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Trade on a New Track: Breakthrough on Labor Rights

Congressional leaders and the Bush administration yesterday took a major step toward a more progressive global trading regime after Democrats and Republicans agreed to strengthen labor standards and other key provisions in two pending free trade deals with Peru and Panama. A forward-looking proposal made in late March by Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Sander Levin (D-MI), chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and its trade subcommittee, respectively, provided the basis for this nascent bipartisan consensus on new trading accords.

The largest breakthrough in this bipartisan compromise involves workers’ rights.

Countries that sign trade agreements with the United States now must make fully enforceable commitments to respect the five basic international labor standards, as enshrined in the 1998 International Labor Organization Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The deal that Reps. Rangel and Levin struck with the White House on this critical issue resembles a proposal made by CAP Senior Fellow Daniel Tarullo in his recent report, “A Sensible Approach to Labor Rights to Ensure Free Trade.”

The compromise also calls for a new Strategic Worker Assistance and Training, or SWAT, initiative to deal more effectively with the negative impact of trade on the livelihoods of some Americans and their communities. Finally, it lays down important markers on areas of national concern that are substantially affected by global trade, such as environmental protection, port security, investor rights, government procurement, and developing countries’ access to life-saving medicines.

This bipartisan compromise on trade policy encapsulates key progressive ideals to help promote decent work and expanded economic opportunity at home and abroad. Ensuring these ideals help define our trading relations with other nations will position the United States once again as the global leader of international trade policymaking.

Jonathan Jacoby is Associate Director for International Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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