ILRF Urges Congress to Reject TPP Over Failed Labor Enforcement Model

An anti-TPP rally in the Washington, DC area in April 2015. Credit: AFGE

Yesterday ILRF’s Legal and Policy Director Eric Gottwald presented at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by the AFL-CIO on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and labor rights, entitled: “TPP: Is it a Gold Standard for Working People?”

Panelists at the event addressed the question, “Can workers count on the TPP to secure more freedoms and higher wages?” Along with other human rights and labor experts (Ben Davis from United Steelworkers, John Sifton from Human Rights Watch and Celeste Drake from the AFL-CIO) Eric Gottwald laid out ILRF’s opposition to the  proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), emphasizing that, based on past experience, the trade treaty’s labor provisions are unlikely to be enforced in practice.

Eric described the case of Peru, where tens of thousands of low-wage garment and agricultural workers labor under “special” export promotion laws that allow employers to hire them indefinitely on short-term, renewable contracts. Large Peruvian employers have used these laws to crush nascent unions by targeting union members and supporters for non-renewal of contracts.  ILRF and Peruvian unions challenged these laws and other labor abuses in a July 2015 complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor under the U.S. Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA).  The Department of Labor accepted the complaint for review in September 2015 and a formal report is due to be published in March 2016.

The event began with remarks by Representative Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), who welcomed the participants and attendees and outlined the central question of the day: what effect will the TPP have on working people? In her statement, the Representative made it clear that she stands for an integral approach to trade that must address the links between inequality and the global economy, and the labor rights implications of trade agreements.

After DeLauro’s presentation, Celeste Drake from the AFL-CIO focused on the TPP and its labor chapter.  She explained that although the TPP  text contains lofty-sounding labor clauses, these clauses have important weaknesses, particularly relating to the verification of labor violations and the enforcement mechanisms necessary to trust that countries will live up to these standards. Ultimately, she said, the TPP will merely bring repetition of a model that has already shown itself to be ineffective.

Other analysts focused on systematic labor and human rights abuses taking place in other TPP signatories. John Sifton from Human Rights Watch emphasized the persistent problems in several Asian countries who are party to the agreement, such as Vietnam, with its prohibition of free trade unions, or Malaysia, with its widespread violation of migrant rights and ongoing use of forced labor. He noted that under the TPP, both countries will be given tariff reductions up front and that the U.S. government was unlikely to enforce the labor standards if, as expected, either country does not comply. 

Finally, Ben Davis from the United Steelworkers described the labor violations that persist in Mexico (such as bureaucratic barriers for workers to address grievances, and repression for belonging to a trade union) and pointed out the lack of a comprehensive plan to solve these issues.

In the end, the briefing demonstrated that there is widespread agreement among human rights and labor rights experts that the labor rights provisions contained in the TPP are not strong enough to address the labor problems that exist in many of the signatory countries, owing to the TPP’s reliance on a failed enforcement mechanism. ILRF’s position, as Eric Gottwald reaffirmed on the panel, is that without enforcement mechanisms in the agreement that can guarantee respect for workers’ rights in all TPP countries, Congress should vote “no” on the TPP.


Photo Credit: AFGE