Thursday, July 23, 2009

USTR's initiative on worker rights

The U.S. government’s top official on trade, Ambassador Ron Kirk, has committed his White House agency to a rather ambitious goal: “a proactive enforcement strategy to save American jobs, by helping to ensure that American workers compete on a level playing field.”

Henceforth, Kirk said in a policy announced July 23, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) will be proactive in monitoring and enforcing the labor obligations contained in the country’s free trade agreements.

Previously, USTR’s involvement in labor violations has been largely “complaint driven.” That is, USTR usually would not get involved unless a person or a group filed a formal complaint backed with evidence persuasive enough to trigger an investigation by USTR and an inter-agency committee.

Under the new procedure, USTR, together with other agencies, principally State and Labor, will “regularly” monitor violations of worker rights and will try informally to obtain compliance. When these efforts fail, Kirk added, “USTR will not hesitate, as in other areas of trade agreement enforcement, to invoke formal dispute settlement.”

USTR and other agencies also are to undertake a positive role in promoting respect for international labor norms. Kirk mentioned China specifically as a country with which the administration “is seeking to enhance engagement” on labor issues.

Other Opportunities for Human Rights Initiatives

The USTR announcement illustrates that government officials, under their existing legal authority, and without any new legislation, have a good deal of leeway to take initiatives to enhance human rights. Opportunities abound.

Take the State Department. Among its little known responsibilities is to house the “national contact point” for the Guidelines on Multinational Corporations of the 30-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). That national contact point (NCP) handles grievances that individuals or unions have against a corporation for alleged violations of the Multinational Guidelines.

Says a report of John G. Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights: Housing the NCP within a government office that is “tasked with promoting business, trade, and investment raises questions about conflicts of interest.” In State the NCP is housed in the Office of Investment Affairs of the Economic Bureau.

In the same report, approved by the UN Council on Human Rights, Ruggie pointed out that the OECD guidelines were last updated in 2000, and suggested they could stand revision. “We’ve learned a lot about business and human rights since 2000,” he told the 2008 meeting of NCPs in Paris. State: hint, hint.

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