Vol. III, Bulletin No. 8.                                                                     April 13, 1998 

'Reform the World Trade Organization'

WTO Needs to Upgrade Its Environmental Values, Yes,
But It Must Also Cure Its Myopia on Abusive Child Labor
In a strong editorial the New York Times has called for reforming the World Trade Organization "to give environmental values greater weight."  The April 10 editorial blamed the Clinton administration for failing "to exercise leadership" on this issue, and added:   "Next month's ministerial meeting in Geneva [May 18-20] would be a good place to start."

What provoked the Times' reaction was a WTO ruling against a U.S. law protecting endangered sea turtles.  Sea turtles are especially threatened by shrimping boat nets that entangle and kill them.  So U.S. law requires shrimpers in American waters to equip their nets with metal grills that exclude turtles and other large animals.  In 1989 Congress, seeking to encourage foreign shipping fleets to adopt such devices, banned shrimp imports from countries that don't do so.

Trade Trumps Protecting Endangered Sea Turtles

India, a major exporter of shrimp, objected.  It filed a petition at the WTO challenging the U.S. law as contrary to trade treaties that the U.S. had signed.  Malaysia, India, and Pakistan joined in the petition.  A WTO panel ruling on April 6 supported India in a step that can lead to trade sanctions against the United States.  Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, said that the ruling "places trade above all else--above endangered species and above global environmental protection."

(For more information on this ruling, check the National Wildlife Federation Website at http://www.nwf.org/international/trade/turtles/alert.html.)

The ruling follows logically from the WTO's free trade ideology, which U.S. administrations have helped build into the WTO's bureaucratic procedures.  If the White House fights the decision through those procedures, it is bound to lose. As a result, the Times is correct in calling for a reform of the WTO.  But the reform must be broader than the Times envisions.
For the sake of endangered animal species like the sea turtle, the Times urges action "to give environmental values greater weight" in the WTO.  But the WTO has an even more serious hang-up on human values. It now callously turns its back, for example, on the millions of girls and boys whose health and lives are endangered by being forced to work 70 or 80 hours a week in sweatshops producing goods for U.S. and European consumers.  If the United States were to stop importing products stained by abusive child labor, the WTO would impose sanctions on it.  That is a really bad case of bureaucratic myopia.

What About Protecting the Human Species?

The World Trade Organization has endorsed, at least in theory, the need to protect endangered animal species, and even has a committee on protecting the environment.   But it steadfastly refuses even to discuss any role it might have in protecting the rights of the working men and women crassly exploited in the global economy.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, ICFTU for short, is committed to change the WTO's mind.  Despite repeated rebuffs in the past, the labor confederation, with affiliates in 137 developed and developing countries and territories, will be lobbying the trade ministers convening in Geneva May 18-20.  The union delegation will renew a demand that the WTO set up an exploratory committee--a Working Party, in WTO jargon--on trade and labor standards.

(For background on the WTO's sorry record on this issue, you can check previous HRFW reports, including "World Trade and Worker Rights" at bu12.htm.)

Bill Jordan, ICFTU general secretary, says that the Ministerial conference "must come out with a transparent, multilateral approach to worker rights," an approach that prevents the exploitation of developing countries by the competitive practices of globalization.

Rebutting Some Myths from the Opposition

In preparation for the WTO meetings, the Brussels-based confederation has published a booklet titled "Fighting for Workers' Human Rights in the Global Economy."  (The full text is available on the ICFTU Web site at http://www.icftu.org/english/sclause/escl98whrs.htm.) It exposes some of the myths often put forward by authoritarian governments and others opposed to adding a worker rights dimension to global trade agreements.

Here is a summary of the ICFTU's response to three myths used to block a worker rights dimension (or "clause") in trade agreements:

"A worker rights clause would help bring these [foreign] corporations under the rule of law," the ICFTU states.  Further, taking worker rights into account is an urgently needed corrective to the dangers of growing protectionism.
(You might try to get some enlightenment on this issue from the WTO's Website at http://www.wto.org.  Good luck.  I tried, without success.) 
Major Foreign Policy Address by AFL-CIO President

Needed: a People-Oriented Internationalism

The head of the AFL-CIO has entered the U.S. global policy debate by making a forceful argument for a new, people-oriented internationalism to replace what he called the present unsustainable "corporate-defined internationalism."  President John J. Sweeney outlined this "new internationalism" in a comprehensive address April 1 to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

"We are now at an historic turning point," Sweeney said.  "As the Asian collapse makes clear, the challenge now is no longer how to create a global market, but how to put sensible boundaries on the market that already exists.  How to make the market work for the majority and not simply for the few.  How to protect us from its excesses."

Sweeney endorsed the need to create a "new architecture for global capital and currency markets," as proposed by the U.S. Treasury Secretary.  But he said that "basic reforms" on the global level must also include "making basic internationally recognized worker rights, environmental and consumer standards central to the global trading and investment regimes."  Specifically, the activities of  the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the Export-Import Bank, and the Agency for International Development should be reviewed "as we seek ways to write new rules for the global market."

"The U.S.," he said, "should be pushing its European and Japanese allies to join with us to define new regulations--enforceable codes of conduct--on global corporations' behavior abroad.  We should be aiding governments, worker [organizations], and citizen movements to stand up for sensible rules, not forcing them to back down."
How the U.S. Met Similar Challenges Before

In the last part of his speech, Sweeney drew a lesson from the "similar challenges" the U.S. faced before:

"At the beginning of this century, the great corporations and trusts forged a national market and an industrial economy.  Then as now, the wrenching transition produced stark accumulations of wealth and power, generated booms and busts, displaced workers and farmers, sparked upheaval and protest.
"Progressives of that era joined to organize unions, extend democracy, and impose new rules to make the economy work for people--food and drug standards, anti-trust regulation, fair labor standards, a ban on child labor--and eventually labor rights, social security, consumer and environmental standards.
"These reforms did not come easily.  They were not granted by the generosity of those Roosevelt called the 'malefactors of great wealth.'  They met fierce resistance.  They required worker organizing, citizen movements, a crusading press, leaders willing to challenge powerful trusts.  We now face that same challenge once again, only this time at a global level."
There is much more worth quoting word for word, especially the reasons why Sweeney is optimistic about the prospects of achieving his vision of a "new internationalism."  Download the full text of this address at http://www.aflcio.org/publ/speech98/sp0401.htm.

How To Keep Up to Date

There's so much--good and bad--happening on the worker rights scene these days that HRFW can't possibly keep you up to date.  In fact, no single source can.   But I find that the organization that does the best job at timely reporting on a broad range of worker issues is the Campaign for Labor Rights, with its Labor Alerts service.  To subscribe, send an message to CLR@igc.apc.org, or check the Website at http://www.compugraph.com/clr.

HRFW's own primary focus is on the urgent need to incorporate the human rights of workers into global rules at the national, regional, and international levels through governmental, quasi-governmental, private business, union, and other non-governmental channels.  An index of what HRFW has done on that broad topic is contained in a new section, aptly called Information on the Need for Global Rules.  You might check it out for a better understanding of what's covered in this Bulletin.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. III-8, April 13, 1998
Robert A. Senser, editor

Copyright 1998
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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