House and Senate committees this month without opposition approved a free trade agreement with Bahrain, showing support that is typical for Middle Eastern countries but in stark contrast to pacts in Latin America.
The relatively easy road for Middle Eastern countries is due at least in part to their limited impact on the U.S. economy, coupled with a high foreign policy profile.
Limited trade means fewer threats to U.S. jobs, while the region’s links to terrorism make most lawmakers reluctant to vote against a potential economic helping hand.
“These agreements are one part trade and nine parts foreign policy. A large majority of members … can see the value in building commercial ties to Muslim countries in the Middle East,” said Dan Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank that supports free trade.
“In addition, these agreements face little opposition for a perverse reason — because they involve little trade, they arouse virtually no noisy special interests,” he added.
Opponents of the pacts acknowledge similar factors.
“It’s a combination of things. It is a question about the state of worker rights, a question about the economic impact. And for many members of Congress there are foreign policy issues as well,” said Thea Lee, policy adviser at the AFL-CIO, a labor federation that opposes the Bush administration’s trade agenda.
The AFL-CIO and its Democratic allies in the House came closest to stopping the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a pact with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. The House in July approved CAFTA by a two-vote margin after a bruising legislative battle.
When asked if the Andean Free Trade Agreement, which is being negotiated with Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, would spur the same kind of fight, Ms. Lee said it likely would.
While the AFL-CIO also has formally opposed Morocco and Bahrain, and plans to oppose deals with Oman and the United Arab Emirates, it does so with less zeal than the projects in the Americas.
Countries like Morocco, however, are not workers’ paradises.
“An estimated 36,000 children work as junior artisans in the handicraft industry, many of them working as apprentices before they reach 12 years of age and under substandard health and safety conditions,” the U.S. Labor Department said in a 2004 report.
Labor also said girls sometimes work in “adoptive servitude,” girls and boys working as domestic servants and street vendors are increasingly targets of child sex tourism, and children are sometimes “rented” out by their parents to other adults to beg.
The House in July 2004 approved the U.S.-Morocco pact 323-99, while the Senate gave unanimous approval. Bahrain may receive more support.
“There is a desire to move forward with peace through economics,” said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat and his party’s ranking member on the Ways and Means trade subcommittee.
Mr. Cardin and most of his colleagues who opposed CAFTA emphasized a failure of the Bush administration to include international labor standards in CAFTA as grounds for opposition. The countries were moving to weaken labor standards, he said, though CAFTA countries said they are doing just the opposite.
House Democrats have consistently asked the administration to include International Labor Organization standards in trade agreements, coupled with a mechanism to punish violations of ILO rules allowing workers to associate, form unions, bargain collectively and strike.
The Bush administration will not. But with Bahrain, an island kingdom in the Persian Gulf, Democrats extracted a letter from the country’s government promising labor reforms and enforcement of those laws, though ILO standards are not explicitly part of the deal to which the letter will be referenced.
New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, said Bahrain may represent a new model for labor standards in trade pacts.
“Democrats believe we need some language included in the [trade agreement] so that we can walk away satisfied that some countries, particularly developing nations, will not be driven to the bottom in terms of worker rights,” Mr. Rangel said.