Raising Labor Standards Through Trade Preference Programs

The United States lowers or eliminates tariffs on many goods coming from developing countries to support economic development and job creation. In recognition that growth should not be driven by exploitation and to avoid creating an unfair advantage for countries that artificially suppress wages by stifling labor organizing, these programs require that beneficiary countries protect “internationally recognized worker rights.”

The AFL-CIO supports these programs and believes they are important tools to grow economies and raise standards. We collaborate with partners around the world to try to leverage the labor rights commitments to allow workers to organize and share in the wealth they create. Tariff programs should be part of a broader and more ambitious strategy to promote sustainable development through promoting economic and social rights. 

Trade Preference Programs with Worker Rights Requirements 

The Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) “promotes economic development by eliminating duties on thousands of products when imported from one of 120 designated beneficiary countries and territories.” Beneficiary countries must “[take] steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights to workers in the country.”

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) “allow[s] virtually all marketable goods produced in AGOA-eligible [sub-Saharan] countries to enter the U.S. market duty-free.” Beneficiary countries must “mak[e] continual progress toward establishing protection of internationally recognized worker rights.”

Internationally Recognized Worker Rights

The U.S. government defines internationally recognized worker rights to include:

  • the right to free association (i.e. the right to form and join unions);
  • the right to organize and bargain collectively;
  • freedom from forms of forced or compulsory labor;
  • a minimum age for child employment and a prohibition on the worst forms of child labor;
  • and acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.

The International Labor Organization has also defined the right to be free from discrimination as one of the fundamental rights at work

Current AFL-CIO Supported Worker Rights Cases

In June 2013, following a series of horrific, preventable building disasters, including the Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza collapse, which combined killed more than 1,250 workers and injured approximately 2,500, the United States government suspended Bangladesh’s GSP benefits. Unfortunately, five years later, workers who attempt to exercise their rights still face retaliation, intimidation and physical violence. Union leaders have been brutally beaten and hospitalized. Entire executive boards have been sacked. Both employers and police intimidate and harass trade unionists. This hostility to organizing created the climate of impunity that allowed the tragedies at Rana Plaza and Tazreen to occur. The AFL-CIO believes the government of Bangladesh is not taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights, and should remain ineligible for GSP benefits.

In 2015, Eswatini was declared ineligible for trade benefits under AGOA because its government was not making continual progress towards establishing internationally recognized worker rights. In December 2017, the U.S. government reinstated benefits on the condition that Eswatini recognize independent unions, refrain from violence and harassment of labor activists and enforce labor laws. Unfortunately, the Eswatini government has been backsliding. It continues to violently repress labor activists, interferes with legitimate trade union activities and does not enforce labor laws related to acceptable conditions of work, including health and safety and minimum wage laws. The AFL-CIO urges the U.S. government to engage with the government of Eswatini to ensure workers can exercise their fundamental rights free from violence, intimidation and interference. 

The AFL-CIO first raised the alarm about the worker rights situation in Georgia in 2010, when the Georgian government passed draconian labor legislation and began a sustained attack on independent unions. Successive administrations have severely repressed unions in the public sector, dismissing leaders and activists, refusing to bargain in good faith, disregarding existing collective agreements, and setting up competing "yellow unions" aligned with management. In the private sector, the government does little to defend workers. To the AFL-CIO’s knowledge, Georgia is the only country that has no state institution to enforce labor laws. Legal changes in 2013 created a system for investigating some health and safety violations, but there is still no comprehensive approach to enforcing basic labor rights. Nearly ten years after the original complaint was filed, the situation has not improved, and the AFL-CIO urges the U.S. government to suspend Georgia’s GSP benefits unless its government makes real efforts to ensure workers can fully and freely exercise their rights.

The AFL-CIO filed a petition documenting the brutal crackdown on independent unions in Kazakhstan in 2017. In the last five years, the government of Kazakhstan has shuttered virtually all independent trade unions and put prominent labor leaders in prison or under house arrest in connection with their union activities, including the house-arrest of Larisa Kharakova, president of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions. Workers and their families have been assaulted, intimidated and harassed. The AFL-CIO is very concerned about these on-going attacks. The AFL-CIO urges the U.S. government to suspend Kazakhstan’s benefits under GSP until its government releases all imprisoned labor leaders, drops all charges in connection with legitimate trade union activities and allows independent unions to operate.

Mauritania has the highest rate of hereditary slavery in the world. The AFL-CIO filed a petition decrying slavery and other forms of forced labor, the repression of abolitionists and other labor rights activists, and legal restrictions on the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining in 2017. In January 2019, the U.S. government suspended the country’s AGOA benefits. To re-qualify, the government of Mauritania must end the persecution of labor rights activists and immediately release those who remain imprisoned; acknowledge the fact that hereditary slavery and discrimination exists in the country and allow an honest public discussion of the problem; investigate and prosecute those responsible for acts of forced labor, including hereditary slavery; ensure access to justice and provide comprehensive, gender-responsive support services to victims of forced labor; end restrictions of the independent formation and operation of unions; establish meaningful programs to prevent child labor and ensure all workers fully enjoy the right to non-discrimination.

In November 2019, the U.S. government announced it would partially suspend GSP benefits to Thailand, starting April 2020, due to egregious worker rights violations in the country. The AFL-CIO filed a case in 2013 highlighting widespread limitations on the right to form and join unions, brutal crackdowns on strikes and other forms of worker protest, and persecution of labor leaders and activists by both the government and employers. This climate of impunity allows the worst forms of exploitation and abuse, including forced labor, to proliferate. The country’s legal framework prevents approximately 75% of Thailand’s 38.3 million workers from joining unions or engaging in collective bargaining. Employers fire workers who try to organize without consequence and use overly broad defamation laws to sue activists for simply describing their working conditions to the press or even government labor inspectors. Unions have been ordered to pay compensation to employers for striking or protesting working conditions. Leaders of the State Railway Union of Thailand were ordered to pay 24 million Thai baht for holding an action to protest unsafe conditions that caused a train derailment that killed seven people. Forced labor and human trafficking is widespread, facilitated by laws that prohibit migrant workers from forming unions. The AFL-CIO welcomes this decision and hopes it will lead the Thai government to change course and allow workers to exercise their fundamental rights