Labor Standards: Focus On How, Not Whether
By Peter Morici
1 March 2000
(c) Copyright 2000, The Journal of Commerce Inc. All Rights Reserved
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 occur only 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 handed developing countries a convenient exit strategy.
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.
But whatever age India sets in its minimum-age law, it has the
responsibility to enforce the law. And the WTO must "ultimately" be
equipped with a mechanism to ensure that it does so, and that other WTO
members enforce the minimum-age laws they have set.
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 U.N.
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 association.
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 companies, 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 is a perceived global imbalance of power, which some countries
allege is a byproduct of American hegemony. 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 cost of boarding the
globalization train - loss of sovereignty - is 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,
back-room economic debate over free trade. To that end, the WTO can no
longer neglect the rights of workers.
Peter Morici is senior fellow at the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington. This article was distributed by Bridge News.
Copyright 2000, The Journal of Commerce Inc.