Senate Democrats

REID OPPOSES OMAN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT

Points to lack of prohibition on slave labor for vote against pact

Washington, DC–With the Senate considering legislation to implement the free trade agreement with Oman, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid issued the following statement opposing the agreement. Despite unanimous, bipartisan support for the measure, the Bush Administration stripped from the legislation the Conrad amendment, which would have ensured that goods made with slave labor and forced labor could not benefit under the agreement.  Senator Reid will not support an agreement that allows goods made with slave labor, forced labor, or labor from human trafficking to enter the U.S. duty-free. 

“M. President, I rise to express my deep disappointment over the legislation to implement the U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement.  When sending this legislation to Congress, President Bush inexplicably deleted an amendment that would have barred goods made with slave labor or forced labor from benefiting under the FTA. 

“This amendment was originally proposed by Senator Conrad and other Democrats on the Finance Committee, but ultimately received unanimous bipartisan support from the Finance Committee in a recorded vote. 

“The amendment was very simple – it would have ensured that goods produced with slave labor, goods produced from forced labor, and goods produced based on human trafficking could not come into the U.S. under the preferential rules established by the agreement.  I do not know how anyone could oppose this amendment.  I think the American public would be united in support for the concept that they do not want to help support slave labor, forced labor, and human trafficking.  President Bush really has some explaining to do. 

“The genesis for this amendment was a report revealing that companies in Jordan were importing workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and other poor countries, confiscating their passports, forcing them to work 80 to 100 hours per week, paying them inadequately, if at all, and subjecting them to physical intimidation and in some cases violence.  Many of these workers actually paid recruiters thousands of dollars to get these ‘good jobs’ and could not leave until they had earned enough money to pay off their debts. 

“Admittedly, these problems were in Jordan, not Oman.  There are important reasons, however, why we need to be even more vigilant about this type of problem in Oman. 

“First, Oman’s basic economic structure is currently based on the use of foreign workers – about 70% of Oman’s workforce is foreign.  Pretty much anywhere in the world, foreign workers are a particularly vulnerable lot.

“Second, Oman already has a record on related issues that is cause for concern – the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has stated that migrant workers ‘suffered extreme exploitation’ in Oman.  And, the U.S. State Department has criticized Oman for inadequate efforts to stop human trafficking: 

‘Oman is a destination country for men and women primarily from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India who migrate willingly, but may subsequently become victims of trafficking when subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude as … laborers.  …  Oman is placed on Tier 2 Watch List because of a lack of evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons over the last year.’

“Third, Oman’s labor laws, enforcement, and history are much weaker than Jordan’s.  Oman’s labor laws do not currently meet basic international standards.  Oman is to be applauded for making numerous changes to its laws in the run up to the FTA to try to improve them.  And, it has committed to making additional changes.  Still, as I understand it, a few important areas remain where Oman’s laws and enforcement fall short of standards that virtually every country in the world has accepted as a minimum.

“Negotiations with some Democrats had been ongoing to resolve the continuing labor issues, but the Administration appears to have decided that it will ignore their concerns.  That was a regrettable decision.  I have heard a lot of people lament the decline of bipartisanship in trade policy.  I think if you were to date this decline, it would have started in 2001.  The Administration cannot just roll Democratic concerns one day and then expect a great working environment the next.     

“I am not sure why President Bush thinks we need excuses to ban goods made from slave labor and forced labor, but if we do, then I think I have just outlined a pretty good rationale.

“I have heard some argue that we do not need to ban goods made with slave labor from Oman because U.S. law already bans all goods made with slave labor.  People who make this argument are either misinformed or being misleading.  The law at issue unfortunately has a ‘consumptive demand’ exception — it does not block imports of products made with slave labor if there is not sufficient U.S. production to meet U.S. demand.  The Court of International Trade just last year confirmed that the consumptive demand exception applies.  Given that our trade deficit stands at over $700 billion, the exception clearly swallows the rule.  So, again, anyone making a defense of this indefensible position by pointing to existing law is just plain wrong.   

“The President’s decision to undermine Senate Democrats’ efforts to curb slave labor and forced labor is not the only reason that I oppose this bill.  As I noted above, Oman’s labor laws – while much improved from 3 years ago – are still not up to international norms.  The Bush Administration has steadfastly refused to incorporate these minimum standards into the text of the agreement itself.  There are minimum standards for intellectual property, for protecting the rights of foreign investors, for certain regulatory decisions, and in numerous other areas – as there should be.  But the Bush Administration has refused to include minimum standards for workers.

“Finally, I want to re-state my serious concerns about the Arab League Boycott against Israel.  For decades now, the United States has had a policy to oppose the Arab League boycott against Israel.  There is an entire office in the Department of Commerce tasked with implementing this anti-boycott policy.  Congress has also directed USTR to ‘vigorously oppose’ WTO admission for countries that engage in the boycott.  In my view, it is an implicit corollary of this latter rule that the U.S. should not enter into bilateral trade agreements with countries that participate in the boycott. 

“Here, Oman has traditionally been one of the good guys.  It renounced the boycott – primary, secondary, and tertiary – in 1994.  The Government of Oman has stated numerous times that it does not apply any aspect of the boycott. 

“So, it was confusing to say the least that the Jerusalem Post reported earlier this month that an interview with two separate senior Customs officials in Oman revealed that Oman does in fact enforce the primary boycott.  An official from Oman’s Directorate of Customs stated, ‘Products from Israel are not permitted because of the boycott. … You might put yourself in problems if you do that [i.e., if you try to bring in products from Israel].’  The chief of Customs Officers at the capitol airport stated, ‘No products from Israel are allowed.’

“The Government of Oman quickly sought to correct the record.  I again applaud these efforts.  Still, it certainly raises a serious question when you have non-political people with no agenda whose very job it is day in and day out to enforce the Oman customs law claiming that the boycott exists.  There seems to be a major disconnect here. 

“The Administration should be able to lift the cloud of confusion, but unfortunately, the Administration lacks credibility on this issue.  Unwittingly or not, USTR has helped obfuscate the issue by giving incomplete, inaccurate, and on occasion misleading information to Congress on the boycott.  In light of this lack of credibility, there is too much uncertainty on whether Oman has indeed terminated all aspects of the Arab League boycott.  Accordingly, until this uncertainty is cleared up, I cannot support giving Oman the most preferential trade treatment under U.S. law.”

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