By Vicki Needham - 05/11/15 01:57 PM EDT
Fourteen Senate Democrats on Monday urged President Obama to require that stronger labor standards be implemented before a sweeping Asia-Pacific deal takes effect, firing a shot across the bow on the eve of a crucial test vote in the Senate.
The group of lawmakers, nearly all of whom oppose fast-tracking trade agreements, warned U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael FromanOvernight Finance: GOP faces dilemma on spending bills | CEOs push Congress on tax rules | Trump talks energy Obama administration strikes deal on TPP data storage White House developing legislative strategy to pass Pacific trade deal MORE and Labor Secretary Tom Perez that waiting to improve standards until after the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is enacted could diminish enforcement of labor protections in those countries.
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The letter was sent on the eve of a vote in the Senate on Tuesday on whether to proceed to trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation, which would establish the fast-track powers sought by the White House.
The procedural motion will require 60 votes to clear, leaving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellIn House GOP, Ryan endorsement of Trump seen as inevitable McConnell: Trump White House will have ‘constraints’ Nearly 400 House bills stuck in Senate limbo MORE (R-Ky.) with little margin for error.
Cardin is the only senator to sign Monday’s letter who has expressed support for granting the fast-track authority, which would only give Congress an up-or-down vote on any trade deals, with no ability to amend them.
The Democratic signatories to Monday’s letter specifically expressed concern about workers’ rights in four countries — Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Mexico.
They argued that if countries like Vietnam are unable to meet the agreement’s labor standards before TPP takes effect, "USTR’s ability to enact change on the ground will severely diminish if not disappear after TPP’s enactment date."
They also said that the TPP needs to incorporate an independent panel with the authority to determine and settle labor compliance problems because previous agreements have proven that government-to-government enforcement of the standards is rare and does not yield timely resolutions of violations.
“American workers are the most productive in the world, but they cannot compete against workers who are paid pennies, denied their right to collectively bargain or are forced to work in unsafe conditions,” the senators wrote.
“The U.S. has maximum leverage to accomplish these objectives during the negotiations and before the agreement takes effect,” they wrote.
The Democrats called on Froman and Perez to ensure protections around organizing labor unions and collective bargaining. They specifically encouraged Froman, who spent last week in Malaysia, to address child and forced labor in that country.
“If we don’t improve labor standards in TPP countries in a meaningful way, we fail to give American workers the ability to compete,” Brown said in a statement.
“Before we sign a trade deal affecting 40 percent of the world’s GDP, we must put stronger worker protections in place before this trade agreement goes into effect or else we will miss our opportunity to improve labor standards and level the playing field,” he said.
The lawmakers said that Malaysia’s labor laws containing long-standing prohibitions on strikes, unions and leadership roles for migrant workers must be changed.
They said that Brunei must pass a minimum wage law to ensure that its labor laws guarantee freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain.
And they said that Mexico must make more progress on its 2012 labor reforms plan.