Vol. VI, Bulletin No. 13.                                                                        December 3,  2001

WTO's Lop-Sided Agenda for the World

        Why Trade Ministers at Intergovernmental Conference in Qatar
        Once Again Gave Working Men and Women the Brush-Off

World trade today is far too important to be left up to trade ministers. Decisions reached last month at the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization have made that truth crystal clear.

Nominally, WTO policies set international law for "trade"; in reality, those policies already reach much, much  further. Now the WTO has what it describes as an "expanded negotiating agenda," one designed to extend the WTO's powers even further. That agenda, adopted at the ministerial summit in Doha, capital of the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Qatar, includes such diverse items as agriculture, intellectual property rights, investment, competition, government procurement, custom clearance, fisheries subsidies, environment, electronic commerce, foreign debt, services, and "movement of natural persons."

Those topics are all explicitly mentioned in a Ministerial Declaration adopted after six days of negotiations behind closed doors. At the same time, the 6,000-word document gives the green light implicitly to countless other subjects subsumed under those topics, other generalities, and references of approval to documents such as "WT/MIN(01)/W/10."

Glaringly missing from the subjects of the WTO's concern: workers.  The Declaration pointedly cites WTO cooperation with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), but once again ignores appeals that it cooperate with another UN agency, the International Labor Organization.

Delegations at WTO Represent Only Special Trade Interests

Why this brush-off, given that working men and women play an indispensable role in producing for international trade?  The conventional explanation blames developing countries.  But, as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out in a recent lecture on globalization and its discontents, delegates making policy at WTO meetings "do not represent the countries that they [claim to] represent" -- they represent special trade interests within those countries.

The unrepresentative character of representation at the WTO holds true for delegations from developing countries and developed ones like the United States. Yet those special interests are determining policies of general interest impacting both domestic and international law.

Objections to the bias built into the WTO, and into what it calls the multilateral trading system, seldom get a hearing from topmost political leaders or the media. Even a so-called liberal TV show like West Wing derides protests as "anti-globalization," and suggests that no sensible person could have any doubts about globalization.  Still, possibilities for reform are far from zero. The WTO itself is sparking demands for change because of its drive to assert power in more and more areas and to impose its many prepackaged solutions on developing countries.

Don't count on trade bureaucrats to decide that their agenda is unbalanced and overloaded or that their plan for global governance is beyond the WTO's competence. To the contrary, the U.S. trade bureaucracy, which is the main force in the WTO, has been lobbying aggressively to institutionalize its own broad powers through legislation that it calls Trade Negotiating Authority, the White House's new label for "fast track."  At this writing, it remains unclear whether Congress will agree to the excessive powers demanded by the free-wheeling United States Trade Representative (USTR).

In any case, it is time for Congress to create a high-level national commission to assess the WTO and the power that special trade interests have in shaping its policies. The world needs a global trade agency promoting the general interest, not special interests. Congress must take the initiative to rein in the WTO from its biased approach to global governance.

An Economist vs. The Economist on Trade

The Economist has few rivals in promulgating the virtues of free trade for all countries, rich and poor. In an November 3 editorial, "High Stakes at Doha," the magazine had these comments about the developing world's attitude toward the WTO's launching a new round of trade negotiations:

"The least enthusiastic for a new round have been the poor countries. Yet with higher trade barriers, on average, than rich countries, they have the most to gain from further liberalization. They seem sure to be bigger winners this time than in the Uruguay round, since agriculture and textiles (which between them make up 70% of exports from the poorest countries) loom so large."
To its credit, the Economist publicized a critique of its position. The November 24 issue featured a long challenge from Robert Wade of the London School of Economics' Development Studies Institute. Here are two key points Wade made in his letter: How did poor countries fare at Doha?  As the Economist reports in its November 17 issue, the U.S.'s Robert Zoellick was "jubilant"; the European Union, "also happy." But "poor countries were much less excited."  India is "worried about [the WTO's] incursion into new areas." And "Africans too feared the prospect of expanding the WTO's remit further."

In a harsher critique, Walden Bellow of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and Anuradha Mittal of the California-based Food First wrote: "Doha was a defeat for the developing countries," because, among other reasons, the Declaration's language on phasing out European and U.S. agricultural subsidies was watered down.  In the Bellow/Mittal analysis, there is also less to the concession on life-saving medicines for developing countries than was trumpeted in press coverage. They point out that the developing world failed to gain a key objective: to change the prevailing WTO agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to outlaw "biopiracy" and patents on life.

WTO's Aid to Multinational Corporations

"Extremely disappointing."  That was AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's verdict on the outcome of the WTO summit in Qatar last month.  Thirty labor leaders from around the world, including Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO policy department and two Steel Worker union officials, were in Qatar lobbying delegates to the conference, which was closed to non-delegates, including the media. Among the criticisms expressed in Sweeney's statement:

We Must Look for New Ways To Enhance Worker Rights: Labor Leader

After days of fruitless lobbying at Qatar, Neil Kearney, head of a global federation of unions representing 10 million textile and leather workers in 110 countries, attacked the WTO for "promoting the vested interests of global corporations, while trampling on the rights and aspirations of those whose labor fuels the profits of these same corporations."  Reflecting frustration over the failure of labor's decades-long campaign at the WTO level, Kearney said: "Workers and their trade unions must now look for new ways to defend and enhance their rights."

