State of Oregon outsourcing jobs to India under agreement of ex-governor

SALEM — Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski reportedly was shocked to learn earlier this month that Oregon’s Department of Human Services uses a contractor that pays call centers in India to respond to questions from food stamp recipients.  He quickly asked state agencies to avoid outsourcing state work overseas, claiming “every job counts” in Oregon’s struggling economy.

But Kulongoski’s ability to curtail outsourcing state government jobs to foreign countries may be limited by a commitment made by another Oregon governor more then 10 years ago and by trade agreements negotiated since then by the federal government.

The tentacles of outsourcing reach deep into state and federal governments. One such tentacle leads all the way back to 1993, when then-Governor Barbara Roberts signed a letter to the U.S. trade representative that committed Oregon to abide by agreements among certain member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that limit what governments can do to restrict contracts for goods and services.

Giving preference to U.S. businesses or barring contracts with firms based overseas to protect jobs here at home are prohibited in trade deals that include WTO rules for government purchasing practices. The 1993 letter binds Oregon to such agreements with 28 countries, including Canada, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore, but not yet India or China.

That’s bad enough, says the Oregon AFL-CIO, but now U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is using Oregon’s 1993 letter and similar letters signed by other states to argue that those states’ purchasing policies will have to comply with future trade deals not yet negotiated or ratified by Congress — including the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

CAFTA, recently negotiated by the Bush Administration, contains provisions that would prohibit states from favoring local production (e.g. Buy Oregon programs) or restricting the purchase of goods from foreign countries (e.g., those that do not respect human rights nor follow fair labor standards).

What can Oregonians do to make sure their tax dollars support good jobs at home? Here’s a list compiled by the state labor federation:

• Oregon should rescind its commitment to abide by WTO trade policies on contracting and purchasing and tell the U.S. trade representative that the state will not be bound by new agreements with member countries of the WTO. The Oregon AFL-CIO made that request in a letter to Governor Kulongoski April 7. 

• The Administration and Congress should re-negotiate unfair trade agreements to restore to state governments the authority to control their own purchasing decisions and to force U. S. trading partners to honor workers’ rights and fair labor standards.

• Congress should reject new trade agreements, like CAFTA, that will tie the hands of state governments when they seek to encourage responsible contracting, promote local products and reward employers for maintaining jobs in local communities.

• Congress and the Oregon State Legislature should pass laws to prohibit outsourcing jobs supported by tax dollars.

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