Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Senators seek ban on "sweatshop" imports

Senators seek ban on "sweatshop" imports
By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Six U.S. senators introduced a bill on Tuesday to stop imports of clothing and other goods made under "sweatshop" conditions, as part of a bigger effort to refashion trade policy to boost workers' rights.

"This ... is legislation we will push very hard this year," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat and leading critic of President George W. Bush's handling of trade.

Dorgan identified China as the primary target of the bill, but said it was aimed at barring imports from any foreign company where workers are mistreated.

"In this bill, a sweatshop factory is one where workers are abused in violation of that country's labor laws," Dorgan said.

The bill empowers the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to blocks imports from a foreign factory if it determines they are being made under sweatshop conditions.

Importers who violate the ban would face a $10,000 fine for each separate offense and could also be sued by their competitors for damages, Dorgan said.

"The failure by other countries, such as China, to adequately enforce minimum labor laws effectively grants their producers a substantial subsidy over those companies and countries that treat their workers fairly," the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, a textile industry group, said in a statement supporting the bill.

A similar bill failed to become law last year, but the new version could fare better now that Democrats control Congress.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican whose state is a major textile producer, said he was co-sponsoring the legislation to help lift labor standards around the world and bring more fairness to trade.

"If you're a business person engaged in exploiting people to get a better market share, I hope you get fined, I hope you get sued. That's not the way to build up an economy. That's not the way to have global trade," Graham said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said the bill was part of a bigger fight to change U.S. trade policy, which began in 2005 with an effort to block approval of a free trade pact with Central American countries.

"In the last Congress, we changed the debate on trade. In this Congress we're going to change the face of trade," Brown said. Current U.S. trade policy "too often allows for the inhumane exploitation of workers," he said.