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Open Access Publications from the University of California

United States Trade and Foreign Labor Interests: The Effects on Foreign Labor of Linking Trade with Labor Provisions in Bilateral U.S. Free Trade Agreements


All bilateral U.S. trade agreements ratified since 2001 have included labor provisions within the main body of the agreement, though the scale, scope, and appropriateness of such provisions – and their enforcement mechanisms – have varied slightly between different FTAs. But little has been written on whether such agreements have, in the short time before and after their passage, tangibly transformed labor legislation and respect for workers’ rights within partner countries. By examining the successes and failures of trade-labor linkage within four bilateral U.S. FTAs, I attempt to demonstrate that tying increased market access with minimum labor standards can foster improved and updated foreign labor legislation and greater respect for workers’ rights. I also argue that the primary concerns over trade-labor linkage at the multilateral level have far less relevance at the bilateral level, where the scope of the provisions can be tailored to each particular trading partner, and the leverage of the United States allows it to exert significant influence during the negotiating process. Recent bilateral U.S. FTAs have shown that incremental improvements in labor standards can be achieved through the combined efforts of negotiating trade partners, the International Labor Organization, and domestic and international NGOs. Ultimately, it is argued, the effectiveness and viability of labor provisions at the bilateral level is most dependent on the political will of the negotiating countries to adequately address labor issues during trade negotiations and within signed agreements. With the U.S.-Jordan FTA, the U.S. demonstrated its commitment to “hard” labor standards by including sufficiently enforceable and appropriate labor provisions within the body of the agreement. Since Jordan, however, the labor provisions in U.S. FTAs, including those with Morocco, Bahrain, and Oman, have been relaxed, as “soft” trade-labor linkage – or the linking of trade and labor issues in the negotiating process – has played a more significant role.

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