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We all agree! ‘Free trade’ needs restrictions

Democrats, Republicans in Congress concur: It’s time to clamp down on forced labor in China



(Oct. 7, 2020) — On Sept. 22, Congress did something remarkable. Significant legislation passed in the House by a vote of 406 in favor and 3 opposed. That means almost every Democrat and almost every Republican found common ground, in the midst of a highly polarized presidential campaign and years of partisan battles.

The legislation restricts imports of goods made in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, where hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are subject to forced labor, repression, and violations of human rights.

Uighurs have been harassed in China for decades. The crackdown has intensified in the last few years.

The action in Congress is remarkable for several reasons.

●  Getting 406 members of Congress to agree on anything is noteworthy in itself.
●  This bill affects trade – always contentious, and more so in an election year.
●  The bill challenges China and powerful U.S. corporations who manufacture in China.
●  The vote made almost no news anywhere.

More remarkable is that the intent of the bill is a complete rejection of principles at the heart of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and hundreds of free-trade agreements such as NAFTA.

By design, WTO and all those free-trade agreements protect corporations that make products anywhere and sell those products everywhere. Free-trade rules also discourage Congress from making domestic public policies that address loss of jobs and industrial capacity in our domestic economy.

Under free-trade rules, a cookie is a cookie no matter how it is made.

For instance, cookie made in a country with forced labor, risky food safety rules, widespread pollution, and damage to shared natural resources must be treated the same as a cookie made in the U.S. with our labor standards, our food safety rules, and our environmental protections.

This has the effect of blurring national borders and national identities.

Of course, the price of a cookie made by responsible U.S. producers will include costs for our higher standards. The same cookie made in China or Mexico or Russia will not bear those costs of meeting our standards. Foreign producers of cheaper cookies, cars, solar panels, electronics, steel, clothing, and consumer goods will steadily displace our own production of those goods.

Foxconn, which manufactures iPhones for Apple, had to install suicide nets in the Chinese township of Longhua to stop workers from jumping to their deaths.

That’s why it is so hard to get labor and environmental protections into trade agreements. Global corporations worked hard to write trade rules that favor investor interests over public interests. Billions of dollars are at stake if government policies shift power away from global corporations and in favor of workers and communities.

Organized labor and civil society groups lobbied effectively in support of this bill. In the end, 406 House members made the remarkable statement that it is the legitimate role of government to put the interests of Uighurs in forced labor camps above the interests of U.S. companies and their manufacturing partners in China.

Up to now, in case after case, Congress and our trade negotiators endorsed free-trade rules that challenged common sense regulations intended to raise living standards and improve well-being generally.

It seems obvious to say, but the treatment of Uighurs cannot be improved by free markets or free trade. Damage to our domestic producers cannot be repaired without government action.

The old free-trade approach is exhausted socially, politically, and economically. It can’t be fixed with small incremental changes. It’s time to rethink the way we manage globalization – quite possibly without the WTO, and certainly putting higher priority on the interests of workers and communities.

One message of the House vote is that government does, in fact, play a legitimate role in solving serious problems we face. It is completely appropriate for government to set rules and make policies that reflect our values and promote our interests as a country. At a common sense level, that is totally obvious. Or it is, if we say it is.

Congress seems just about ready to say, yes it is. It’s about time.

Stan Sorscher is a board member of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, a former labor representative for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) IFPTE 2001, and a retired activist.

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