By  on July 17, 2009

The Obama administration will seek to lower trade barriers U.S. companies face abroad and increase pressure on countries to correct labor violations as it puts enforcement center stage in trade policy, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Thursday.

“I can tell you with no reservations, the Obama administration is both willing and able to enforce our trade agreements,” Kirk said in a speech to steelworkers at the Mon Valley Works complex in Braddock, Pa. “Enforcement cannot be an afterthought. It needs to be a centerpiece of trade policy.”

As part of its enforcement strategy, Kirk said his office will focus on the identification and elimination of trade barriers that affect U.S. farmers and manufacturers and will work to open foreign markets.

Kirk said the USTR was committed to identifying and resolving labor violations of existing trade agreements, including initiating formal dispute settlement proceedings. Under the existing model, the enforcement of the labor provisions in trade pacts was initiated by complaints and relied on the governments of other nations to monitor the labor practices of their domestic companies.

“To date, we have enforced our trading partners’ labor obligations only on a complaint-driven basis,” Kirk said. “Well, no longer.”

The USTR and other federal agencies will monitor the labor practices in other countries to make sure they comply with requirements of the trade pacts.

President Obama is expected to detail his trade policy soon in a major speech.

Kirk did not rule out new trade deals, but he stressed that the administration’s approach to trade would also have to include a retooling of existing models.

“We have to do more than just pursue new trade deals.,” he said. “We must also insist on respect for our rights in the global trading system.”

Most of Obama’s stance on trade has been rhetorical, with few actions taken during his first months in office. The administration filed its first World Trade Organization case against China in June over subsidies and controls put on raw materials. A pending China safeguard case about tire imports is being closely watched for further indications on how the administration will approach enforcement efforts, including on textiles and apparel. Obama must decide this summer if he will impose quotas or tariffs on imported tires from China.

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