Trade Justice

ILRF continues to reshape the field of labor rights by advancing innovative policies and laws that protect workers.

International trade agreements anchored by the U.S. cement a model of development for countries in the Global South that favors wealthy elite over workers who lack access to capital.  International trade, of course, provides many countries with otherwise non-existent economic development opportunities. However, unless the terms of trade include labor rights provisions, poor workers will not derive their equal share of benefit from this development.  U.S. trade agreements can create harmful downward pressures in developing world labor markets if they do not include strong and enforceable labor rights mechanisms.

A clear example of this is Uzbekistan, which receives tariff exemptions from the US under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP).  Uzbekistan’s cotton export industry is the second largest in the world, and contributes 60% of the country’s hard currency earnings. However, the government annually forces hundreds of thousands of children and adults to harvest this cotton. Conditions are exacting and hazardous for these modern slaves, some of whom are as young as seven.  GSP is meant to aid developing countries in their economic growth.  However, Uzbekistan’s forced workers-- the “99%”-- are clearly not the beneficiaries of the international cotton trade.  

In 1984, ILRF founders created and successfully advocated for the first workers’ rights protection clause in U.S. trade legislation: a Workers’ Rights Conditionality Clause in the GSP.  In the last three decades we have used the clause many times to defend workers’ rights, leveraging the GSP review process for local and international advocacy.  We petitioned the US Trade Representative (USTR) to revoke Uzbekistan’s trade privileges on this basis in 2007; the case is still open.

Labor rights legislation indeed faces some criticism. Opponents argue that it interferes with developing countries’ ability to use their comparative advantage in cheap labor. Others argue that nothing should stand in the way of the market, and that these laws merely cloak US protectionism and unilateralism in labor rights language.  Even efforts to slow the trade in goods made under conditions of child servitude have been labeled protectionist.  

We believe, however, that workers’ rights are human rights. In today’s global economy as much as ever, these rights should not be compromised.

As long as poor labor standards exist in one country, workers everywhere will be hurt. Governments that neglect or oppress workers make the choice to strip their own citizens of their rights as human beings. Not only this, but they create unfair pressure in the global economy. If one country offers oppressively cheap labor, other countries become compelled to do the same to merely remain competitive. This global “race to the bottom” creates poor working conditions and loss of freedom in the global South, and causes workers in the global North to lose their jobs to cheap outsourced labor. Our Trade Program exists with the mission to effect real change in this system for oppressed workers everywhere.

ILRF works to encourage the U.S.—along with other countries—to trade responsibly by preventing the exploitation of workers. Since the early years of our work, we have argued that laissez-faire economics must be tempered with social clauses for the protection of labor rights.

ILRF continues to reshape the field of labor rights by advancing innovative policies and laws that protect workers.  Focus areas include U.S. trade, procurement, and foreign assistance policies.