Jan 29, 1993



Amsterdam, Jan 18 (IPS/Guido de Bruin) -- While the current move towards a relaxation of international trade barriers should benefit developing countries, women working in these nations are unlikely to share in the rewards, says a development agency.

The Dutch development campaign group InZet is thus calling for the inclusion of minimum labour conditions clause -- especially for women -- to be included in the GATT.

The proposal came at a conference in Amsterdam on Saturday and is based on the basic labour norms formulated by the United Nations' International Labour Organisation (ILO) including the norms on banning compulsory labour and discrimination, a 15 year minimum age for workers, the right to organise trade unions, and the right to equal pay for identical jobs.

According to InZet, these norms should be included in any GATT deal. The right to equal pay and a ban on discrimination are especially important to women who are the most exploited section of the workforce in the developing countries, says InZet.

Anneke van Luijken of the Industrial Restructuring Education Network Europe (IRENE), a non-governmental organisation which monitors worldwide developments in industry, supports the inclusion of a 'social clause' along the lines suggested by InZet.

She accepts that a move towards free trade will bring much-needed employment to the Third World. But she points out too that this will mainly be low-paid and repetitive work which many women in the South are already doing now, often at the expense of their health.

According to World Bank estimates, abolition of, for example, the Multi-Fibre Agreement -- which stipulates a high tariff on Third World textile exports to the North -- would lead to a 20 to 40 percent expansion in employment within the textile industry in the South.

A majority of workers in the textiles, clothing, food, electronics, leather, plastics and chemical industries in many Third World countries are women. In India, for instance, 94 percent of the workers in these sectors are women, in the Philippines 84 percent and in Egypt 83 percent.

But, says Van Luijken, women working in these industries will benefit less from free trade than might be expected. She points out that new industrial investments tend to be capital-intensive. Increasing mechanisation will mean less jobs, especially women's jobs, and the inclusion of a social clause in GATT -- expected to be concluded this year -- would provide a "minimum level for exploitation".

But Pim Hol of the Dutch Economic Affairs Ministry argues against a social clause being included in GATT. "GATT is not the place to tackle these problems," he says.

He feels that a social clause could be used by Northern countries as a pretext for closing off their markets from cheap imports from developing countries. Industrialised countries could claim that labour conditions under which Southern goods have been produced are below standard.

Dutch conservative MP Erica Terpstra is also against the idea of a social clause in GATT.

This would merely be paying "lip service" to a just cause and could not be enforced, she says.

Bilateral aid negotiations are a much better way for Northern donor countries to press for adequate labour conditions in the South, she adds.