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Can Trade Agreements Be a Friend to Labor?

To date, labor clauses in trade agreements have remained a fig leaf, neither raising labor standards abroad nor protecting them at home. Real change would require a significantly different approach, including how trade agreements uphold and enforce workers’ rights.

CAMBRIDGE – Labor advocates have long complained that international trade agreements are driven by corporate agendas and pay little attention to the interests of working people. The preamble of the World Trade Organization Agreement mentions the objective of “full employment,” but otherwise labor standards remain outside the scope of the multilateral trade regime. The only exception is a clause, left over from the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the precursor to the WTO), which permits governments to restrict imports that are produced with prison labor.

Regional trade agreements, by contrast, have long taken labor standards aboard. The linkage in these agreements between preferential market access and adherence to core labor rights has become increasingly explicit. In the original North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1992, labor standards were shunted to a side agreement. Since then, US trade agreements have typically included a labor chapter.

According to its proponents, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would have required Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei to improve their labor practices significantly – and Vietnam to recognize independent trade unions. And US President Donald Trump’s administration claims that its revamped agreement with Mexico contains the strongest labor provisions of any trade agreement.

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