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May 16, 2007

On Jordan Standard and Bush's Corporate "wink and a nod"

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) was on CNN last night talking about the state of play on the Deathstar Deal, and had this to say:

I think the comment from some individual leaders in the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers is that they're kind of getting a wink and a nod fromDeathstarjpgw300h265 Secretary Schwab - the U.S. trade rep Schwab saying and perhaps Secretary Paulson saying well, these standards look good, labor will be happy, environmentalists look happy, they are good in terms of the substance. But they know they are not going to be enforced. We went through this with Jordan in 2000. Congress passed a Jordan trade agreement. It's one I voted for because it had strong labor and environmental standards. It has not been enforced and Jordan has become a sweat shop for that part of Asia. With Bangladeshi workers working there producing all kinds of apparel that ends up in our country, duty free, products of sweat shops.

The Jordan FTA is an important piece of evidence as people consider the Deathstar Deal. Consider the following:

  • At the time, in 2000-01, the Jordan FTA was lauded as a breakthrough agreement on labor in trade pacts. It received unanimous support from both the House and the Senate.
  • What was so different about the Jordan FTA? First, as the Congressional Research Service reports, the Jordan FTA included "core labor standards" in the body of the text - as opposed to weaker standards, as opposed to in a side letter, like NAFTA. Second, the FTA appeared to allow government-to-government disputes that could lead to imposition of sanctions for deviations from this labor standard in a way affecting trade. (The other awful parts of NAFTA were left intact, including that investors still got their excessive NAFTA-CAFTA-Deathstar Deal rights (PDF) to sue governments for nearly anything they wanted, including pro-labor and -environment policies.)
  • But even the limited "progress" made with the Jordan labor standard was eviscerated by the Bush administration in one of its first acts in office, when it signed a letter saying that it would never apply sanctions on Jordan for labor abuses. The administration went on to weaken even the Jordan standard in subsequent agreements.
  • In 2006, the non-partisan National Labor Committee found that (PDF) sweatshop conditions have proliferated in Jordan since the FTA was signed, and there was a 20 fold upsurge in the amount of sweatshop goods coming in the U.S. from Jordan.

What are the lessons of this, kids?

  1. If even the "best FTA" labor has had yet produced such awful results on the ground, you know that a TOTAL change of course is needed.
  2. As many labor groups have noted (here, here), even the best FTA labor provisions don't mean a lot unless you have an administration willing to take the trade partner government to court over violations, which the Bush administration has never done. They also don't mean a lot for your defensive interests if the excessive NAFTA-style investor rights to challenge local policies are left in.
  3. So, you don't want to trust a Bushie, and you really don't want to stake your political and policy credibility on a NAFTA-modeled anything.
  4. Finally, despite what you might hear in Washington, a mini-step forward for fair trade is not always followed by more steps forward, just like a mini-concession for fair trade is not always followed by more concessions. In fact, once you show that you're willing to cut deals and make half steps on the trade model, the Bush administration (and previous administrations too) will usually gladly take your deal, probably never deliver on it, and then force you to negotiate down from your first deal subsequently.

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