As the trade bill debate focus shifts from the House of Representatives, which passed H.R. 3 on an impressive 290 to 137 vote, to the upcoming Senate debate on its version of trade legislation, S. 490, it's worth paying some attention to a provision already adopted twice by the House but still open to debate in the Senate.

That issue is whether the United States should make systematic denial of basic worker rights an unfair trade practice under Section 301 of our nation's trade laws.My view is this: anyone who takes the time to actually read and understand the House-passed worker rights provision will find it not only acceptable but desirable.

It is a common tactic in argumentation over public policy, when one's position cannot prevail on substantive merit, to rely upon just enough misinformation to confuse those you want to persuade to stand pat. The opponents of worker rights provision in the House Ways and Means Committee trade bill, H.R. 3, are doing just that.

Forget about erroneous press reports and misleading editorials. Take the time to review the language of the bill and the committee report and to understand what the worker rights provision does and - equally important - does not do. The companies in the Retail Industry Trade Action Coalition have already done this and they are supporting this addition to Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended.

Currently, Section 301 states:

"If the president determines that action by the U.S. is appropriate . . . to respond to any act, policy, or practice of a foreign country or instrumentality that . . . is unjustifiable, unreasonable, or discriminatory and burdens or restricts U.S. commerce, the president shall take all appropriate and feasible action within his power to enforce such rights or to obtain the elimination of such act, policy, or practice."

Existing law defines "unreasonable" as follows:

"The term 'unreasonable' means any act, policy, or practice which, while not necessarily in violation or inconsistent with the international legal rights of the U.S., is otherwise deemed to be unfair and inequitable. The term includes, but is not limited to, any act, policy, or practice which denies fair and equitable - (A) market opportunities; (B) opportunities for the establishment of an enterprise; or (C) provision of adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights."

The House-passed worker rights provision would simply add to this portion of Section 301 afourth basis on which an "unreasonable" practice could be determined to exist. The actual statutory language would read:

"the term includes, but is not limited to, any act, policy, or practice that . . . with respect to workers, (I) denies the right of association, (II) denies the right to organize and bargain collectively, (III) permits any form of forced or compulsory labor, (IV) fails to provide a minimum age for the employment of children, and (V) taking into account a country's level of economic development, standards for minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health."

Accordingly, this provision merely defines as an "unreasonable" trade practice the competi tive advantage that some countries derive from the systematic denial of basic worker rights, the same as is the case in current law for denial of market access, the opportunity to establish a business in a foreign country, and the denial of intellectual property rights.

And since the purpose is to improve the lot of foreign workers in international trade and not to arbitrarily block imports, the statutory language goes further. It allows USTR not to brand a foreign country as a worker rights violator if that suspect country is taking steps to afford basic worker rights.

Now, what is it that the worker rights provision in H.R. 3 does not do?

First, it does not tie the president's hands and mandate action against foreign countries accused of denying worker rights. To the contrary, the Trade Representative is granted discretionary authority to decide whether to investigate worker rights petitions brought against one or more foreign countries. Even assuming such a formal 12-month investigation is undertaken by the Trade Representative along with consultations with the foreign government alleged to deny worker rights, the president still retains flexibility not to make a formal determination and not to act on worker rights petitions if the offending country is demonstrably moving to respect worker rights.

Second, it is patently false to claim that this provision imposes U.S. labor standards on the rest of the world. For wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health, explicit allowance is made for a country's level of economic development.

Third, the worker rights provision does not get U.S. trade law mixed up with ILO conventions, some of which the United States itself has not ratified.

Finally, enactment and enforcement of this provision would not automatically harm or cut off U.S. trade with non-market economies like those of the Soviet Union or China.

In practice, the Trade Representative had no problem last January in denying GSP eligibility to Romania because of that government's denial of the same worker rights cited in H.R. 3. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation had no difficulty this year in deciding to end its activities in Ethiopia because of worker rights violations while continuing its activities in China.

Free trade theory presupposes that a rising tide lifts all boats. Increasingly, the future of an open trading system hinges upon spreading the benefits of international trade to workers as well as financiers and consumers. I couldn't agree more with U.S. Secretary of Labor Bill Brock when he recently wrote to the members of the Ways and Means Committee saying:

"Those countries which are flooding world markets with goods made by children, or by workers who can't form free trade unions or bargain collectively, or who are denied even the most minimum standards of safety and health are doing more harm to the principle of free and fair trade than any protectionist groups I can think of."

That's why a reasonable, clearly-defined, practical worker rights provision must be an important part of 1987 trade legislation.

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