Displaced high-tech workers and fair trade advocates held a rally outside the main gates of Intel’s Ronler Acres facility in Hillsboro, Oregon to voice their opposition to the Obama administration’s plan to push forward with the Korea Free Trade Agreement, just before the President spoke inside about how education will make the U.S. more competitive in the global economy.
“No one is going to argue against increased education, but what Americans really need are jobs. Too many high-tech positions have already been shipped overseas, and the President’s proposal for a free trade agreement with Korea would make things even worse,” said Mitch Besser, an unemployed software engineer with a Masters Degree in Software Development and over two decades of experience in the field.
Besser lost his programming job at IGT in Corvallis last year when the company closed its local branch, offshoring the majority of its work to China. Prior to being laid off, Besser and his coworkers had spent much of the year training their Chinese replacements.
The U.S. International Trade Commission, the federal agency tasked with projecting the outcome of potential U.S. trade policies, estimates that the proposed Korea Free Trade Agreement would increase the U.S. trade deficit in electronics — a category that includes high-tech sectors like semiconductors and solar panels — by $762 – 790 million. The Commission also predicts that the trade pact will increase the overall U.S. trade deficit.
According to an April 2010 study commissioned by the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Oregon’s 1st Congressional District, which is home to Intel and the state’s so-called “Silicon Forest,” already lost a net 14,600 jobs due to imbalanced trade with China between 2001 and 2008. This was the first seven years after Congress allowed China to join the World Trade Organization. The job loss represented 3.76% of the district’s total employment, making it one of the hardest hit in the entire nation.
“There’s a clear track-record of trade-related job loss in Oregon’s high-tech sector due to past trade policies. Passing the Korea Free Trade Agreement will only continue that trend,” said Elizabeth Swager, Assistant Director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign. “People are having a hard enough time finding decent work without our elected officials making things even harder. It’s a message that the President and Members of Congress need to hear.”
Former workers from Intel have repeatedly been certified for “Trade Adjustment Assistance” by the U.S. Labor Department both in Oregon and across the country, meaning that their jobs were either directly offshored or displaced by imports. Workers at other Oregon high-tech firms like InFocus, Symantec, Tyco Electronics, Sumco, Pixelworks and more have also had their jobs directly or indirectly offshored.
9,543 people in Oregon and 12,269 in Washington state are currently employed in the electronics sector. Other iconic Northwest industries that the U.S. International Trade Commission identifies as threatened by the Korea Free Trade Agreement include wood products, paper, wheat production and transportation equipment.
One complaint about the Korea trade agreement made by fair trade advocates is that its 35% “rule of origin” provisions would allow for up to 65% of a Korean-assembled product that enters the U.S. duty-free to be made in third-party countries like China or Vietnam. These countries will not have to make reciprocal market access concessions to the U.S., nor meet even basic labor and environmental standards.
“The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough Americans ready to work. It’s that there aren’t many Americans willing to work for the poverty wages paid in most developing countries,” said Besser. “Passing the Korea Free Trade Agreement will only accelerate this race to the bottom that’s hurting working people everywhere.”