Senator Elizabeth Warren puts herself firmly in the labor camp Wednesday at a Capitol Hill rally against the trade legislation. (photo: John Shinkle/Politico)
18 May 15
Decades of Failure to Enforce Labor Standards in Free Trade Agreements
he Senate will soon vote on the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 – also known as “Fast Track.” President Obama has requested Fast Track authority from Congress to ease the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement with 12 countries that account for nearly 40% of the global economy. President Obama has repeatedly stated that the TPP is “the most progressive trade bill in history” because it has high labor, environmental, and human rights standards. The President claims the TPP will have “higher labor standards, higher environmental standards,” and “new tools to hold countries accountable.”
But proponents of almost every free trade agreement (FTA) in the last 20 years have made virtually identical claims:
- In 1993, President Clinton claimed that “the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] is the first agreement that ever really got any teeth in environmental standards, any teeth in what another country had to do with its own workers and its own labor standards… There’s never been anything like this before.”
- In 2005, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman claimed, “[t]he [Central American Free Trade Agreement] has the strongest labor and environmental provisions of any trade agreement ever negotiated by the United States.”
- In 2007, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab claimed that the Peru, Colombia, and Panama trade agreements contained “unprecedented protections for labor rights and environmental standards.”
- In 2010, President Obama said that the South Korea agreement included “groundbreaking protections for workers’ rights.”
- In 2011, the White House insisted that the Colombia trade agreement “include[d] strong protections for workers’ rights, based on the May 10, 2007, bipartisan Congressional- Executive agreement to incorporate high labor standards into America’s trade agreements.” President Obama said in 2012 that “this agreement is a win for our workers and the environment because of the strong protections it has for both – commitments we are going to fulfill.”
- A few months later, the White House made nearly identical claims about the Panama Free Trade Agreements.
However, the history of these agreements betrays a harsh truth: that the actual enforcement of labor provisions of past U.S. FTAs lags far behind the promises. This analysis by the staff of Sen. Warren reveals that despite decades of nearly identical promises, the United States repeatedly fails to enforce or adopts unenforceable labor standards in free trade agreements.
Again and again, proponents of free trade agreements claim that this time, a new trade agreement has strong and meaningful protections; again and again, those protections prove unable to stop the worst abuses. Lack of enforcement by both Democratic and Republican presidents and other flaws with the treaties have allowed countries with weaker laws and standards and widespread labor and environment abuses to undermine treaty provisions, leaving U.S. workers and other interested parties with no recourse. This analysis finds:
- The United States does not enforce the labor protections in its trade agreements. A series of reports by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), as well as reports by the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of State, document significant and persistent problems with labor abuses in countries with which we have FTAs. While GAO acknowledged progress by partners in implementing commitments and by agencies in tracking progress and engaging on problems, their analysis concluded that the USTR and DOL “do not systemically monitor and enforce compliance with FTA labor provisions,” and that the U.S. agencies generally have not been “identifying compliance problems, developing and implementing responses, and taking enforcement actions.”
- The U.S. pursues very few enforcement actions. Prior to 2008, the Department of Labor had not accepted a single formal complaint about labor abuses in free trade agreements. Since then, the Obama administration has conducted in-depth investigations into complaints and issued fact-finding reports and recommendations. However, DOL has accepted only five claims against countries for violating their labor commitments, and it only agreed to restart the first ever labor enforcement case under any free trade agreement in 2014, six years after the initial claim was filed. This reveals both the cumbersome nature of complaint process and the overall enforcement problems with these agreements.
- Widespread labor-related human rights violations. The United States has 14 free trade agreements with 20 countries. While some of these countries have made progress in improving labor conditions, problems with labor rights and other abuses are widespread. U.S. agencies or other investigators have identified significant problems with use of child labor or other labor-related human rights abuses in 11 of the 20 countries.
- Failure to curb even the worst abuses . Case studies of several countries that have signed U.S. free trade agreements reveal continuing horrific labor abuses. Guatemala was named “the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists” five years after entering a trade agreement with the U.S. In Colombia, despite the existence of a special “Labor Action Plan” put in place to address long-standing problems and secure passage of the Colombia FTA, 105 union activists have been murdered and 1,337 death threats have been issued since the Labor Action Plan was finalized four years ago.
View the full text Here.