Labor Rights Must Be Part of WTO
21 February 2000
Times Union Albany, NY
WASHINGTON -- The fiasco during the World Trade Organization conference
in Seattle in December has scarred both the WTO and the prospects for
further trade talks to open markets. In the subsequent Monday-morning
quarterbacking, most commentators concluded that President Clinton's
ruminations on the divisive issue of labor standards sealed the
collapse of WTO talks. But, inevitably, a new round of trade
negotiations will only occur with compromise by all parties on labor
rights. A more constructive dialogue should focus on how, not whether,
to incorporate the broad principles of labor rights into the
international trading system.
Of course, Clinton's attempt to politically exploit the debate has
created a thorny path to consensus. By invoking the need to put a human
face on trade, he signaled fraternal support to the labor movement, a
critical ally in promoting the political ambitions of his vice
president, Al Gore.
But developing countries demand that labor rights be divorced from the
WTO. Clinton maneuvered to downplay the gravity of his remarks by
suggesting only the "ultimate" use of sanctions to enforce labor
standards. This mixed message bred cynicism on both sides of the
debate, and developing countries were handed a convenient exit strategy
from the trade talks.
What must be done to forge agreement on universal norms for labor
standards? Some observers casually suggest that labor rights should be
under the exclusive domain of the International Labor Organization, but
this token gesture is rightly rebuffed by those who recognize that the
ILO has no teeth to enforce its rules.
Rather, the United States must boldly demand that a core labor- rights
framework be included in the WTO. We can tactfully exercise leadership
without the impression that Western values and America's will are being
imposed on developing countries.
For example, the United States does not dictate what the minimum wage
should be in India; similarly, we have no interest or authority in
mandating what precisely constitutes child labor in India.
Indeed, India must determine the appropriate minimum age for its work
force. India may decide that, for the time being, no child under age 14
should be in the labor force. At some later point, India may deem it
fitting to adjust the minimum age to, say, 16. Regardless of the
minimum age established by the Indian government, it is their
responsibility to enforce the prohibition of child labor under Indian
law. Hence, the WTO must "ultimately" be equipped with an enforcement
mechanism to assure that India, like all members of the WTO, enforces
its laws on child labor.
Furthermore, the economic argument for prohibiting child labor is
grounded on rules of fair play in the world trading system. Contrary to
the views of developing countries with labor-intensive economies, the
use of child labor does not represent a legitimate comparative
advantage. Rather, it amounts to a subsidy for firms that violate norms
of civil conduct -- as expressed, for example, at the United Nations
World Summit for Social Development in 1995 -- by exploiting the cheap
labor of children. The same broad principles apply to basic labor
rights such as nondiscrimination in employment and freedom of
An effective WTO must establish a fair, transparent, rules-based
international trading system that safeguards the rights of all parties
affected by commerce. Thus, institutional reform to fairly represent
the interests of firms, investors and workers would help restore
confidence in the WTO's authority and effectiveness among members and
Of course, it would be naive to assume that the United States can
reconcile the labor-rights dispute if other nations resume
obstructionist tactics in trade negotiations. Indeed, one source of
tension in international affairs is a perceived global imbalance of
power, which some countries allege is a byproduct of American hegemony.
Many critics of trade liberalization view globalization as a veil for
Americanization -- a process that seeks to promote America's corporate
and economic interests. Achieving agreement on regulating the rules and
terms of globalization is difficult enough, and the myth of an American
capitalist conspiracy makes matters worse.
Not long ago, author and columnist Tom Friedman cavalierly warned that
countries failing to board the globalization train risk being run over
by it. Many nations now complain that the costs (loss of sovereignty)
of boarding the globalization train are excessive, that no one knows
the destination of the train, and that the United States monopolizes
the driver's seat.
Proponents of economic integration must demonstrate that the virtue of
trade lies not merely in the creation and accumulation of wealth. A
viable system of international commerce should also promote shared
prosperity by assuring the optimal gain for the maximum number of
participants in the global economy.
Liberalization will succeed only if its advocates recognize that the
bitter, grass-roots struggle over globalization is unlike the old,
backroom economic debate over free trade. To that end, the WTO can no
longer neglect the rights of workers. Peter Morici is a senior fellow
at the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington. He wrote this article
for Bridge News, (www.bridge.com
) a New York City- based news service.