Mixing Up Bicycling and Negotiating

"We have to decide whether to keep advancing the international trading system or to let it slip backward. The bicycle theory of trade is again in force: If the trade-liberalization process does not move forward, it will, like a bicycle, be pulled down by the political gravity of special interests." -- Robert B. Zoellick, U.S. Trade Representative, quoted in the Washington Post, November 6, p.18.

"The commonly espoused 'bicycle theory' -- the notion that unless liberalization moves forward constantly, protection will become rampant -- appears to have little merit." -- Vinod K. Aggarwal, professor of business and public policy in the Haas School of Business.

*  *  *
Professor Aggarwal's comment on the bicycle theory is from his insightful chapter on international trade in a new book, Managing Global Issues: Lessons Learned, edited by P.J. Simmons and Chantal de Jonge Oudraat published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  In 16 chapters written by experts, the book examines issues in 16 areas of global concern, from communications to warfare.

Unfortunately the chapter on labor rights, written by Brian Langille, professor of law at the University of Toronto, is an incomplete analysis of the global economy's pressing labor issues and how they are being addressed by workers, unions, employers, business organizations, governments, intergovernmental organizations, human rights organizations, consumers, students, and universities.

Hailing a Rare Victory Against Sweatshops

Leaders of a new union in a Mexican factory making Nike and Reebok sweatshirts are touring U.S. universities to publicize their victory, gained with U.S. student help, and to seek support for Mexican workers still deprived of unions.

The leaders are from a Korean-owned factory in Atlixco, a garment industry center 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.  On September 21 they signed a collective bargaining contract with management at the Mexmode plant (formerly called Kukdong), thanks to their own 18-month organizing campaign and international pressure. "Eyes around the world have been focused on us," said Marcela Munoz Tepepa, 23, a seamstress who is the founding general secretary of the Independent Union of Mexmode Workers.

The Mexmode factory, with 450 seamstresses and machine operators, is believed to be the one of the few 3,400 foreign-owned garment factories in Mexico with a democratic, independent union chosen by the workers themselves. Huberto Juarez Nunez, a researcher in economics at the Autonomous University of Puebla, sees the victory at Mexmode as a good omen for all Mexican workers.  He told the New York Times: "Companies will have to do more than abide by weak laws."

Munoz and Juarez are members of the four-person delegation from Mexico visiting the campuses of a dozen U.S. colleges and universities in Washington, D.C., Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and California.  The tour sponsor is the Worker Rights Consortium, the labor rights monitoring organization inspired by the United Students Against Sweatshops, which has student labor rights affiliates on 200 campuses. Complementary USAS/WRC pressures helped persuade Mexmode management to disown a contract that they had earlier signed with a company union even before hiring a single worker.

(For background on the struggle in Atlixco, see an excellent article, "No Justice, No Contract" by Alexander Gourevitch, in the American Prospect. For an excellent report on the U.S. anti-sweatshop movement as a whole, see "White Hats or Don Quixotes? Human Rights Vigilantes in the Global Economy" by Kimberly Ann Elliott of the Institute for International Economics and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.)
Abuse of Children at Epidemic Levels

Child sexual exploitation is North America's "least recognized epidemic," according to Richard J. Estes, a University of Pennsylvania professor of social work and co-author of a three-year study of the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Even most law-enforcement and child-welfare officials, says Estes, are not aware of the widespread victimization of children through juvenile pornography, prostitution, and trafficking.

The U.S. staff of the campaign to end child prostitution and trafficking (ECPAT-USA) released the study at a well attended press conference on September 10. That event also was designed to launch a national campaign against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Then the UN General Assembly's Special Session of Children, set to begin on September 19, had to be postponed.  "All these efforts are suffering from the aftermath of the [September 11] attack," ECPAT points out. "As we decide as a nation what choices to make about where to go from here, what more humane framework can we use than one that places children first."

The second world congress against the commercial sexual exploitation of children will be held December 17 to 20 in Yokohama, Japan, hosted by the government of Japan and co-sponsored by ECPAT, UNICEF, and the NGO Group on the Rights of the Child.

*   *  *
You can express your protest against abusive child labor by adding your name to a petition circulated by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions through its Website.

Diary: Thanksgiving Cards from a Relative

"Thanks for taking long walks with me, Grandpa. They make fall fun. Hugs and kisses.-- Mai."  Those words, handwritten on a Hallmark card I received just before Thanksgiving, showed that I am somebody special to Mai.  Similar words written on a separate card showed that Mai's grandmother, too, is somebody special to Mai.

Mai is quite advanced for her age, but not advanced enough to write her own greeting cards at the age of eight months. Of course her mother, Kelly Senser, had a hand in these Thanksgiving notes. And so did her father, Thuy, by penning a greeting in Vietnamese, and signing it Mai Han Senser. We found the messages heart warming, a sign of how Mai's presence in our midst is something special to be grateful for this year. Somebody delightfully special.

Many years ago, when I was much younger, I wrote a newspaper column sharply criticizing the custom of sending out Christmas cards. I called it a lazy excuse for not writing something personal, like a letter. In truth, at the time I wrote neither cards nor something personal. Nowadays, older and a bit wiser, I try to do both on occasions such as Christmas, as Mai did this Thanksgiving.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VI-13, December 3, 2001
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2001
robert@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

Back to Home Page