Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Article excerpt

Key Problems

* Trade agreements may contain general language addressing workers' rights, but in many cases these standards do not include specific protections for women.

* Trade unions have found it difficult to organize women workers, and workplace problems specific to women have sometimes remained unresolved.

* The core labor standards do not deal with pervasive forms of discrimination against women, such as sexual harassment.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Congress passed a series of laws that directly linked U.S. trade benefits to a set of worker rights criteria. The first of these programs, the Caribbean Basin Initiative, contained only a one-line reference to workers' rights, but in 1984 the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, which allows more than 4,000 products from 140 developing countries to enter the U.S. market duty-free, incorporated a definition of workers' rights that has become standard in all subsequent U.S. legislation. The GSP's labor clause included the right to associate and bargain collectively, prohibitions on forced labor and child labor, and the right to "decent" working conditions, including an acceptable minimum wage.

In order to be eligible for GSP benefits, a country must have a per capita Gross National Product (GNP) below $10,000 per year. The labor clause was intended to ensure that countries given a special trade privilege would be held to basic standards of decency in employment. However, notably absent from the GSP labor clause is the right to a workplace free from discrimination, something the ILO recognizes as a core labor right.

Even if this core right were included in U.S. trade legislation, it would be merely a first step in addressing the most fundamental rights violations suffered by women workers around the globe. Many women in both formal and informal employment find it impossible to gain access to freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively.

Even in formal employment, the right to organize is a remote dream for most women workers. For example, Bangladesh, one of the world's top producers of garments for the U.S. market, has long prohibited organizing in its EPZs, while Kenya, a top U.S. trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, bans union organizing in practice. In both of these countries, the majority of workers in the EPZs are women. …

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