on labor standards

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Tue Apr 11 09:58:19 PDT 2000

[excerpt from] FOCUS ON TRADE Number 48, April 2000

Focus-on-Trade is a regular electronic bulletin providing updates and analysis of trends in regional and world trade and finance, with an emphasis on analysis of these trends from an integrative, interdisciplinary viewpoint that is sensitive not only to economic issues, but also to ecological, political, gender and social issues.

Your contributions and comments are welcome. Please contact us c/o CUSRI, Wisit Prachuabmoh Building, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok 10330 Thailand. Tel: (66 2) 218 7363/7364/7365, Fax: (66 2) 255 9976, E-Mail: admin at focusweb.org, Website: http://focusweb.org. Focus on the Global South is an autonomous programme of policy research and action of the Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute (CUSRI) based in Bangkok.


Letter to the Editor Mike Waghorne

Dear Focus on Trade,

I am responding to the extremely mischievous article by Nicola Bullard in the 'Focus on Trade, No. 47' in which she seriously misrepresents both the ICFTU and its campaign on the linkage between trade and labour standards. I find it very unfortunate to have to reply in the way that I am because I think that it is far better for people who have differing views to sit down together and try to work out how to resolve them and then to be able to go ahead together to deal with the common enemy. Ms Bullard's deliberate misrepresentation of the ICFTU and its associated trade union bodies around the world means that I have to be rather direct in what I say but I would ask people to look at the last comment in my message.

I leave it to the ICFTU to respond on its own behalf but merely note that it is unlikely that they will do so in the next week since they are fully occupied with their World Congress in South Africa: the fact that they are in South Africa would be a surprise to Ms Bullard if she really believes her characterisation of the ICFTU as First World oriented. She knows the ICFTU and she knows the issues on which it and the rest of the free trade union movement are organising; she knows that we have condemned protectionist uses of the trade and labour standards issue ever since we have been campaigning on this issue; she really knows, too, that the ICFTU and the international trade secretariats such as Public Services International have members in both the North and the South and that our members from around the world - South Africa included - support the ICFTU position; she chooses to misrepresent the trade union position with respect to the WTO where we are trying to limit the power of the WTO, not to extend its powers (because we think that the ILO should handle labour standards issues and that the WTO should bow to the mandate and expertise of the ILO and not try to over-ride ILO standards which have been set by governments, employers and workers from the North and the South in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up).

It is a rank distortion of the truth to maintain that the trade union movement is trying to protect the interests of its First World Members when it is workers in the Third World who call for the trade and labour standards linkage because they see the race to the bottom being one conducted between Third World countries, not between the First and Third Worlds. The international trade union movement has determined that its first priority at the WTO is the development agenda, not protectionism. The fact that we do not often hear from Third World workers is because they are denied, in many of the countries which support Ms Bullard in her opposition to us, the right of freedom of expression and the right to a free press. It's hard to hear the silenced.

The international trade union movement has campaigned for years to limit the power of TNCs; has campaigned for years to get controls over foot-loose capital; has campaigned for years to get an international financial architecture which regulates global capital.

That the international free trade union movement does not represent all workers in the world is not a charge she should level against trade unions - level it against the oppressive governments which stop unions organising and stop workers joining unions. To say 'You don't represent all workers' is to take the side of the oppressors of workers who make damned sure that we cannot represent them! Shame on Ms Bullard for giving aid and comfort to such tyrants instead of looking for a uniting way of dealing with them!

To suggest that the ICFTU, ITSs, TUAC, etc. are somehow at loggerheads with the KCTU is a simple travesty of the truth and an attempt at pure divisiveness: it was trade unions, at the OECD, who for the first time in history, working with the KCTU, forced an applicant country to have to promise to amend its labour laws and to be subject to the first ever OECD monitoring of a government's trade union rights record. And one of the organisations that she cites as being on the right side was very prominent in Seattle with their protectionist/isolationist placards and slogans.

If the ICFTU is so unrepresentative of workers, why is it that no other international trade union body comes even close to it in the election of seats for the ILO Governing Body Workers Group? Because it has a genuine mass membership.

So we represent the privileged? Tell that to our members throughout Africa, central and eastern Europe and parts of Latin America who have not been paid for months on end: some privilege! Tell that to our nurses who struggle in hopelessly underfunded hospitals and clinics with the ravages of famine, AIDS, etc. (including in many First World settings, too). Tell that to public sector workers who I have seen in Samoa working in buildings where the roof leaks and the floor-boards are so rotten that people have to take detours to avoid falling through the floor. Sure we don't represent everyone but workers around the world, whenever they get the freedom to do so, vote for us in their tens of millions. Would it be fair to ask who elected Ms Bullard?

Her snide implication that the ICFTU-ITSs and other trade union elements are simple fools who think that getting a piece of text in some WTO treaty will solve the problems of jobless growth, mass unemployment, insecurity, etc. is simply insulting to the millions of trade unionists who have campaigned and struggled for decades on these issues and have often put their lives on the line in the process. It demeans 'Focus on Trade' to print such gutter journalism.

