Labor Standards in the Context of a Global Economy

By Swinnerton, Kenneth A.; Schoepfle, Gregory K. | Monthly Labor Review, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Labor Standards in the Context of a Global Economy


Swinnerton, Kenneth A., Schoepfle, Gregory K., Monthly Labor Review


Arecent symposium sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) focused attention on the relationship between internationally recognized labor standards and global economic integration. The gathering considered the connection between international labor standards and international trade, the perspectives of business and labor, and policy perspectives and future directions for initiatives on international labor standards.

The April 25, 1994, 1-day symposium, entitled "International Labor Standards and Global Economic Integration," also celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the International labor Organization (ILO) and its work in promoting international labor standards. A diverse group of U.S. and foreign government officials, academes, trade unionists, business owners and managers, and other private sector representatives came together to consider the ILO's work and the policy issues related to a strengthened link between international trade and labor standards. This article presents a summary of the proceedings of the symposium.

The program

U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich opened the symposium with the keynote address and U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor presented the luncheon address. A special address was given by ILO Deputy Director-General Heribert Maier. The first of three panel sessions, including three academic economists (Michael Piore from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Richard Freeman from Harvard University, and T. N. Srinivasan from Yale University), considered the connection between international labor standards and international trade. The second, which considered the perspectives of business and labor, featured Frank Doyle, executive vice president of the General Electric Co., and Thomas Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. The third session, with former U.S. Representative Donald Pease, former U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter, and Columbia University economist and political scientist Jagdish Bhagwati, considered policy perspectives and future directions for initiatives on international labor standards.

As with any policy initiative, a discussion of labor standards and their role in global economic integration should assess the overall need for action, the specific actions to be taken, and how, where, and by whom they are to be implemented and monitored.

The U.S. interest in labor standards

The symposium took place shortly after the Marrakesh ministerial meeting that formally concluded the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations. Among other measures, the Uruguay Round trade agreements will establish the World Trade Organization as the successor organization to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). At Marrakesh, the United States and other nations succeeded in getting the issue of international labor standards placed on the agenda for discussion of the new organization.

The U.S. government representatives indicated that they see some scope for the World Trade Organization to join the ILO in addressing internationally recognized labor standards. Labor Secretary Reich and Ambassador Kantor described some of the current thinking by U.S. government policymakers about what labor standards should be pursued, why the connection between globalization and labor standards should be addressed, and how results of standards setting might be monitored.

Reich identified "slavery, forced labor, the suppression of freedom of association, and the employment of very young children" as "outside the boundaries of what is expected of governments with regard to how they treat their citizens." He observed that prohibitions on these types of activities constitute core labor standards to which all countries should adhere, regardless of their level of economic development. Other labor standards, such as those related to minimum wages, make up a "vast gray area" and "[w]e cannot expect [every country] to reach our level. …

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