10:17 AM Jan 20, 1995


New Delhi, Jan 19 (TWN/IPS) -- Rich nations' attempts to use trade barriers to improve the lot of workers in the developing world will instead worsen their living standards, said delegates to the NAM labour meeting which opened in the Indian capital Thursday.

"The main effect of trade sanctions based on the alleged violation of labour standards would be, ironically and tragically, the worsening of social conditions," said Brazil's representative to the fifth conference of Labour ministers of Non-Aligned and other Developing countries.

Brazil also backed a draft declaration for the meeting proposed by the host country which said the gains of the new world trade regime "could be jeopardised on account of neo-protectionism...in the guise of labour or environmental standards."

"Export restrictions would provoke unemployment and de-industrialization, specially in poor regions. Ultimately, the ensuing vicious circle of protectionism would actually undermine social standards and living conditions of millions of workers," added Brazil's ambassador to India, Octavio Rainho da Silva Neves.

Pakistan and Indonesia joined Brazil and India to oppose the so-called social clause sought to be introduced by the west in the World Trade Organization.

Opening the Conference, Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao said India was committed to improving labour standards in line with norms of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

"It is a different matter when trade policy is sought to be used to enforce standards. There are several problems that we face and it would not be appropriate to use trade policy to address all these problems," Rao said.

In a message to the conference, Indonesia's President Soeharto, who chairs the NAM, said linking labour standards to trade would reduce exports and sales of developing countries.

"For this reason, we must have a common programme and stand in our efforts to enhance the quality of life of the labourer's community, so the condition of our labourers will not be used by certain countries as a pretext in limiting our participation in world trade," the Indonesian leader added.

Some speakers at the plenary sessions pointed out that developed nations with growing joblessness, were using the labour-trade link as a protectionist ploy against the developing world where commercial standards have increased as the result of economic liberalisation.

In a position paper for the meeting, the Geneva-based tripartite International Labour Organization, whose Director-General Michael Hansenne has been pushing the trade-social clause link, said that within the ILO, the employers are against insertion of a social clause in GATT while the workers constituency is for a "non-coercive social clause".

The ILO acknowledged that opinion on the issue is sharply divided.

While the Uruguay Round has concluded, leaving the matter "open-ended", both at the June 1994 International Labour Conference and the November ILO Working Party on the subject, "a few developed countries had made a strong plea for a social clause and certain others have taken a neutral position. A substantial number of developing countries have taken a strong position against it."

Generally, ILO says, "developing countries have given significant importance for labour protection. They have effectively participated in the ILO action for standard setting, at the same time reflecting their concerns arising out of their levels of development. Further they have been periodically reviewing progress towards enforcement of ratified conventions and ratifying more standards".

In the organized sector, workers facing job losses get legislated or contributory social security payments. But for the vast multitudes in the unorganized and informal sectors this protection is just not available.

And in times of structural adjustment, this dualism in social safety gets further accentuated. Hence the case for direct assistance programmes to alleviate distress and poverty, the ILO paper says.

Even in the developed and industrialized countries, in the recent context of recession and high levels of unemployment, economic feasibility of unemployment insurance schemes has come to be debated and questioned. It has come to be argued that unemployment insurance discourages work and impacts negatively on national output capacity and economic growth.

There are demands for moving away from "welfare" to "workfare", that is, for social security payments to be linked to societal work rather than mere joblessness, the paper adds.

More than 80 nations are attending the New Delhi meet which is an important part of preparations for the world social summit to be held in Denmark in early march.

The Copenhagen summit of national leaders will work out ways to better the human condition in the post-cold war world by reducing widespread poverty, growing joblessness and social disintegration.

An estimated 43 million extra people are looking for work every year, most of them in the developing world. Except in South-East and East Asia, jobs are at a premium because of the economically-productive populace growing faster than total population, modernisation of manufacture and reduced state economic activity, says a background paper.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, annual job growth of 3.2 percent in 1991-92, was just ahead of the yearly labour force increase of three percent. Large enterprises in the region hired fewer people during the 1980's with more and more employed in micro-enterprises.

In mainly rural Sub-Saharan Africa, job growth is stagnant, with nearly three fourths of young people out of work. In 1990, forty percent of the urban labour force was in the informal sector.

South Asia's labour force is one of the fastest growing. The region is still heavily dependent on farming for jobs. But agriculture is increasingly unable to absorb more workers.

Labour Ministers at the New Delhi meet are specially concerned by the wide gap in work conditions for men and women, more so as women are seeking jobs in larger numbers, often driven by poverty.

"Labour market discrimination against women is reflected in several ways -- wage discrimination, employment discrimination, occupational segregation, crowding and statistical discrimination," says a conference document.

More women are unemployed than men in the developing nations. In Kenya, Egypt, Brazil, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, at least twice as many women are jobless as men.

"Policy interventions would be needed to tackle this problem in terms of asset transfers to women in cash and kind, laws for equality of opportunity in employment and assistance in the labour market, involvement of women themselves in the process of education and extension services, law reforms to vest property rights in women and gender-focused poverty alleviation programmes for women," the conference document said.