The International Labor Organization Becomes Relevant: Bush and Congress to Incorporate ILO Standards in Trade Agreements

by Julian Ku

President Bush and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress have reached an agreement on a bipartisan trade policy to be applied to all future U.S. free-trade agreements. According to one account, the new policy commits U.S. trade partners

to adopting and enforcing laws that abide by basic international labor standards as outlined in a 1998 International Labor Organization declaration. It would prohibit those countries from lowering their labor standards.

I haven’t found a copy of the proposed policy online yet, but this sounds pretty much like what analysts have been predicting for some time now. (And here is the text of the 1998 ILO Declaration. As a practical matter, this new approach could both pave the way for new free-trade deals, but also put labor regulations front and center in future free trade negotiations.

One legal issue to keep an eye on: Some folks (like the WSJ editorial page) have argued that the U.S. itself is not in compliance with ILO standards and that such an agreement will commit the U.S. itself to changing its domestic labor laws. I assume some sort of compromise on this point has been reached, but I will wait for the actual text of the policy or a revised free trade agreement to see if how this issue was dealt with.

One Response

  1. I have mixed feelings about this, if only because it seems to mean that the principles enshrined in the 1998 Declaration risk not taking into account the level of socio-economic development of each country: “For example, a simple ban on child labour without corresponding steps to provide education and family support, would be counter-productive” (Bob Hepple, Labour Laws and Global Trade, 2005, 66), meaning that while principles are important, sensitivity to context in their application remains compelling. It should prove interesting to see how all parties understand the the section that “stresses that labour standards should not be used for protectionist trade purposes, and that nothing in the Declaration and its follow-up shall be invoked or otherwise used for such purposes….” On the other hand, perhaps this portends or is a precursor to WTO-ILO linkage on the order of giving the ILO “prime responsibility in respect of the core labour standards.” It will be interesting to see how much the U.S. is truly committed to the right to collective bargaining, a right that in this country has been “left to wilt and wither” (Harry Arthurs). All in all, I think this should contribute to a revitalization of the ILO, which, all things considered, is a good thing.

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