Raising global labor standards key pillar of Obama’s export initiative

Apr 6, 2010

Topic: Supply Chain

The years of work Outdoor Industry Association has dedicated on fair labor and sustainable business practices could pay a dividend this year as the Obama administration makes promoting labor standards overseas a key pillar of its efforts to create millions of export-related jobs at home.

In the March 11 executive order announcing his National Export Initiative, President Obama instructed his cabinet to come up with ways to help double U.S. exports over the next five years. U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis will do that primarily by working with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to more closely monitor compliance with labor provisions in existing U.S. trade agreements with 16 countries, according to Sandra Polaski, deputy undersecretary for international affairs at the Department of Labor.

Those provisions ensure freedom of association, recognition of collective bargaining rights, abolition of child and forced labor, and “acceptable” working conditions with respect to minimum wages, hours and occupational health and safety. The OIA embraced these same values in 2006 with the release of its Fair Labor Toolkit, which provides companies with guidelines on how to ethically operate their supply chains.

This and the OIA Eco Working Group’s ongoing work on an Eco Index tool are establishing OIA as a thought leader on sustainability and social responsibility issues with policy makers. In 2010, OIA expects to work closely with the Obama administration and Congress to develop trade policy with a stronger focus on labor and environmental standards.

The collaboration comes as the Obama administration asserts its willingness to cut off trade benefits to countries that do not comply with fair labor provisions in existing free trade and trade preference agreements. One of Secretary Solis’ five key goals at the Department of Labor is to foster fair working conditions globally to create a more balanced global economy. A former congresswoman, Solis made her mark in California politics in part by pushing for tougher enforcement of that state’s anti-sweatshop laws after discovery of poor working conditions at several garment companies. This month, she is scheduled to host the first-ever meeting of labor and employment ministers from the G-20 countries to review ways governments can cooperate to boost employment.

“We need sustained job creation, both here at home and abroad,” Polaski said in testimony to a House subcommittee earlier this month. “U.S. households cannot continue to be the “consumer of last resort. Our economy cannot become healthy with sustainable growth without a sound and balanced world economy. A very important part of achieving that balance lies in improving the incomes of working households in low and middle income countries around the world, so that they can consume more of what they produce — and more of what we produce.”

DOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs has already partnered with the United Nation’s International Labor Organization to replicate its Better Work program, which makes the results of the factory inspections public to enable international buyers to direct their orders to factories that are making improvements on worker rights and working conditions.