World Trade Organization Spurns Workers' Rights

By Blaikie, Bill | Canadian Dimension, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

World Trade Organization Spurns Workers' Rights


Blaikie, Bill, Canadian Dimension


While Trade Ministers were haggling at the recent Singapore World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting over how, or whether, their final declaration would deal with the issue of trade and labour standards, in nearby Jakarta the subversion trial of independent Indonesian trade unionist Muchtar Pakpahan began. The charge against Pakpahan was supported by a poem that he wrote about a murdered trade unionist, speeches calling for an increase in the minimum wage, and his support for a referendum in East Timor.

In the weeks leading up to the Singapore conference some had hoped there might be a WTO working group established to examine the relationship between trade and labour standards. But by the week before the conference the issue had become so sensitive that the WTO withdrew its invitation to Michael Hansenne, Director General of the International Labour Organization. Doubts were expressed whether any mention of labour standards would be possible in the context of the WTO's consensus model.

Singapore was a superb choice for the WTO conference - an economic culture devoted to the ideology of the market, with an authoritarian political culture which tolerates only minimal opposition. The same week the WTO met in Singapore, an opposition member of parliament was convicted and fined for "misrepresenting" government spending figures on health. The WTO was guaranteed that the trade ministers' inaugural meeting would not be greeted by protesters concerned about the downsides of globalization.

An early draft of the final declaration began by recalling that all members of the WTO subscribed to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This sentence was the first casualty; its loss signifying the extent to which the WTO denies labour standards are a matter of human rights. Admitting core labour standards are human rights would have inserted a moral dimension into an endless discourse about capital being able to flow more efficiently to wherever it will yield the best returns, rising levels of global investment, and the opportunities for the global trading community that global integration creates.

The same early draft stated that "protectionist measures should not be used to enforce labour standards, and that the comparative advantage of low wage countries should not be put into question." At one point, the idea of putting "low wage" economies beyond question was dropped in favour of talking about the comparative advantage of "developing" economies. But by the end of the week "low wage" was back, and there was no distinction to be made between low wage economies in which people have the freedom and the human and democratic right to openly advocate otherwise, and low wage economies that are maintained by authoritarian suppression of human rights.

The idea that trade sanctions or protectionist measures should never be used to enforce labour standards, even core labour standards like freedom of expression and association, seemed to be non-controversial. In this blanket rejection of ever establishing WTO rules that might invoke sanctions against countries which persecute trade unionists or exploit child labour, WTO rhetoric for a "rules based" global marketplace rings hollow. There will be rules to protect investors and many other actors in the world trading system, but there will be no rules to protect workers. They will be left to the tender mercies of their respective national governments, who will compete with each other by seeing who can keep their workers in line the best.

The American stance on labour standards was noteworthy. Support for free trade and globalization has been eroding in the United States, from both ends of the political spectrum. On the Right, the concern is primarily about American sovereignty, and the offence taken at America being bound by the dictates of an international organization. There is a sovereignty concern on the Left too, but it has more to do with the watering down of national standards than the principle of global standards. …

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