The Bush administration and US lawmakers have agreed on a blueprint to strengthen labor and environmental protections in four pending free trade deals, and trade officials now want to see a vote next month on a pact with Peru, they said.

The Bush administration is hoping the new provisions will bolster chances that Congress will endorse bilateral agreements with South Korea, Peru, Colombia and Panama this year.

US Trade Representative Susan Schwab began drafting a new slate of enforceable rules last month with leaders of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. The trading partners must also approve the changes before the deals move toward a vote in Congress.

“Now that this important work is done, we can move forward on implementing our pending free trade agreements,” said Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, the Ways and Means Committee’s ranking Republican.

So far, only the government of Peruvian President Alan Garcia has accepted the new rules, and Peru’s Congress plans to debate the proposed changes to the deal—the text of which Schwab’s office has now released—on Wednesday.

“The Peru agreement offers an important opportunity to expand economic opportunities for US farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and service providers and to encourage the economic reforms in Peru that are helping to alleviate poverty,” Schwab said in a statement.

Discussions continue with the other three countries on the labor and environmental modifications.

“I now look forward to congressional action on the Peru agreement in July,” Schwab said.

The South Korean trade deal is by far the largest of the set, but much of the US auto industry and several other sectors have already lined up against it.

South Korea’s Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong met with Schwab in Washington.

The agreement with Colombia, though, could face even more serious challenges in Congress as lawmakers complain about the South American nation’s record on violence against unionists.

Senior Colombian officials said last month they would have no problem with the new rules on labor and the environment.


Peruvian Trade Minister Mercedes Araoz told reporters in Lima that the new rules call for greater enforcement of Peru’s labor laws and also for new legislation to combat such problems as illegal logging and forced labor.

She said they also require Peru to loosen patent rules.

Rep. Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement with Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan that the Peru agreement set a positive precedent not only on labor and the environment but also on giving people in poor nations greater access to medicines.

Aid group Oxfam applauded the agreement’s provisions on access to medicines, but warned the deal still shortchanged poor farmers in the Andean nation.

“These trade deals will continue to entrench an unfair system in which the US provides massive domestic agricultural supports ... while our trading partners are left with no means of protection,” said Raymond Offenheiser, Oxfam America’s president. (Reuters)