A Worker-Centered Trade Policy

65 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2023

Date Written: August 12, 2023


What is a “worker-centered” trade policy? The Biden administration claims that it means protecting all workers—foreign and American—from exploitative working conditions in trade sectors. The administration’s vigorous enforcement of international labor rights suggests a significant departure from previous U.S. trade priorities centered on domestic interests. For economic and humanitarian reasons, various policymakers and scholars celebrate these developments. They optimistically assume that the administration’s new trade policy will influence foreign governments and facilities to comply with international labor rights in trade if the costs of noncompliance outweigh the benefits. They also assume that the policy will influence compliance with strong labor protections as negotiated on the international platform. Both assumptions are misplaced.

Outside the trade context, governments, employers, and workers negotiate how international labor rights mani-fest in their countries based on pragmatic issues such as political ideologies, economic capacity, and legal systems. Those actors tend to respect those labor rights because they actively participate in the design, monitoring, and enforcement processes. Despite its newfound interest in ensuring compliance with international labor rights under U.S. trade agreements, the Biden administration excludes foreign workers, employers, and counterpart governments from those processes. That exclusion risks obscuring and distorting enforcement predictability, perceptions of legitimacy, and the scope of international labor rights protections within and outside the United States—all of which may reduce or weaken compliance and protections for workers in trade sectors. If the administration sincerely intends to protect workers from trade-related exploitation worldwide, it must stop reinforcing its own discretion and control and start reinforcing the participatory processes embedded in international labor rights.

Keywords: USMCA, Biden administration, trade policy, international labor law, democracy, compliance, behavior

JEL Classification: F1, F13, F16, F51, F53, F54, F66, J8, J83, K00, K31, K42, L14, L21, L52, L70, O10, O24, O38,

Suggested Citation

LeClercq, Desiree, A Worker-Centered Trade Policy (August 12, 2023). Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 61, No. 3, 2023, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4539027

Desiree LeClercq (Contact Author)

Cornell ILR School ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853-3901
United States

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