Should Stop Believing Them.

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

Democratic and Republican presidents alike have all sworn in the last two decades that protections for workers in trade agreements would be strictly enforced. But none of it was true. (b.wu / Flickr)

It’s all the rage now for Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to spurn the Roy­al Rom­ney approach and, instead, to fawn over workers.

When for­mer U.S. Sen. Rick San­to­rum announced his pres­i­den­tial bid last week, he did it from a fac­to­ry floor and called for increas­ing the min­i­mum wage. For­mer New York Gov. George Pata­ki, who also launched his can­di­da­cy last week, named as his polit­i­cal inspi­ra­tion Ted­dy Roo­sevelt, a cor­po­rate trust-buster and work­ing class hero. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who entered the race in April, said that to win elec­tions, You’ve got to get the peo­ple who work for the peo­ple who own businesses.”

That is true — if the busi­ness­es are in Amer­i­ca. There’s not much point in Amer­i­can can­di­dates solic­it­ing votes from work­ers at fac­to­ries that U.S. cor­po­ra­tions closed here and moved over­seas with the help of free trade agree­ments (FTAs). Decade after decade of free trade, pres­i­dents promised work­ers that the deals set the high­est stan­dards for labor. And decade after decade, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment failed at enforce­ment, plac­ing Amer­i­cans in com­pe­ti­tion with child labor­ers, under­paid and over­bur­dened for­eign work­ers and vic­tims of human trafficking.

On trade, Sen. Paul got it right for work­ing peo­ple. He opposed Fast Track­ing approval of the 12-coun­try Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship (TPP) through Con­gress. He was on the los­ing side of that vote, though. So the Fast Track plan for Con­gress to relin­quish its respon­si­bil­i­ty to review and amend trade agree­ments awaits action this week in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. House Repub­li­cans who believe in sup­port­ing Amer­i­can work­ers, not just pan­der­ing to them, should join Sen. Paul in vot­ing no on Fast Track.

From Bill Clin­ton to Barack Oba­ma, Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dents have pledged to work­ers that some new free trade scheme would pro­tect Amer­i­cans from unfair and immoral for­eign competition.

Clin­ton claimed the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA) was the first deal ever con­tain­ing teeth to enforce labor stan­dards. George W. Bush’s U.S. Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive (USTR) con­tend­ed the Cen­tral Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (CAF­TA) had the strongest labor pro­vi­sions ever nego­ti­at­ed. Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials assured Amer­i­cans that the Peru, Colom­bia and Pana­ma agree­ments, and now the TPP, have the great­est work­er pro­tec­tions of all time.

They all swore the stan­dards would be strict­ly enforced. But none of it was true. The deals did not pro­tect Amer­i­can work­ers. And they didn’t pro­tect for­eign work­ers either. 

Now Amer­i­can work­ers over­whelm­ing­ly oppose the free trade brand of glob­al­iza­tion. They’ve seen its ter­ri­ble results for them. They’ve suf­fered as cor­po­ra­tions closed Amer­i­can fac­to­ries, destroyed Amer­i­can jobs and com­mu­ni­ties, and shipped that work overseas.

Amer­i­cans have found them­selves com­pet­ing with chil­dren coerced to work in for­eign fac­to­ries, traf­ficked and forced labor, and for­eign work­ers so mis­treat­ed that they jump to their deaths from fac­to­ry build­ings. Amer­i­can con­sumers find them­selves buy­ing prod­ucts made in unsafe build­ings that col­lapse or burn, killing thou­sands of for­eign workers.

The USTR, who is sup­posed to enforce the labor pro­vi­sions of trade agree­ments, along with the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor (DOL) and Depart­ment of State, has failed. That’s accord­ing to two reviews by the U.S. Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Office (GAO). After a damn­ing GAO report in 2009, the USTR promised action. A sec­ond GAO analy­sis in 2014 report­ed lit­tle change.

Here’s the bot­tom line from that report: Since 2009, USTR and DOL, with State’s assis­tance, have tak­en steps intend­ed to strength­en mon­i­tor­ing and enforce­ment of FTA part­ners’ com­pli­ance with FTA labor pro­vi­sions, but their mon­i­tor­ing and enforce­ment remains limited.”

