NAFTA, GATT, and the Current Free Trade System: A Dangerous Double Standard for Workers' Rights

Article excerpt

The single, clearest, most direct result of economic globalization to date is a massive global transfer of economic and political power away from national governments and into the hands of global corporations and the trade bureaucracies they helped create. This transfer of power is producing dire consequences for the environment, human rights, social welfare, agriculture, food safety, workers' rights, national sovereignty, and democracy itself.(1)


A. The 1999 Seattle Round and WTO's Future

From November 30th through December 3rd 1999, the 135 member States of the World Trade Organization (WTO)(2) were scheduled to convene for a round of negotiations in Seattle, Washington "to review the global trading system and ensure its dynamism and responsiveness in the years ahead."(3) The Seattle Round is ninth in a series of "negotiating rounds," including the Uruguay Round of 1986-94 that resulted in the official birth of the WTO.(4) Each round has built off of the last and each has brought in more member countries to negotiate rules for liberalized trade.(5) The Seattle Round was considered the most significant meeting of the members since the 1994 establishment of the WTO because the members intended to map out the WTO's work agenda for the months and years ahead.(6) It was this part of the agenda that roused controversy between the government bureaucrats and citizen action groups, whose visions for the future of the WTO were in direct conflict.

To many, and particularly to organized labor, the Seattle Round constituted a rare opportunity to capture the attention of global bureaucrats who for years have been crafting international trade rules without democratic participation, transparency or accountability. As early as November 26, 1999, fair trade(7) activists from all over the world began sprinkling into Seattle homes, hotels and streets -- just the beginning of an ultimate activist monsoon. It was earlier predicted that fair trade demonstrators would outnumber the bureaucrats of the WTO by the thousands, and some international trade bureaucrats and lawyers in Washington, D.C. anticipated "real blood and guts."(8) Their predictions came true ... with a vengeance.

The controversy between organized labor and the trade bureaucrats of the WTO, while multifaceted, can be plainly stated: the WTO openly declares that labor is not on the agenda and labor thinks it ought to be. According to the WTO, "there is no work on the subject [of labor] in the WTO, and it would be wrong to assume that it is a subject that 'lies ahead.'"(9) Rather than integrate labor standards directly into WTO rules and agreements, WTO members defer the issue to the International Labour Organization (ILO): "The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the competent body to set and deal with these standards and we affirm our support of its work in promoting them."(10) Conversely, the AFL-CIO,(11) America's largest labor union and an avid opponent of the existing WTO,(12) argues:

      WTO failure to enforce minimum labor standards results in ongoing
   exploitation of workers in the global market ... The WTO enforces
   intellectual property rights, market access and government regulation of
   investment -- and there is no reason why it also cannot enforce basic
   minimum standards for the humane and decent treatment of workers.(13)

B. Summary

This article compares the corporate rights embodied in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the GATT/WTO with workers' rights embodied in the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), suggesting that corporations enjoy far greater protection in the global marketplace than workers. This article further argues that unless the system is reformed, workers will continue to be exploited at the expense of corporate profits. By contrasting the NAFTA and the GATT/WTO enforcement mechanisms for commercial rights versus labor rights, this article attempts to expose how the current free trade paradigm procedurally and substantively promotes a double standard. …