Changing Global Trade Rules

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ILRF’s Trade program focuses on protecting workers’ rights through linkages with US trade law. We believe that in today’s global economic and trade system, it is of utmost importance that labor rights be upheld.

The ILRF is involved in connecting labor rights and trade through a number of bilateral US trade laws. In a handful of trade agreements, the US has made certain benefits and tariff cuts conditional on a country’s commitment to labor standards. These benefits, and the risk of their loss, can be an effective incentive for governments to improve their policies regarding workers’ rights. The ILRF is at the forefront of the process of using labor protections embedded in trade laws to fight for workers around the globe.


North America: NAFTA, NAALC
Central America and the Dominican Republic: DR-CAFTA
Developing Countries: GSP
Sub-Saharan Africa: AGOA, NPDA
Andean Region: ATPDEA/ATPA
Pending FTAs: Colombia FTA, Panama FTA
Development Assistance: OPIC, World Bank

While there are a number of US trade laws that contain provisions to protect international workers’ rights, many do not. US trade agreements can create harmful downward pressures in developing world labor markets if they do not include strong and enforceable labor rights mechanisms. Free trade can create opportunities for economic development. However, unless trade agreements include labor rights provisions, poor workers will not be the beneficiaries of this development. Through the Trade program, the ILRF works to encourage such provisions.

Labor rights legislation has indeed faced some criticism. Opponents have argued that it interferes with developing countries’ ability to use their comparative advantage in cheap labor. There has also been concern that these laws merely cloak US protectionism and unilateralism in labor rights language. The issue of trade standards is highly polarized: many hold that nothing should stand in the way of the market. Even efforts to slow the trade in goods made under conditions of child servitude have been labeled protectionist, as though the competitive advantage of any country depended on the employment of children rather than adults.

We believe, however, that workers’ rights are human rights. In today’s global economy as much as ever, these rights should not be compromised.

In response the ILRF also argues that workers rights are not a unilateral construction: they are based on international consensus and set out in agreements of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Ideally, a multilateral provision would exist to link labor rights to international trade—there have been attempts to incorporate such “social clauses” into the World Trade Organization—but all such efforts have as of yet failed. The ILRF works with what law does currently exist to improve conditions for global workers.

As long as poor labor standards exist in one country, workers everywhere will be hurt. Governments that neglect or oppress their laborers make the choice to strip their own citizens of their rights as human beings. Not only this, but they create unfair pressure in the global economy. If one country offers oppressively cheap labor, other countries become compelled to do the same to merely remain competitive. This global “race to the bottom” creates poor conditions and loss of freedom in the global South, and causes workers in the global North to lose their jobs to cheap outsourced labor. Our Trade Program exists with the mission to effect real change in this system for oppressed workers everywhere.

The ILRF works to encourage the US—along with other countries—to trade responsibly by preventing the exploitation of workers. Since the early years of our work, we have argued that laissez-faire economics must be tempered with social clauses for the protection of labor rights. These rights—which are human rights—must not be compromised in global trade.

Policy Focus: Developing Effective Mechanisms for Implementing Labor Rights in the Global Economy
Key Human Rights Challenge: Developing Enforcement Mechanisms