LEGISLATIVE ACTION UNLIKELY ON FOREIGN LABOR STANDARDS
Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — Congress is unlikely to attempt to influence the labor standards of U.S. trading partners, say Republicans who oppose such efforts and Democrats who are unsuccessfully advocating them.
“Labor standards aren’t going anywhere legislatively,” said Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R., Kan.), chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and the doorkeeper to a pending bill that would ban importation of products made by children under 15.
On the House side, one Democratic staffer close to the trade debate grudgingly agreed. He predicted that no action is likely this year, and the bill’s chances in 1997 are precarious and depend on who is in the White House and which party controls Congress.
Neither a Republican-led Congress nor a Republican president will advance legislation that conditions trade privileges on labor standards, he said. And there is no guarantee a Democratic-controlled Congress would approve labor standards.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) for at least three Congressional sessions has sponsored a bill to ban imports made by children, and it has never made it out of committee. A similar House version has been pending for three years with no action.
“There’s not a great consensus in either party on this issue,” a Harkin aide said, noting coalitions need to be built and more people need to be educated before the measure can come up for a vote. “Sometimes these issues take longer to materialize.”
A Democratic staffer on the Senate Labor Committee said efforts to impose legislative requirements on U.S. trading partners are opposed by business and viewed as protectionist. He said there is concern that should such laws be passed, the U.S. could face retaliation from its trading partners.
The White House also has been criticized by strong Congressional advocates of international labor standards for not being tough enough. In recent months, the administration and House Republicans broke off negotiations on efforts to include labor standards, along with environmental protections, in an extension of fast-track negotiating authority.
Rep. Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.), one of the biggest Congressional advocates of organized labor, warned the administration that it was not being aggressive enough and was simply asking Republicans to grant it the authority to include labor and environmental standards in future trade talks.
Instead, Gephardt wanted the administration to demand all U.S. trading partners enforce labor and environmental laws or face sanctions.
Rep. Phil Crane (R., Ill.), chairman of the House Trade Subcommittee, rebuffed the administration’s efforts to include labor and environment in fast-track negotiations on the grounds that they should be included in trade talks only if they are relevant. If they are included in trade agreements, they should be negotiated separately to give Congress the chance to amend them, Crane said.
Kassebaum, who said the U.S. should “address environmental and child labor issues every chance we get,” said legislative action is not the way to go. Instead, she said the threat of such legislation is enough to force compliance from wayward trading partners who use child labor or who don’t enforce their labor laws.
“The rhetoric is strong enough right now,” she said.
A voluntary program requiring Indian rug makers to avoid using child labor has had moderate success, but a House Democratic aide close to the trade debate said more is needed.
“Clearly, the best thing to do is to pursue such standards in trade agreements while seeking legislative standards as well,” he said. “This is not about pursuing just one option.” — Fairchild News Service