Working women and evolving labor standards in U.S. and Canadian free trade agreements

My forthcoming article in the Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal discusses and compares the evolution of labor standards in U.S. and Canadian free trade agreements (FTAs) since 2000.  It then assesses their usefulness as tools to improve IMG_0646working women’s rights.

With few exceptions, all U.S. and Canadian free trade agreements have included labor provisions since 1994.  They also contain procedures for members of the public to file petitions that trading partners have not met their labor obligations under FTAs.

After 2000, the governments of Canada and the U.S. both incorporated the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work as the guiding standard for labor rights in free trade agreements.  The four core labor standards in the ILO Declaration are (1) abolition of child labor; (2) elimination of discrimination in the workplace and occupation; (3) elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor; and (4) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.

My article examines the outcomes of a number of recent cases filed under the labor provisions of U.S. FTAs, including the U.S.-Bahrain FTA, U.S.-Peru FTA and the U.S.-Central America-Dominican Republic FTA (CAFTA-DR).   The article also compares civil society advocacy efforts in Canada and the U.S. related to the negotiation of free trade with Colombia and discusses the implementation of a Labor Rights Action Plan (LAP) between the U.S. and Colombia as a pre-condition for Colombia’s entrance into the U.S.-Colombia FTA.

A definite evolution is observed in the investigative methods, problem-solving techniques and types of remedies adopted in reports issued by the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) in response to public petitions filed under FTA labor provisions during the Obama Administration (2009-2016).  In addition to making fulfillment of certain labor standards commitments a pre-condition to formal entry of trade relations between U.S. and Colombia, USDOL (a) called on one trading partner to pass legislation prohibiting discrimination in the workplace (Bahrain); (b) worked with another trading partner to develop a method for denying export permits to companies that did not comply with labor court orders (Guatemala); and (c) timed the issuance of labor administration and/or elimination of child labor grants with the issuance of reports (Honduras, Dominican Republic).  USDOL also increased its capacity for addressing threats of violence against trade unionists in the territory of U.S. trade partners (Colombia).

Despite evidence of improvement in USDOL’s administration of labor petitions under FTAs since it first started receiving petitions in 1994, definitional shortcomings in U.S. FTA labor provisions weaken their utility as advocacy tools for workers as a whole and women in particular.

One problem is that only 75% of the ILO Declaration is incorporated into the definitions sections of the U.S.-Jordan FTA and CAFTA-DR.  Both agreements fail to specifically include equal pay for equal work for women and men and the elimination of workplace discrimination in the Definitions section for purposes of international dispute resolution.  This leads to textual uncertainty as to whether discrimination on the basis of sex or other grounds is covered.  As a result, gender-related claims in an omnibus petition filed about labor law and administration in Honduras were ignored in a 2015 USDOL report under the CAFTA-DR.  Ironically, comparison of the 2012 Honduras CAFTA-DR case with the 1997 Pregnancy Testing in Mexico case shows that the NAFTA has been a better advocacy tool for working women that the more modern CAFTA-DR.

Definitional shortcomings in post-NAFTA U.S. FTAs are not limited to incomplete incorporation of the 1998 ILO Declaration.  After 2000, U.S. FTA labor provisions limit the definition of “labor law” as applied to the United States to laws passed by the U.S. Congress.  This definition excludes all U.S. state labor laws, which cover compensation for workplace injuries, govern the time and manner of payment of wages, and guarantee trade union rights to state and local government employees.  My article shows how two 2012 reports released by the Government of Mexico about U.S. failure to comply with NAFTA labor obligations may have played a role in the U.S. decision to narrow the scope of the definition of U.S. labor law in FTAs.

In contrast, there is no such textual or definitional uncertainty in the labor provisions in post-NAFTA Canadian FTAs, which explicitly cover workplace discrimination and equal pay for women and men – as well as compensation for workplace injuries.  Canada currently has FTAs with labor provisions with Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, Jordan, Panama, Honduras, South Korea and the European Union.  Canada also has Labor Cooperation MOUs with Brazil, Argentina and China.

The article shows how women’s rights advocates have creatively utilized FTA labor provisions as advocacy tools with mixed results  The most successful gender petitions focus solely on gender discrimination rather than burying gender claims in broader petitions.  Because of definitional shortcomings in U.S. FTAs, however, women’s rights advocates should consider filing labor petitions under Canadian FTAs in addition to or rather than U.S. FTAs.  Not only are the definitional provisions stronger, the petition procedures are very similar and Canada has stronger Equal Pay laws and culture.

Recently, Canada established itself as a leader on women’s issues by advocating for a gender chapter in the 2017 re-negotiation of NAFTA.  Mexico expressed support for the idea of a gender chapter, but observers opine that the U.S. would never agree to binding gender-related provisions in a renegotiated NAFTA – despite the fact that a non-binding 2012 U.S.-Mexico Memorandum of Understanding on Women’s Economic Empowerment is already in place.

As Mark Aspinwall rightfully pointed out in his August 2017 Forbes Op Ed, effective application of FTA labor and environmental provisions is heavily dependent on political will.  Even with strong political will backed by critical human and financial resources, the Obama administration’s free trade and labor agenda had some mis-steps and imperfect outcomes.  There is much work to be done to maintain the gains and momentum achieved.  Unfortunately, the current administration is already off to a bad start.  Congress has already called upon the Trump administration to ensure that U.S. trade partners Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru fulfill their commitments under ongoing labor action plans related to petitions filed under FTA labor provisions.  In addition to a lack of political will to address labor violations among trading partners, the current administration has not allocated sufficient human and financial resources to USDOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs to properly perform its duties.  In their September 19, 2017 letter to Trump adminstration officials, ranking Democratic members of the House and Senate called on USTR, USDOL and USDoS to fill five positions key to enforcement of FTA labor provisions.  Lack of political will and inadequate resource allocation risks slowing or stopping the evolution made by the last administration in the enforcement and application of labor provisions in free trade agreements.

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