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The Biden International Labor Agenda

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I’ve talked a lot about Biden’s labor agenda in the country. But it’s also quite impressive, at least behind the scenes, on some of the international labor issues I’ve been longing for people taking seriously for years.

Support for labor runs so deep in the Biden administration that it is reshaping foreign policy and international trade. Failure to live up to international labor standards was cited as one of the reasons Mali recently lost the right to send duty-free goods to the United States. Improving child and forced labor conditions appeared on a list of things that India agreed to work on this year after meetings with U.S. officials. The administration has also vowed to root slave labor out of U.S. supply chains — a move that seems designed to curb imports from China’s Xinjiang region.

It’s not just lip service. The Biden administration is full of true believers. Thea Lee, a deputy under secretary for international affairs in the Department of Labor, spent years at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., trying to strengthen and enforce labor standards abroad. In the mid-2000s, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. submitted a complaint against Guatemala over violations of labor rights, including the killings of labor organizers there. Nearly all Guatemalan fruits and clothing were entering the United States duty free, thanks to the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to better protect the right to organize. But labor leaders were still being gunned down, including the leader of a union of port workers. Ms. Lee raised the alarm with officials from the Bush and Obama administrations. Yet they listened to her as someone listens to “a TV with the sound turned off,” she told me. The fact that she is now a senior U.S. government official shows just how much Washington has changed.

Again, it’s worth noting how terrible Obama was on all these issues. Remember when his administration reclassified Malaysia’s labor rights rankings so it could be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership immediately after a labor camp filled with the bones of trafficked slaves was found? Good times there!

The whole op-ed is full of good stuff about Biden’s appointees to key positions on international trade issues. Whether any of this helps him win over American workers is an extremely dicey proposition, but then the point is to do the right thing, not only to win.

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