Exclusive-AFL-CIO wants more say in US digital trade deals for workers

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration has made digital commerce the centerpiece of its trade talks, and the AFL-CIO wants more say in how the U.S. trade representative’s office sets goals in this area, arguing that they are too often dictated by large technology companies.

The largest union organization in the United States on Tuesday issued a set of principles it believes are necessary to protect workers, the privacy of the public and the ability of governments to regulate a rapidly changing industry as USTR negotiates digital trade deals.

The USTR is expected soon to propose a text on the digital chapter in the negotiations for the Indo-Pacific economic framework, the economic agreement signed by the Biden administration.

US 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 or workers who write software or support networks.

“To date, US ‘digital trade’ agreements have sought to expand market access for large tech companies by granting large digital data and intellectual property rights, while limiting the ability of governments (both the US and of our trading partners) to take steps to take steps to address the economic transformation,” the AFL-CIO said in its plan.

At the heart of the organization’s demands are ensuring digital trade deals are subject to rigorous and enforceable labor standards, the AFL-CIO said, discouraging the “sweatshop” use of “gig” workers who are often private individuals​ ​of benefits and subjected to difficult working conditions and discouraging the offshoring of back-office or telehealth jobs in countries with low labor standards.

But the AFL-CIO’s requests also reject a key component of recent US trade deals that prohibit countries from imposing “data localization” policies to require local storage of data. The renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 2020, included such provisions, and in recent years, the USTR has been in discussions with countries, including India, about their plans for such policies, arguing that data platforms based in the United States should be free to operate anywhere in the world.

The AFL-CIO said not all data is created equal and in some cases, governments should have the ability to require people’s sensitive personal information, such as medical or biometric data, to be held ashore to ensure its security .


The principles also require the negotiation of strong safeguards against the misappropriation of voices, images or likenesses that could be used in digital content generated by artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

“Companies should not dictate the rules of the global digital economy without regard for workers,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement. “Their drive to monetize data often violates fundamental rights to privacy and exploits workers.”

Other AFL-CIO requests for digital trade negotiations include:

– Requiring governments to implement strong policies to safeguard individuals’ personal data in contrast to the current largely voluntary “self-regulatory” model which has proven to be inadequate.

– Facilitate meaningful oversight of source codes and algorithms to ensure compliance with labor laws. The working 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 businesses to eliminate labor abuses in their operations and supply chains.

– Protect and promote the economic security of creative professionals in the United States, including workers in the film, television and music industries, by aggressively addressing the stolen or unlicensed use of copyrighted content on digital platforms.

– Address the increase in cybercrime by state and private actors by calling for better cybersecurity standards and a common enforcement agenda.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Paul Simao)

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