In oth­er words, no mat­ter what those agree­ments say about labor, it’s not being enforced.

For exam­ple, five years after Guatemala entered CAF­TA, the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tion (ITUC) named Guatemala the most dan­ger­ous coun­try in the world for trade union­ists. That’s because of the large num­ber of union activists mur­dered, tor­tured, kid­napped and threat­ened there.

This was a star­tling devel­op­ment because Colom­bia had a lock on the inglo­ri­ous title of most dan­ger­ous for years. Colom­bia dropped from first place even while mur­ders of trade union­ists con­tin­ued there.

Since Colom­bia final­ized a free trade agree­ment with the U.S. in 2011, two dozen Colom­bians try­ing to improve the lives and wages of work­ers through col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing have been mur­dered every year. And these mur­ders are com­mit­ted with impuni­ty. There are vir­tu­al­ly nev­er arrests or con­vic­tions for killing trade union­ists in Colom­bia. Colombia’s trade deal with the U.S. and its enforce­ment” by the USTR, DOL and the State Depart­ment have done noth­ing to change that.

And as in Guatemala, trade union activists in Colom­bia con­tin­ue to be threat­ened, tor­tured and kid­napped. The free trade agree­ment is no shield for them. For exam­ple, a para­mil­i­tary group threat­ened the daugh­ters of Martha Cecil­ia Suarez, the pres­i­dent of the San­tander pub­lic ser­vants association.

In 2013, the para­mil­i­tary group Coman­do Urbano de los Ras­tro­jos sent her two dolls marked with her daugh­ters’ names. They were cov­ered in red paint, one miss­ing a leg, the oth­er an arm.

The 14 free trade agree­ments that the Unit­ed States has signed with 20 coun­tries con­tain pro­vi­sions allow­ing groups or indi­vid­u­als to file com­plaints about such vio­la­tions of the labor stan­dards. The 2014 eval­u­a­tion by the GAO sug­gests that only a tiny num­ber of com­plaints have been filed because the Labor Depart­ment has failed to inform stake­hold­ers of this process and few with­in the for­eign coun­tries know about it.

The GAO also found that the Labor Depart­ment has failed to meet its own dead­lines for inves­ti­gat­ing and resolv­ing the com­plaints it has accept­ed. Seri­ous alle­ga­tions, includ­ing human traf­fick­ing and child labor, remain unset­tled for years.

In addi­tion to the crit­i­cal 2014 GAO report, U.S. Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren detailed the fail­ure of the Unit­ed States to imple­ment FTA labor pro­vi­sions in a report issued by her office late last month titled Bro­ken Promis­es. It says, the Unit­ed States repeat­ed­ly fails to enforce or adopts unen­force­able labor stan­dards in free trade agreements.”

Admit­ted­ly, this is a titan­ic chal­lenge. What the Unit­ed States is try­ing to do is tell oth­er coun­tries, often ones far less wealthy, how their busi­ness­es should treat work­ers. The Unit­ed States hard­ly would take kind­ly to Guatemala telling it that the U.S. min­i­mum wage is so low that it amounts to forced labor.

But pres­i­dent after pres­i­dent has promised Amer­i­can work­ers that the Unit­ed States will com­pel for­eign nations to meet high labor stan­dards estab­lished in FTAs.

They haven’t accom­plished that. They prob­a­bly can’t. They should stop say­ing it. And Amer­i­can work­ers and politi­cians should stop buy­ing it. The Unit­ed States can sign trade agree­ments with coun­tries after they stop mur­der­ing trade union­ists and coun­te­nanc­ing child labor. Enter­ing agree­ments with coun­tries that per­mit these grotesque prac­tices demeans Amer­i­can work­ers and consumers. 

Leo Ger­ard is inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union min­er; Ger­ard start­ed work­ing at a nick­el smelter in Sud­bury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appoint­ed the sev­enth inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent Feb. 28, 2001. For more infor­ma­tion about Ger­ard, vis­it usw​.org.
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