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US-Africa: Trade soars but what about labour rights?

Published date:
Friday, 11 January 2008

At a recent forum held in Washington by the progressive Economic Policy Institute, labour and human rights activists criticised what they consider a lack of adequate protections for workers contained in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a unilateral U.S. trade deal aimed at increasing commerce between the United States and Sub-Saharan African countries.

Passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000, AGOA allows certain goods from Sub-Saharan African countries -- notably petroleum products and apparel -- to enter the United States duty-free and largely without any quota restrictions. It also encourages the growth of the textile industry in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by extending duty-free market access to apparel made using foreign sources of fibre, largely from Asia.

The agreement currently affects trade relations with 39 countries and has led to a large increase in trade between the United States and Africa. According to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in 1999 U.S. imports from Africa amounted to roughly 13.7 billion dollars. In 2006, the last year for which data is available, that number rose to 59.2 billion dollars.

But labour rights activists say the increase in trade and jobs brought by AGOA has not led to a corresponding improvement in conditions for workers. They argue many labourers work up to 16 hours a day for nothing more than the bare minimum legal wage, which they say falls well short of covering the cost of food, shelter and transportation.

"Our goal shouldn't simply be to provide any job through our [U.S.] trade policy," Bama Athreya, executive director of the International Labour Rights Forum, told attendees at the forum, "but to provide really decent jobs that come with dignity, respect, and the possibility that these workers can prosper in the future and expect a better life for their children."

To qualify for AGOA benefits, countries must show that they have established or are making "continual progress" toward establishing human rights and workers' rights, a market-based economy, and the elimination of certain child labour practices. But it is left to U.S. President George W. Bush to decide if a country meets the criteria -- and according to activists, therein lies the problem.

June Hartley, an activist and labour rights expert from South Africa, says there has been little effort to ensure that countries are enforcing or even making progress toward establishing workers' rights, such as the right to form a union and to maintain a safe working environment. "Enforcement, what enforcement? No one's enforcing anything," she says.

Hartley says AGOA has led many African governments to look the other way from labour rights violations in order to attract foreign businesses, which she argues contribute little to their host countries other than employment. She says many governments entice businesses with generous subsidies and tax breaks, only to see them leave when the benefits expire.

"The only thing [these businesses] send back is a pittance of wages, which are nothing. Now where is development in that?" Hartley says. "For me it's like highway robbery."

Critics also say the textile industry in countries that are supposed to benefit the most from AGOA -- primarily Lesotho, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, South Africa, and Swaziland -- is wholly dependent on foreign capital. They say that AGOA led mostly Asian manufacturers to set up in these countries, and did not lead to the growth of any domestic industry. And these critics point out that the garment industry in Sub-Saharan Africa is on the decline.

A report from the Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations says garment and textile exports fell by 12 percent in 2005 and 11 percent in 2006, largely due to the dismantling of the Multi Fibre Agreement (MFA), which limited textile exports from developing countries outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, namely China.

The end of the MFA in the beginning of 2005 removed one of the primary reasons for companies to operate in Africa, and many have since moved on. According to the report, one factory in Lesotho closed down in December 2005 without informing its 730 employees. When the workers showed up following their Christmas break they were informed by security guards that the factory had closed.

Matsepo Anna Lehlokoana, an organiser for the Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers Union (LECAWU), says AGOA initially spurred growth in the textile industry. But she says the number of people employed in the industry, the vast majority women, has fallen to almost half of what it was in 2001.

Lehlokoana says the companies that do remain largely ignore health and labour and standards. "If investors come in to operate in a country, there must be some sort... of bond to secure [workers' rights]," she says.

A bill introduced by U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington who was one of chief backers of AGOA in 2000, aims to do just that. Called the "New Partnership for Development Act" (NPDA), the bill would remove tariffs on all products exported from LDCs in an attempt to promote development in the world's poorest countries.

The bill would only allow countries to qualify for access to U.S. markets if they recognised core labour rights, including the right to organise and bargain collectively. It would also require countries to eliminate both compulsory and child labour, and in a break from past U.S. trade deals, would require countries to bar discrimination in employment decisions.

The bill has earned praise from human rights groups. Carol Pier, a senior labour rights and trade researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the legislation is a clear step in the right direction.

"For the first time this act would require the president to terminate a country's eligibility if it had not adopted and maintained in its laws and regulations core labour rights," Pier says.

The bill, which was introduced in October, is a "key priority" for Congressman McDermott, according to a top aide. It currently has the support of more than a dozen other members of the U.S. Congress, including New York Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

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