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US Lawmakers Debate Free Trade Agreements with Singapore, Chile - 2003-07-22

The House of Representatives is set to debate Wednesday free trade agreements between the United States and two trading partners, Singapore and Chile. Republicans and Democrats have been arguing over the merits of the new agreements, while key U.S. labor organizations are pressuring members of Congress to vote against them.

Singapore and Chile do not rank among the top five, or even top 10 exporters to the United States. They send about $14 billion and $4 billion worth of goods respectively to the American market each year.

But as it negotiated with both countries, the Bush administration saw the agreements as a test case for future trade arrangements, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas and Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Singapore and Chile would join only four other nations - Canada, Mexico, Israel and Jordan - having free trade agreements with the United States.

Republicans in Congress say the agreements will bring benefits in three areas, goods, services, and intellectual property.

"These agreements will not only nurture our friendship and relationship with these great nations, but also will be in the best interests of the United States," said Congressman Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican.

Critics say the Chile-Singapore agreements will exacerbate unemployment in the United States, and contain weak language pertaining to the environment and labor standards.

"Manufacturing jobs leave this country, they go to Mexico," said Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, a heavy industrial and manufacturing state with a high unemployment rate. "They leave Mexico and they go to China, because the labor standards and the environmental standards there are so low that the capital begins to chase to the lowest common denominator. That's the problem I see with these agreements."

Among Democrats supporting the agreements, Congressman Earl Blumenauer says the United States stands to gain in the pact with Chile, where he notes, labor laws are the strongest in Latin America.

"What kind of government behavior do we want to encourage with our trade agreements? Chile represents an island of stability in troubled Latin American waters. It deserves our support as a model for other countries," he said.

This week, key labor organizations stepped up pressure on members of Congress to turn down the Chile and Singapore agreements.

James Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, says his union's future endorsements of individual lawmakers may ride on their decisions in the vote.

"How much is it going to take to get your attention that America is bleeding, that we are losing jobs? We have nine million people unemployed and probably another 25 million under-employed," he said. "We have told these members of Congress that. We are going to look at every endorsement from now on, and one of the key things we look at is going to be this vote."

The nation's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, also opposes the agreements saying they contain unenforceable workers rights provisions.

Supporters are pulling out the stops to shore up support in advance of the House vote and Senate action which may also occur this week.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, makes an appearance on Capitol Hill with Republican and Democrat House members who plan to vote for the agreements.