Let's look at a few of the labour standards myths. Let us get two things clear about this for a start:

*There is a difference between 'labour standards' and 'international labour standards'. The first can and should be set by individual countries and will be content-and-culture specific. The latter are set by the International Labour Organisation where governments are all treated equally: developing countries actually can outvote developed countries; and workers and employers also have voting rights. This means that ILO standards are often an expression of the vast bulk of all the interested parties on how workers should be treated. These are not standards that are foisted on to the developing world by others.

*There is a difference between labour standards in general at the ILO and the so-called 'core labour standards'. While general labour standards can cover anything and everything (there are over 180 ILO Conventions), many of them are very specific to a specific industry, sector or category of workers or problems and so may or may not be useful/necessary in all countries for all people. But the core labour standards (freedom of association, the rights to organise and bargain collectively, the right to work free from discrimination in employment, pay and conditions, the right not to be forced to work involuntarily, as a prisoner or as a child) are matters of general principle: if you don't believe in these then you shouldn't be a member of the ILO. These core standards form part of the ILO's 1998 'Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up' and were voted for by governments, employers and workers from around the world. The demands which workers and their trade unions raise around the world is that these core standards must be respected, especially by governments which want to be part of the international community.

If these two essential sets of distinctions are not understood, then the discussion can get completely confused. Why? Because people do not know that the international labour standards that are being discussed in the international debates are not the nitty-gritty ones that would make a difference to a national economy, depending on its resources or level of development (such as specific safety equipment or the level of the minimum wage or the kind of social insurance scheme which should be implemented), but the ones which are applicable to any and all human beings anywhere simply because they are human beings. Secondly, it is not a matter of workers trying to impose something on to defenceless developing countries: these are standards which the governments and the employers and the workers from developing countries have all voted for.

So, the debates on this issue are often riddled with confusions such as:

*The claim that someone is trying to impose sanctions on countries which do not apply the standards: the international trade union movement has made it crystal clear that we see the use of incentives and assistance as the best way to help countries meet their obligations. The process for getting this done would involve the ILO (after the WTO referred a case to it for advice) using its normal and agreed procedures for investigating a complaint, offering technical and programme advice to a government over a period of years and monitoring progress. Neither did any of the government delegations at the WTO which support our position call for the use of sanctions - one loose-tongued President may have done so but he was promptly (but diplomatically) disowned by his official delegation.

*The claim that people who call for such standards are acting out of protectionist interests: once you see the point above, you can see that no protectionist is going to be interested in this because it will take years to get anywhere and protectionists want action now. We are neither protectionists nor sanctions-oriented.

*The claim that it is only unions and governments in the North who call for these standards to be applied: in the ICFTU and in organisations such as PSI (and we all have affiliates in 140- 150 countries), our people from the South to the North are overwhelmingly in support of these claims and so are many of their governments.

*The claim that people fear that disrespect for these standards will lead to competition for Northern workers' jobs by workers from the South: in fact, the fear is in the South, where governments and workers and employers who respect these standards and are winning/attracting trade and investment will lose these to other developing countries such as China which violate the core labour standards and so can out-compete the good developing countries.

*The claim that poor standards in the developing world will not impact on the developed world - when it is clear that the race to the bottom seen in the previous point will mean that the world as a whole has less income and so demand in both the North and the South will suffer, the latter more so, obviously.

*The claim that child labour cannot be tackled without risking further impoverishment of the child's family: in the work that the ILO, many governments and the international trade union movement has done on this issue (and you can read about it on our website), we have all stressed three things: that the children should be at school; that parents should be financially compensated for the loss of child-labour income and the extra costs of sending children to school; and the parents ought to have preference to the jobs that their children had, with proper adult wages and union rights. Not just words but money and action to back this work. Supported by our members in Pakistan, for example, where we are working with these people, not writing about them.

The main frustration which trade unions have with these matters is not that others do not agree with us - we welcome debate - but that people such as Ms Bullard so often, blatantly and repeatedly misrepresent our position and the issues.

Sure, you can find examples of unions that are and have been guilty of some of the faults which Ms Bullard identifies: no-one claims to be perfect. The old saw has it: workers may not always be right but they are on the right side.

And, by the way, if we are so obviously on the side of the powerful and the privileged, why is it that being a trade unionist in some of the countries which agree with Ms Bullard is very dangerous for one's health, life and freedom?

So, to repeat what I said at the beginning: we would prefer to work through our differences - and have offered to do that with other groups - and would welcome an approach from Ms Bullard to achieve that end.

Kind regards

Mike Waghorne Assistant General Secretary, Public Services International BP 9, 1211 Ferney-Voltaire, Cedex France http://www.world-psi.org Tel: +33 450 40 11 70 Fax: +33 450 40 73 20 e-mail:Mike.Waghorne at world-psi.org

***************************************************** ENDS

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