WASHINGTON — The House passed the U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement on Thursday by a vote of 221 to 205, as Democrats split their votes amid a debate over labor provisions, working conditions and port security issues.
The Senate passed the trade accord June 29 and President Bush is expected sign it. Last-minute assurances to strengthen labor laws from the Sultan of Oman, backed by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, appeared to secure enough votes, particularly among moderate Democrats.
The close vote might be a signal to the Bush administration and Republican leaders that two pending trade bills before Congress — a free trade agreement with Peru and legislation granting permanent normal trade relations status for Vietnam — could face significant challenges.
Oman is a small apparel supplier, exporting $53.5 million in apparel products to the U.S. last year. Importers support the deal because some do business there and the accord is part of an effort by the Bush administration to create a Middle East Free Trade Area by 2013.
The U.S. textile industry opposed the pact because it allows apparel manufacturers in Oman to use 50 million square meters equivalent of cotton and man-made fiber fabric from anywhere in the world in the assembly of clothing and still receive duty free benefits when entering the U.S.
Democrats condemned the agreement’s labor provisions, saying they do not meet core international standards, including the right to bargain collectively and bans on slave and child labor, and argued the deal could jeopardize port security in the U.S. by allowing an Omani company to acquire port operations.
“Look, we need to have a free trade agreement that meets the basic ILO standards in practice and in law,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.). “In Bahrain, they were in practice and they made a commitment to do so in law. In Oman, there is no semblance of workers having rights.”
Republican leaders said other trade deals, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, include provisions allowing foreign companies to perform “land-side” port functions and the maintenance of docks. They said all U.S. trade agreements include an “essential security” clause that allows the president to block foreign investment in port operations if the U.S. finds it could jeopardize national security.
“Opposition to this fairly straightforward agreement has generated not one, not two, but a whole school of red herrings that have to be knocked down quickly and in succession,” said Rep. Phil English (R., Pa.). “The measure has been developed and gone through a legal mandate and legislative consultative process and resulted in clear guarantees on labor. On the matter of port security, critics…have manufactured an issue by claiming the agreement gives foreign service providers unprecedented access to U.S. ports and threatens security.”
Rep. Clay Shaw (R.,a Fla.), said, “I cannot stress enough the importance of the legislation now before this body. It is one of the best free trade agreements that this body has considered, granting the United States some of its broadest market access ever and establishing a strong standard as we push to open the large, emerging Middle East market through a Middle East Free Trade Area.”