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Rep. John Lewis Seeks to Strengthen Trade Bill to Include Labor and Human Rights Measures

April 23, 2015
Press Release

            Today in a marathon mark-up of the Trade Priorities and Accountability Act (TPA) of 2015 in the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Lewis sought to amend the TPA to clarify and strengthen the instructions on labor and human protections, and it establishes an appropriate process to add human rights legislation to an implementing bill. In many nations where Americans trade, workers and citizens suffer human rights and labor violations that are illegal in this country.  Lewis made this statement on behalf of his amendment that would use the influence of the U.S. government's trading relationships to encourage nations to abide by fair and humane labor and civil rights practices:

​            Mr. Chairman, I have an amendment at the desk.  

      Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  First, I would like to thank Ranking Member Levin for all of his hard work and leadership.  He and his staff  fight tirelessly for human rights and labor rights in U.S. trade policy.  

My amendment is simple, and it is clear.  This amendment would add the labor and human rights processes that labor activists and struggling workers in the U.S. and around the world have requested over, and over, and over again.

      As you all know, we lost more than 50,000 young men in the tragic war with Vietnam.  Many Vietnamese-Americans came to this country as refugees fleeing communism and oppression; they were hoping to achieve the American dream.  

      Two years ago, dozens of Vietnamese-American citizens from my district visited my Washington office.  They asked -- begged really -- to do something about what was happening to their friends, families, and loved ones back in Vietnam.  

       Mr. Chairman, I have been to Vietnam, and I know that there is work to be done.  There is no freedom to organize, and freedom of speech and assembly are limited.  I know that these people are right when they demand for us to do something strong --something meaningful --to protect labor rights and human rights.  We must do something.  If we don't act now, at this very moment, then who will act?

We have been down this path before.  We have heard these same fears and the same warnings -- in China, in Colombia, and in DR-CAFTA.  

In each and every case, American workers said, "please do not support a race to the bottom; we cannot compete with forced labor, low wages, and no standards." Every single time, workers in these countries said, "please do not support trade without making changes in advance."  

      Time and time again, they warned us that empty promises and plans will do nothing.  And their words rang true.  To this day, every single week I receive reports of continued labor and human rights violations occurring in Colombia --occurring in the very same places that supporters argued that the FTA would bring jobs, safety, security, and labor protections.  

In a very few weeks, the world will recognize the anniversary of abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.  A few years ago, I wrote all of my colleagues on the Committee, to remind them that the question of human rights and trade is not one which began in the 1970s or in the 1990s.  

In 1807, this very Congress passed the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves.  Trade and labor, trade and human rights have always been linked; it is not something that is new.  It is not an issue for another day, another Committee, or another time. 

      I have said before, and I will say it again, our trade policies are a reflection of our values.  We must respect the dignity and worth of every person.    What does it profit a great nation to gain trade and lose its soul?

      As Members of this Committee, we must be a headlight not a tail light, or history will not be kind to us. This amendment responds to a desperate call for action.  Congress must do something new and learn from the hard, painful lessons of past FTAs.  

I urge all of my colleagues to support this amendment.  Do what is right; do what is just.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

            The Lewis amendment was not adopted.  The full committee voted strictly according to party lines.