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28 June1999

Linking Workers' Rights to Trade Accords

By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jun 4 (IPS) - The United States, blocked in its efforts to promote labour rights through multilateral agencies, should link the protection of workers' rights to all existing and future trade and investment agreements, according to a new report.

The report, released Thursday by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) - a think tank with strong ties to labour unions - argued that Washington should grant trade preferences only to those countries that enforced core labour rights. Under the plan, all countries wishing to export to the US market - the world's largest - would have to demonstrate that their labour legislation and practices enabled workers to effectively exercise their core labour rights. These included included the right of workers to organise unions and bargain collectively and the prohibition of child and forced labour.

''The route of multilateral negotiations has reached a dead end,'' according to the report tiled 'Codifying International Worker Rights: A Practical Alternative.'

''Paradoxically...the only way of eventually forcing open the closed door of multinational negotiations is to pursue a policy that...relies on unilateral action by the U.S. government, with respect both to bilateral agreements and to its participation in international trade and finance agencies,'' it said.

The report, written by Jerome Levinson, a prominent international lawyer and former general counsel of the Inter-American Development Bank, came amid a three-year stalemate over US trade policy. Congress was split between pro-business forces, which favoured new trade accords that did not include strong protection for workers' rights, and a coalition of pro-labour lawmakers and a smaller group of old-fashioned Republican protectionists. President Bill Clinton, insisting that he too favoured tough worker protection, generally has lined up with the pro-business forces against a majority of his own Democratic party. Indeed, Clinton relied on the support of a majority of Republicans to gain Congressional approval during his first term of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Since then, all efforts by Clinton to gain authority to negotiate new trade accords - or even to win approval for some relatively minor trade agreements with African and Caribbean Basin countries - have been rebuffed by a strong majority of Democrats who oppose new agreements that lack tough protection laws for workers.

Without such protection, they feared that governments would sacrifice workers' rights in the global competition for investment dollars. That would create a ''race to the bottom'' in which US workers would lose out to their counterparts in poor countries who did not enjoy the same protections.

While Clinton had pressed for workers rights in various multilateral forums - including NAFTA and the WTO - those efforts largely had been fruitless, according to Levinson. In NAFTA's case, the national administrative offices (NAOs) created to monitor worker rights have no enforcement powers. At the Geneva-based WTO, a solid phalanx of developing countries has opposed initiatives to even set up a ''study group'' on workers' rights, let alone adopt rules that would permit sanctions to be imposed against countries which violate them.

The Clinton administration more recently moved to bolster the role of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) by earmarking more funds for the agency's monitoring programme and by promoting collaboration between it and the WTO. But the ILO, like the NAOs under NAFTA, lacks enforcement powers and so far has shied away from urging that trade agreements be made conditional on compliance with workers' rights.

Finally, according to Levinson, US representatives at international financial institutions, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, generally had ignored Congressional directives to ensure that respect for workers' rights should be a priority in those agencies' programmes and policies. ''The lending policies of those agencies have undermined the core labour standards,'' according to Tony Freeman, the ILO's representative in Washington, who noted that the ILO was engaged in a dialogue with two Bretton Woods institutions to better coordinate their work with the ILO's mandate. Part of the problem was that Clinton's commitment to improving labour rights had been more rhetorical than real, Levinson said.

While Washington threatened to walk away from trade and investment agreements which did not include adequate protection of corporate property rights, for example, it never had suggested that the absence of protection for workers' rights would be a ''deal-breaker.''

''Thus, other negotiators, particularly those representing the developing countries, have concluded that, so long as they accommodate American corporate interests, they need engage in no substantial negotiations with respect to linking core worker rights to international trade and investment agreements,'' the report concluded.

Bureaucracy involved a related problem. Negotiators from the US Trade Representative (USTR) saw themselves mainly as advocates for US businesses interested in trade and investment abroad, while US Treasury officials who represent Washington at the international financial agencies, did not consider labour a major constituency. For that reason, Levinson proposed that the Labour Department be placed in charge of determining whether US trading partners enforce workers' rights sufficiently to merit preferential trade treatment. In doing so, the Labour Department could rely on assessments by the ILO, thus strengthening that agency's leverage in dealing with its member countries and in its dialogue with the IMF and the Bank.

''I'm proposing that we set up a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom,'' said Levinson.

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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