By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration has made digital trade the centerpiece of its trade negotiations, and the AFL-CIO wants a bigger say in how the U.S. Trade Representative’s office sets goals in this area, arguing they are too often dictated by big technology companies.
The largest U.S. labor organization on Tuesday issued a set of principles that it says is needed to protect workers, the public’s privacy and governments’ ability to regulate a rapidly evolving sector as the USTR negotiates digital trade agreements.
The USTR is expected to soon propose text on the digital chapter in negotiations for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the Biden administration’s signature economic agreement.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has pledged to create a “worker-centric” trade policy, but the AFL-CIO said digital trade negotiations too often make no mention of labor standards nor the workers who write software or support networks.
“To date, U.S. ‘digital trade’ agreements have sought to expand market access for large technology companies by granting broad digital data and intellectual property rights while narrowly constraining the ability of governments (of both the United States and our trade partners) to adopt measures to adopt measures to address the economic transformation,” the AFL-CIO said in its plan.
The heart of the organization’s demands involve ensuring that digital trade agreements are subject to strong and enforceable labor standards, the AFL-CIO said, discouraging the “exploitative” use of “gig” workers who often are deprived of benefits and subjected to difficult working conditions, and discouraging the offshoring of back-office or telemedicine jobs to countries with low labor standards.
But the AFL-CIO’s demands also push back against a key component of recent U.S. trade deals that prohibit countries from imposing “data localization” policies to require data to be stored locally. The renegotiated North American free trade deal, which went into effect in 2020, included such provisions, and USTR has sparred in recent years with countries including India over their plans for such policies, arguing that U.S.-based data platforms should be free to operate anywhere in the world.
The AFL-CIO said that not all data is created equal and in some cases, governments should have the ability to require that individuals’ sensitive personal information, such as medical or biometric data, be kept on-shore to ensure it is safe.
DIGITAL ECONOMY RULES
The principles also call for negotiating strong safeguards against misappropriations of voices, images or likenesses that could be used in digital content generated by artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.
“Corporations shouldn’t dictate the rules of the global digital economy with no regard for working people,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement. “Their drive to monetize data frequently violates crucial privacy rights and exploits workers.”
Tai made her first major USTR speech at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington to outline her worker-centered trade strategy. Since then, a USTR spokesperson said she has continually “embedded workers’ voices into all of our trade initiatives,” including pursuing six trade cases to defend worker rights in Mexico.
“We look forward to reviewing the AFL-CIO’s ideas and continuing to work closely with them,” the spokesperson added.
Other AFL-CIO demands for digital trade negotiations include:
– Requiring governments to enact strong policies to safeguard individuals’ personal data as opposed to the current largely voluntary “self-regulation” model that has proven inadequate.
– Facilitate meaningful oversight of source codes and algorithms to ensure compliance with labor laws. The labor group says automated employee monitoring systems and other AI-enabled tools can undermine workers rights and promote discrimination.
– Address “abusive” employment practices in the technology sector, to discourage the use of contractors and require firms to eliminate labor abuses in their own operations and supply chains.
– Protect and promote economic security of creative professionals in the United States, including motion picture, television and music industry workers by aggressively addressing the stolen or unlicensed use of copyrighted content on digital platforms.
– Address the rise of cybercrime by state and private actors by requiring improved cybersecurity standards and a common enforcement agenda.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Paul Simao)