Amid all the debate over global trade in recent years, workers' rights have been a forgotten issue.
International trade negotiators have laid down rules against companies that sell goods at below fair market value but generally haven't imposed any sanctions against countries that let people work for pitifully low wages or allow child labor.
Likewise, negotiators at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks in Uruguay, expected to last into the 1990s, have agreed to discuss intellectual property rights but not the rights of workers to organize.
Fortunately, trade bills now before Congress would help change all that. Separate bills approved by the House and Senate would make the denial of certain workers' rights by a foreign nation an unfair trade practice that, like other unfair trade practices, could trigger retaliation by the United States. These bills also urge the Reagan Administration to push for the inclusion of worker rights on the Uruguay talks agenda.
Eventually, the United States could push for all its global trading partners to protect freedom of association, permit collective bargaining and prohibit forced labor. Also, foreign nations could be called on to establish a minimum age for employment and impose acceptable standards for wages, hours and occupational safety and health.
Global Standards Needed
Why are international standards of this sort necessary?
In their absence, companies in such countries as South Korea, Chile and Taiwan are gaining competitive advantages by squeezing workers. The result is a kind of Gresham's law--bad labor practices are driving out good labor practices. And while free traders often decry labor standards as "protectionist," these measures do just what free traders say free markets do--they make it possible for everyone to benefit from the prosperity resulting from trade.
Free traders also argue that we should not impose our labor standards on the rest of the world, but labor standards have been accepted overwhelmingly by the International Labor Organization, an affiliate of the United Nations. The ILO, however, only has powers of moral persuasion to enforce its standards. To make these rules stick, the United States has included such measures in its own trade legislation.
In fact, labor standards have been in U.S. trade legislation since 1890, when the McKinley Tariff Act banned products made by convicts from domestic trade. The Tariff Act of 1930 added products made by indentured labor.
More recently, a major breakthrough came in the form of the 1984 Trade and Tariff Act. It stipulated that foreign nations have to respect basic labor rights to bring products into this country duty-free through what is known as the Generalized System of Preferences. The legislation currently before Congress would make enforcement even stiffer, by calling for tougher countermeasures.
Despite arguments to the contrary, it would be relatively easy to determine compliance with workers' rights codes. A country either has laws permitting its workers to organize and bargain collectively or it hasn't. The main judgment calls would be over whether a nation adopted strong enough safeguards and adequate enforcement measures for working hours, wages and occupational safety and health.
History shows that stiff enforcement is needed to protect workers' rights. The U.S. law against indentured labor, for example, didn't have much effect for more than 30 years. But in the 1960s, when U.S. officials said they would use the act to bar imports of such South African exports as coal, gold and diamonds, Pretoria scrapped a law that made it a crime for miners to leave jobs for which they had signed mandatory employment contracts.
Japan, after tariff talks with the United States in 1955, agreed to keep wages at "fair levels" and eventually adopted its first minimum wage law. Likewise, Haiti finally agreed to permit the formation of an independent union federation after being pressured by a 1983 act that stipulated that Caribbean countries could make duty-free exports to the United States only if they had fair labor standards.
Improved monitoring of international labor conditions by labor, religious and civil rights groups bodes well for worker rights. Earlier this year, after monitoring groups presented strong evidence of flagrant labor rights infractions, the Reagan Administration denied duty-free export rights to Paraguay, Nicaragua and Romania. Other countries--notably Taiwan and South Korea--should have been added to this list, but the President's action was encouraging all the same.
Yet this sort of unilateral action, while helpful, is not enough. Let's hope that Congress succeeds in persuading GATT to adopt an international code for workers' rights. It will take an international effort to make sure that workers receive an equitable share of the benefits of world trade.