Core Labour Standards under the Administration of George W. Bush

Article excerpt


Outside of the International Labour Organization, the United States uses two main channels to promote labour standards internationally: bilateral or regional trade agreements and "labour diplomacy". Examining developments in these areas between 2001 and 2008, the author argues that the Bush Administration weakened the United States' capacity to uphold internationally recognized core labour standards. Although it concluded an unprecedented number of free trade agreements, their labour clauses are largely devoid of meaningful enforcement mechanisms - suggesting a closer connection with general foreign policy objectives than with concern for workers' rights. Furthermore, the work of the Federal Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy was eventually suspended.

This essay examines the direction in which the administration of George W. Bush (2001-2009) has taken the United States' long-standing com- mitment to the promotion of internationally recognized core labour standards. Since September 2001, headlines and public discussions in the United States have been dominated by the "war on terror", the war in Iraq, and other "national security" issues. While the media and public attention were thus focused on the Administration's initiatives to promote the security of the State, the Bush Administration quietly undermined the ability of the United States Government to protect the economic security of American workers. The Administration negotiated "free trade" agreements with five times as many governments as had all previous administrations combined.1 Each of these agreements includes a chapter on labour, but effectively strips the United States Government of the ability to enforce internationally recognized core labour standards.

The essay focuses on promotion of core labour standards through two government channels, namely: trade agreements, which are negotiated by the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and ratified by the United States Congress, and labour diplomacy, pursued by the United States Department of State. Specifically, the essay considers the impact of the Trade Act of 2002 on the promotion of core labour standards and examines the Administration's use of the Federal Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy, the central body for the coordination of labour diplomacy activities.

The Administration of George W. Bush, supported by key pro-trade Democrats, weakened the ability of the United States Government to protect core labour standards at home and to promote them abroad.2 Under previous administrations, trade sanctions (or threat of sanctions) had been used unilaterally and inequitably, but also effectively. Trade agreements negotiated under the Bush Administration include language on labour but no provision for effective enforcement mechanisms. Additionally, the Bush Administration blocked the work of the Department of State in advancing core labour standards.

Core labour standards

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, and with greater clarity since the founding of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919, governments, typically prompted by workers' representatives, have advocated basic and uniform standards for terms of employment and conditions of work. The business, labour and government constituencies of the ILO have negotiated and adopted more than 180 Conventions, eight of which are now internationally recognized as embodying core labour standards that protect four fundamental rights, namely: (a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; (b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; (c) the effective abolition of child labour; and (d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation (see table 1). These four fundamental rights are enshrined in the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which commits all member States of the ILO "to respect, to promote and to realize" them, whether or not their governments have ratified the specific Conventions that define them. …