Africa Trade Bill Still Fails to Protect Worker Rights
February 19, 1999
Some backers of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (HR 434) claim that their Africa trade legislation provides labor rights safeguards. In fact, the bill does not provide meaningful protections for workers, which is why African and U.S. unions oppose the measure.
Unfortunately, a recent amendment to HR 434 – offered by Rep. Sam Gejdenson and partially approved on February 11 by the House International Relations Committee – does not correct this serious problem.
The bill's supporters claim that because some of the bill's trade provisions are based on the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which contains some labor rights language, that the legislation "covers" worker rights.
In reality, as years of experience have demonstrated, GSP labor rights provisions are hampered by weak enforcement mechanisms and a huge loophole. Under GSP, in order for a country to be eligible for preferential access to the U.S. market, the President merely has to certify that the country is "taking steps" toward the protection of labor rights. This vague language has allowed even notorious labor rights abusers like Guatemala to be certified as eligible for benefits.
Moreover, GSP labor rights provisions cannot be enforced through private action – meaning that when a country is clearly not "taking steps" to protect worker rights, but is nonetheless certified as doing so, no legal action can be taken by U.S. citizens to force decertification. The only recourse is a time-consuming petition process which often results in the rejection of petitions and involves no right of appeal. Finally, GSP labor rights provisions impose no obligations on corporations themselves – only on governments. Corporations that violate internationally-recognized labor rights can do so at will and continue to enjoy market access benefits - as long as they are operating in a country that has been certified eligible, under GSP's vague standard.
The Gejdenson amendment, which adds labor rights to a long list of criteria African countries are supposed to meet in order to be eligible for benefits under the bill, is no stronger than the existing GSP labor provisions – and even less enforceable. Under the portion of the amendment approved by the Committee, a country does not have to uphold internationally recognized worker rights to be eligible for benefits. Instead, the President can certify a country as eligible upon a determination that the country is "making continual progress toward" upholding worker rights. This is scant improvement over the vague and inadequate GSP standard.
Most importantly, there is no enforcement mechanism whatsoever – not even the right to petition allowed under GSP. Rep. Sherrod Brown attempted to correct this problem in the International Relations Committee by adding strong enforcement language, but his amendment was opposed by the backers of HR 434 and was ruled out of order by the Chair.
While the Gejdenson amendment is a step in the right direction in that it explicitly raises the issue of labor rights, it simply does not provide meaningful labor standards in legislation that is otherwise bereft of them. HR 434, as amended, does not contain the kind of worker rights provisions we feel must be included in U.S. trade agreements and trade legislation.
We support the unambiguous labor standards and the meaningful enforcement mechanisms necessary to ensure that the rights of workers will be respected by countries and companies benefiting from the bill. Such provisions are included in Rep. Jesse Jackson's HOPE for Africa bill, which is why we support that Africa trade legislation. We hope you will join us in supporting the Hope for Africa Act.
Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!)
Deputy Legislative Director
International Brotherhood of Teamsters