Leaders in Congress are hoping to work with the Bush administration to find consensus on the final terms in the Doha Round of multilateral trade talks and bilateral trade agreements. Despite strides in bipartisan cooperation, recent actions by the Bush administration may stand in the way of a breakthrough on international trade policy. 

Tomorrow a Senate hearing called “Is ‘Free Trade’ Working?” will be held by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce, Trade, and Tourism. Congress hopes to work with administration officials toward a sensible trade policy that heeds international labor standards. This hearing will give us hints of whether a reasonable way forward is at all possible.

Congressional advocates of a new approach to trade policy incorporate the five basic labor principles contained in the International Labor Organization’s “Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work” (adopted by the ILO in 1998). These internationally-recognized labor principles are as follows:  

  • Freedom of association 
  • The effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining
  • The elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor 
  • The effective abolition of child labor
  • The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation  

Despite the universality and uncontroversial nature of these principles, the Bush administration has introduced a counterproposal recommending that labor standard provisions of free trade agreements require all parties to have laws “equivalent” to U.S. laws. The Center for American Progress believes this proposal, based on exaggerated fears of U.S. vulnerability, could hinder progress toward free and fair trade. The administration is operating upon the misguided notion that U.S. law should constitute the basis for international obligations on labor standards.

The idea that the United States should determine the direction of international law—trade or otherwise—also suggests that the United States need not be bound by the international norms, obligations, and practices that apply to all other countries. As made clear in “A Sensible Approach to Labor Rights to Ensure Free Trade,” a report by CAP Senior Fellow Daniel Tarullo released last month, a responsible trade policy cannot grow from such an orientation.

CAP urges the Bush administration to cooperate with Congress to achieve a smart and tough trade policy. Earlier this month, Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Sander Levin (D-MI), chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and its trade subcommittee, introduced a proposal that CAP’s Jonathan Jacoby says contains common sense objectives that should govern trade deals.

The Rangel-Levin proposal calls for the United States Trade Representative to:

  • Maintain and enforce basic international labor standards in domestic laws and practices
  • Require countries to implement and enforce Multilateral Environmental Agreements that would promote sustainable development and combat global warming
  • Re-establish a fair balance between access to medicines in developing nations and protection of pharmaceutical innovation 
  • Protect operations at U.S. ports
  • Ensure that “no greater rights” are accorded to foreign investors in the United States than to U.S. investors 

CAP believes the Rangel-Levin proposal provides an aggressive approach to trade that also seriously considers the negative impact of trade on the livelihoods of some Americans and their communities. The proposal addresses sources of U.S. worker anxiety, including declining income mobility and increasing financial insecurity. The Rangel-Levin proposal also works to strengthen our trade and aid partnership with developing nations in an effort to make trade a source of poverty reduction and global development.

Recognizing the importance of incorporating the ILO’s five basic international labor principles, the Bush administration should work with congressional leaders to develop a trade policy that makes trade a two-way street and promotes high labor standards. The Rangel-Levin proposal is certainly a step in the right direction.

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