A Worker-Centered Trade Policy



Desiree LeClercq | Social Science Research Network

What is a “worker-centered” trade policy? The Biden administration claims that it means protecting all workers—foreign and American—from exploitative working conditions in trade sectors. The administration’s vigorous enforcement of international labor rights suggests a significant departure from previous U.S. trade priorities centered on domestic interests. For economic and humanitarian reasons, various policymakers and scholars celebrate these developments. They optimistically assume that the administration’s new trade policy will influence foreign governments and facilities to comply with international labor rights in trade if the costs of noncompliance outweigh the benefits. They also assume that the policy will influence compliance with strong labor protections as negotiated on the international platform. Both assumptions are misplaced.

Outside the trade context, governments, employers, and workers negotiate how international labor rights mani-fest in their countries based on pragmatic issues such as political ideologies, economic capacity, and legal systems. Those actors tend to respect those labor rights because they actively participate in the design, monitoring, and enforcement processes. Despite its newfound interest in ensuring compliance with international labor rights under U.S. trade agreements, the Biden administration excludes foreign workers, employers, and counterpart governments from those processes. That exclusion risks obscuring and distorting enforcement predictability, perceptions of legitimacy, and the scope of international labor rights protections within and outside the United States—all of which may reduce or weaken compliance and protections for workers in trade sectors. If the administration sincerely intends to protect workers from trade-related exploitation worldwide, it must stop reinforcing its own discretion and control and start reinforcing the participatory processes embedded in international labor rights.

Despite decades of attention and lobbying efforts within the labor community, government parties to trade agreements fail to protect vulnerable workers from carrying the burden of globalized trade. Women and young children continue to be forced into labor, trafficked, sold across borders, worders. Union participation continues to decline globally, and union leaders are arrested or disappeared. Throughout supply chains, factories continue to enslave and torture with impunity. Millions of workers still lose their lives in workplace accidents.

Since the turn of the century, U.S. trade policy has reacted to such labor exploitation by requiring trade partners to commit to the ILO’s four “fundamental” labor rights, namely (1) collective bargaining and freedom of association; (2) prohibitions against child labor; (3) prohibitions against forced labor; ander (4) non-discrimination in employment. Yet, prior U.S. administrations have proved hesitant, if not unwilling, to enforce those commitments, mainly when doing so threatened more pressing foreign policy and geopolitical objectives.

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