Next time you pick up that oh-so-affordable item -- an electronic gadget made in Brazil or, say, a groovy pair of Indian earrings -- it's worth wondering how this steal-of-a-deal came to be.
Chances are good the item was made by a woman, and possibly its bargain-basement price was helped along by something called the Generalized System of Preferences, a trade act that is supposed to reward developing countries that move toward humane labor laws. Unfortunately, these two facts that together can spell such an irresistible value for the American consumer also engender some appalling labor practices for the women who make the products.
Why? Because these enlightened trade laws don't actually cover discrimination against women. In fact, the GSP Act, which allows thousands of products from developing countries to enter the United States free from tariffs, excludes protection from employment and workplace discrimination from the list of rights. On Wednesday Human Rights Watch issued an alert about the impending extension of the GSP -- due to expire Dec. 31 -- and how it ought to be rewritten.
"In many countries, women produce most of the goods exported to the United States under the preferences system," said Carol Pier, senior researcher on trade and labor rights at Human Rights Watch. "Yet they often suffer daily discrimination, including sexual harassment and forced pregnancy testing. It's a major problem that Congress should address."
Is there a chance Congress is listening? Not this time around. By early next month, the lame-duck U.S. Congress is expected to continue business as usual by voting to extend the act for two more years.
No one is arguing that Congress should delay the vote -- in the past Congress has allowed the laws to lapse, creating hardship for the countries that have come to depend upon favorable trade conditions. The U.S. has been tying trade benefits to labor rights since 1984; the GPS now covers several internationally recognized human rights, including freedom of association, the right to organize, a prohibition on forced labor, child labor laws, and minimum-wage, safety and health laws. But there's a strong case to be made that the current law doesn't go nearly far enough.
In many cases, the companies profiting from the GSP -- be they factories in South America or workshops in Asia -- are banking on improving their bottom line with female labor. In some industries women are considered more productive, and women will often work for lower wages. But problems arise when they get pregnant, so many employers compel female applicants to show negative pregnancy tests as a condition of employment. If women workers become pregnant once employed, they may find themselves fired for other reasons.
That many women in some developing countries suffer atrocious discrimination, sexual harassment and egregious oppression in the workplace is, unfortunately, not surprising, but trade agreements can be powerful in motivating governments to institute change. In 2001 Guatemala changed its labor laws vis-`-vis freedom of association to qualify for the coveted GSP status.
There are some signs of progress, if not on this continent. Last year the European Union instituted a new "GSP plus," which requires qualifying countries to sign on to a whole host of international rights treaties, including freedom from employment discrimination and equal remuneration of men and women.