INTERNATIONAL trade rules permit nations to grant favored tariff treatment to developing countries that meet certain conditions. Such conditions should and, to a degree do, include internationally recognized worker rights. Since 1984, when the Trade Act was amended, the United States has required that a country respect international worker rights in order for it to enjoy "beneficiary developing country" (BDC) status. This status allows a country's products into the US virtually duty-free.
El Salvador enjoys BDC status, yet it continues to violate worker rights. In its March 1991 report, the International Labor Organization (ILO) states that it deeply deplores "the violent deaths, disappearances of a large number of trade union leaders, the numerous arrests, detentions, harassment, and threats to trade unionists, the search of union premises, the efforts to break up demonstrations, and violently to break strikes, the restrictions imposed on the organization of trade unions, and the acts o f anti-union discrimination" which took place in El Salvador from February 1989 to January 1990. Such violations of worker rights continue to be an everyday occurrence in El Salvador.
A country whose government directly participates in or acquiesces in the bombing of union halls and imprisons and threatens union leaders is not competing fairly with countries where the right to engage in union activities is respected. When labor unions are prevented from organizing or are intimidated by government-sponsored or tolerated violence, the costs of production in that country will be artificially low.
The US Trade Representative (USTR) and her General System of Preferences Subcommittee (GSP) are responsible for seeing that the requirements of the Trade Act are met. Since worker rights have been included in GSP review, Liberia, Burma, the Central African Republic, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Romania, and Chile have had their preferential trade status terminated. Nonetheless Carla Hills, the USTR, has been criticized for her failure to address worker-rights violations evenhandedly. The case most often cited i s that of El Salvador.
This month the USTR will decide whether to terminate El Salvador's beneficiary trade status. The USTR has received petitions from a number of unions and human rights groups requesting termination. These groups have thoroughly documented a pattern of worker-rights violations in El Salvador. The recent ILO report forcefully condemns El Salvador's continued failure to abide by its international obligations.
But the Salvadoran government's denial that abuses have occurred makes it clear that rectifying this situation is not on its agenda. Members of the ruling ARENA Party responded to the filing of a petition with the USTR for violation of worker rights by demanding that the Salvadoran unionists in whose name the petition was filed be tried for treason.
Washington should not be bullied by cries of "protectionism." Requiring El Salvador to respect its international legal obligations in order to enjoy virtually duty-free trade with the US is not protectionist. The Trade Act puts teeth into international law by providing an enforcement mechanism to prevent a country from obtaining an unfair competitive edge by suppressing legitimate labor-union activity. To encourage a country to comply with its international legal obligations is not protectionism, but a legitimate exercise of economic influence to assure that a country abides by its legal obligations.
US leadership in the arena of international law must be exercised evenhandedly, especially in trade relations. The USTR should terminate El Salvador's preferential trade status for its failure to respect internationally recognized worker rights.