CHICAGO - U.S. businesses and workers will benefit from free trade agreements being negotiated with Asian and European countries, the U.S. commerce secretary said.

Penny Pritzker, who joined President Barack Obama's cabinet nearly two years ago, said the United States cannot afford to turn its back on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which involves 12 countries in Asia and South America. She also said the United States must conclude a similar trade pact with Europe.

TPP, in particular, has drawn criticism from labor unions, environmentalists and some Democrats, who have predicted widespread job losses.

Legislation requiring Congress to approve free trade agreements in an up-or-down vote, with no amendments, faces a tough fight on Capitol Hill. It was introduced recently.

Pritzker said here Friday night that the United States is insisting that labor and environmental standards be included in the agreements. The standards include a minimum wage, prohibition against child labor, stipulation for safer workplaces and protections against overfishing and deforestation.

The standards "put our companies and our workers on a better competitive footing then they are today," she told the Society of American Business Editors and Writers convention.

"If we don't help to set the standards and rules for trade in the 21st century, other countries are going to do it," she said. "Those aren't going to be standards where our companies are going to be as competitive or our workers are as competitive.'

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Pritzker noted that China and Mexico aren't waiting for the United States to strike free trade pacts. Mexico has 46, China has 17 in Asia alone.

Such agreements eliminate taxes on imported goods and remove barriers that favor government-owned businesses.

Exports are increasingly important to the U.S. economy. Last year, a record $2.35 trillion worth of goods and services were sold to foreign lands.

These sales supported 11.7 million U.S. jobs -- nearly 2 million more than in 2009.

Pritzker said small- and medium-sized businesses would benefit from greater access to markets in Asia, where the middle class is expected to grow from 500 million to 3.2 billion over the next 20 years. She said: "If you are a biz and your aren't selling into that market, what's going to happen to you?"