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Certifying International Worker Rights: A Practical Alternative

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Publication Date: June 1999

Publisher(s): Economic Policy Institute

Author(s): Jerome Levinson

Topic: Labor (Labor policy)
Trade (Commercial treaties and agreements)

Type: Brief


The effort to incorporate core worker rights into multilateral trade and investment agreements and thereby achieve, in Rodrik's words, "a certain degree of harmonization," has failed. There are two major reasons why.

First, despite the support for worker rights in U.S. legislation, the American negotiators of these agreements have not been willing to give worker rights as high a priority as they do the protection of investors.

Second, sensing that reluctance, domestic and foreign opponents of worker rights have been able to muster majorities against them in multilateral negotiations.

The objective of incorporating worker rights into the main body of such agreements remains valid, but for the above reasons the route of multilateral negotiations has reached a dead end. Paradoxically, the only path to progress now -- and the only way of eventually forcing open the closed door of multinational negotiations -- is to pursue a policy that forces a greater priority for labor rights and relies on unilateral action by the U.S. government, with respect both to bilateral agreements and to its participation in international trade and finance agencies. Without such unilateral action, our own domestic social compact represented by U.S. domestic labor legislation, imperfect as it is, will continue to erode.