Trade Justice

ILRF is a leader in promoting trade policies that respect workers’ fundamental labor rights.

While international trade has the potential to create decent jobs and alleviate poverty, too often U.S. trade agreements reflect only the interests of powerful multinational corporations and investors at the expense of workers and the environment. 

Put simply, for globalization to work its benefits must be widely shared and that cannot happen unless workers’ are free to exercise their fundamental rights to organize and bargain collectively for better wages and conditions at work. Without strong and enforceable labor standards, globalization benefits only the economic elite while driving a “race to the bottom” in wages and working conditions.

Since its founding in 1986, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has been at the forefront of the effort to establish a strong link between trade and respect for workers’ fundamental labor rights. In 1984, ILRF’s founders were responsible for creating the labor rights conditionality clause of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), the first time a major piece of U.S. trade legislation formally conditioned access to U.S. markets on a trade partner’s ability to demonstrate genuine efforts to enforce the core labor rights established by the International Labor Organization. 

In the three decades since this victory, ILRF has been a leader in the strategic use of non-judicial complaint mechanisms to challenge labor rights abuses committed by both governments and corporations.  For example, we have used the complaint mechanisms contained in the GSP, OECD, U.S. free trade agreements to challenge state-sponsored forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry, caste-based slavery in Niger, and the use of short-term contracts to deny workers their right to organize in Peru’s export garment industry.    

In evaluating potential complaints, ILRF prioritizes cases that involve systematic abuses of core labor rights and have the clear support of worker organizations and civil society in the affected countries. 

To learn more about ILRFs experience with utilizing specific non-judicial complaint mechanisms, click on the GSP, FTA, or Tariff Act tabs above.

The Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) provides qualifying developing countries with duty-free access to U.S. markets for a specific list of products. Eligibility for GSP benefits is predicated on a country fulfilling several requirements, including a clear showing that the government is “making progress” towards compliance with internationally recognized labor standards.

The GSP complaint mechanism allows any group or individual to file petitions with the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to initiate a review into the labor practices of any participating country.  A committee composed of U.S. government officials reviews the petition and decides whether to hold public hearings where GSP recipient country and petitioner are allowed to testify. 

By filing GSP petitions, ILRF seeks to pressure the U.S. government to use its considerable economic leverage to ensure that GSP beneficiary countries fulfill their obligations to take concrete steps to respect workers’ fundamental labor rights.  

  • On Uzbekistan: In 2007, ILRF filed a petition for the US Trade Representative (USTR) to revoke Uzbekistan’s GSP benefits due to the government’s systematic use of forced labor to grow and harvest cotton. Every year the Uzbek government forces over a million citizens to harvest cotton that ends up in brand-name retail and apparel supply chains. In 2012 and 2013, ILRF testified at hearings convened by the USTR to review Uzbekistan’s eligibility for GSP, with direct testimony from Uzbek human rights activists on the forced labor system.
  • On Philippines: In 2007, ILRF filed a petition to suspend Philippines’ GSP benefits for maintaining a law that allowed for the imprisonment of workers for exercising their right to strike and the government’s failure to prosecute  widespread harassment, threats, and extrajudicial killings of union leaders. The petition and related advocacy helped lead to the Philippines’ adoption of a new monitoring and review mechanisms for extrajudicial killings.  USTR closed the investigation in 2014, despite the government’s failure to amend laws criminalizing the right to strike and continued problems with the extrajudicial killings of union leaders (over 137 since 2010, according to local NGOs).
  • On Niger: In 2006, ILRF filed a petition raising concerns about the government’s failure to prohibit forced labor & trafficking, including a form of caste-based slavery where girls as young as 14 are sold into sexual slavery. After years of hearings and ILRF testimony, Niger responded by adopting the 2010 Anti-Trafficking Law and establishing a National Agency for the Fight against Trafficking in Persons (ANLTP).  Despite these advances, ILRF has recommended keeping the petition open until the government can show tangible progress, including an increased number of prosecutions and convictions under its anti-trafficking and anti-slavery laws.  
  • On Bangladesh: In 2010, ILRF submitted a pre-hearing brief in support of the GSP review process on Bangladesh, which had commenced following a petition filed by the AFL-CIO in 2007. The brief highlighted the government’s harassment, detainment, and torture of civil society advocates, as well as its failure to enforce health and safety protections. After the Rana Plaza building collapse tragically took the lives of over 1,100 garment workers, the USTR finally suspended Bangladesh’s GSP benefits in 2013. While ILRF has since noted several signs of progress, it has continued to support the U.S. Government’s decision to withhold trade benefits until greater strides are made.

Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. § 1307) prohibits the importation into the United States of products made with forced, indentured, or convict labor.  Under the applicable regulations (19 CFR § 12.42), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is obligated to detain merchandise at the port of entry that it reasonably believes is the product of forced labor. Written in 1930, the Tariff Act contains many loopholes and is badly in need of reform to make it a more effective tool in the fight against the trade in goods made with forced labor. 

By filing Tariff Act petitions, ILRF seeks to challenge the importation of goods into the U.S. market that are made with forced labor and other forms of modern day slavery. When enforced by U.S. Customs, the Tariff Act can be a powerful incentive for corporations at home and abroad to clean up their supply chains and end the use of forced labor.

To date, ILRF has filed Tariff Act petitions on the following products:

  • Cotton from Uzbekistan:  In 2013, ILRF filed a petition seeking the enforcement of the Tariff Act to prevent the importation of cotton from Uzbekistan, which is produced by a government-orchestrated forced labor system. The petition called on U.S. Customs to issue an immediate detention order on all pending and future imports of cotton goods manufactured by Daewoo International Corporation, Indorama Corporation, and other companies processing cotton in Uzbekistan, which were exporting hundreds of tons cotton yarn and fabric to the U.S. each year. In fall of 2013, CBP prevented a shipment of Indorama yarn produced in Uzbekistan from entering the port of Los Angeles. A subsequent request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) confirmed that CBP’s investigation on this matter is ongoing.

Cocoa from Cote d’Ivoire:  In 2002, ILRF filed a petition presenting evidence of trafficking in children and the widespread use of forced child labor in cocoa harvesting in Cote d’Ivoire, the leading cocoa-producing country in the world. After no action was taken by the Bush Administration, ILRF filed lawsuits against seeking to compel enforcement, but they were dismissed due a finding that domestic cocoa production was insufficient to meet internal U.S. demand.  Forced child labor in the West African cocoa industry remains a serious concern.

Since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, all free trade agreements signed by the United States have included workers’ rights provisions. While NAFTA’s labor standards were contained in a largely symbolic, unenforceable “side agreement,” more recent FTAs include enforceable labor standards in the main text of the agreement.  The latest FTAs require both the U.S. and our trade partners to “adopt and enforce” labor laws consistent with the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles at Work. 

Despite these advances, higher standards on paper have yet to translate into meaningful results for workers denied their fundamental labor rights.  To date, none of the complaints filed under the labor chapters of U.S. FTAs have resulted in fines, withdrawal of benefits, or any other meaningful sanctions. 

The failure of current FTA to deliver for workers owes mainly to the weakness of the dispute settlement mechanism, which gives the U.S. government far too much discretion on how and when to respond to even the most egregious violations of the labor standards contained in a trade agreement.  

Despite these challenges, ILRF remains committed to utilizing the FTA complaint mechanisms to both highlight their weaknesses and spotlight the failure of some of our trade partners to provide workers with their fundamental labor rights.

Challenging the abuse of short-term contracts in Peru: In July of 2015, the ILRF and seven Peruvian unions filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that the Government of Peru is failing to comply with the labor standards contained in the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA). The complaint alleges that the Government of Peru is failing to enforce basic labor laws in its garment, textile, and agricultural export sectors, which together employ hundreds of thousands of workers who produce billions of dollars of goods for the U.S. market.

The complaint breaks new ground by testing a key provision of the “May 10th Agreement,” arguing that Peru’s Non-Traditional Export Promotion Law fails to comply with minimum standards on freedom of association adopted by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The special export law exempts employers from key parts of the general labor code by allowing them to hire virtually their entire workforce for an unlimited duration on a series of renewable, temporary contracts, some as short as 15 days. Garment and textile employers have taken advantage of the special law by systematically declining to renew the contracts of thousands of workers who joined unions in an effort to improve wages and working conditions.  

The complaint also presents a number of emblematic case studies which show how the Government of Peru is failing to enforce its own labor laws in both the textile & garment and agro-export sectors. Major Peruvian companies in these export sectors violate Peruvian labor laws with virtual impunity, dismissing workers for union activity, employing workers on fraudulent contracts, and failing to pay legally mandated bonuses. Even in cases where labor inspectors have found violations, fines are too low to deter employer misconduct and often go unpaid.

In order to come into compliance with its obligations under the PTPA, the Government of Peru must repeal several key articles of the Non-Traditional Export Promotion Law, repeal or modify the Agricultural Sector Promotion Law, and strengthen oversight of employer use of temporary contracts.