12:13 AM Apr 7, 1995


Geneva 7 Apr (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- The working party of the International Labour Organization looking at the Social Dimensions of the Liberalization of International Trade has put off till November efforts to agree on a future course of action, if any, on this question.

Attempts to get the working party continue with a mandate on the basis of a Chairperson's summary was given up Thursday evening when the employers as a group, and many governments from the South, said that no mandate or future work for the working party could be accepted on this basis, but would need to be negotiated to enable a consensus.

On Wednesday night, the Chair, Ms. Matilda Hartwell, UK government delegate, gave a oral summary, one of several she had given over the four sittings of discussions, and there were attempts to get it approved as a mandate for the future work of the working party.

The Argentine Government delegate, Amb. Sanchez Arnau, who made clear earlier in the debate his own country's opposition to 'trade sanctions', suggested that though the instructions from his government did not fully coincide, he was willing to accept it and asked the others to do the same. "Otherwise, we face the danger of unilateral sanctions," he said, but did not explain how this would be possible in the face of the specific provisions in the WTO accord, except as an illegality.

The same argument about ILO taking up the issue and having a multilateral instrument to avoid the US threat of unilateral trade sanctions for labour standards was used by the ILO Director-General Michael Hansenne to call for ILO consideration of the issue of trade-social standards link.

Ultimately, on Thursday evening, the working party merely took note of the Summary presented by the Chair, Ms. Matilda Hartwell of the United Kingdom, and will consider the Hartwell summary and future course of action at its next meeting in November, when the Governing Body holds its session.

This outcome is expected to be endorsed by the Governing Body at its final meeting Friday, with a request from the workers group for the ILO office to prepare some papers on the strengthening of the supervisory mechanism -- an idea which was in fact put forward as a resolution by India, but was not picked up by workers and the governments like those of the US which perhaps saw it as weakening their efforts to forge a trade-labour standards link.

The discussion in the working party, a continuation of the one held in November last, showed the same polarization and differences as last time.

However, the workers group, appeared to recognize the strong opposition within the ILO framework for any attempt to link the labour standards and improving working conditions to trade sanctions.

The Workers' spokesman, William Brett (General Secretary of the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists) said that they would "suspend" any further discussion of the link between international trade and social standards through a sanctions-based social clause mechanism.

But the hope of the workers group to use this to get the governments and employers to agree to a wide mandate to discuss trade-social clause linkages in the working party however failed.

The employers and many South governments said unless the linkage was specifically excluded and repudiated, the "suspension" would be no concession, but an attempt to get their way by the threat of restarting the process in the ILO, WTO or other fora, as a instrument to make others go along.

The comments of Brett, the US workers representative, Charles Gray of the AFL-CIO, as well as the US Government Representative, deputy Under-Secretary Joaquin Otero, left little doubt on this.

Otero, in fact had announced at a press conference on Tuesday that the US intended to continue with a two-track approach and that the US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor would bring it up again at the WTO.

After giving up efforts at the UN Social Summit to get specific trade-social clause links recognized, both the international workers organizations and some of the Northern governments came back to the working party, using the broad thrusts of that summit to call for such a work at the ILO itself.

And governments like the US which have refused to accept and implement the Plans of Actions at such summits in other areas (aid, structural adjustment etc) attempted to use it here, and make the working party to address the issue in ILO a kind of super-Governing Body to discuss and allocate issues for being considered in the permanent machinery.

The workers group, recognizing the strong opposition of governments of the South and of employers to linking any ILO discussions of social standards to enforcement through use of 'trade sanctions', however offered to "suspend" its consideration in the ILO -- but keeping their options of bringing it up elsewhere.

In a final summing up on 5 April, one of several she gave in the four sittings devoted to the discussion, the Chair, Ms.Matilda Hartwell, first secretary (labour) of the UK embassy in Paris and the UK's representative on the Governing Body, suggested continuance of the Working Party, but with a changed focus and title

It should be a Working Party on the Social Dimension of Economic Growth and the Globalization of the Economy, she suggested and its mandate would be "to provide a political overview and forum for debate, discussion, reflection and exchange of ideas on the role of the ILO and its constituents in translating economic growth into social development with particular reference to promoting then respect of and adherence to fundamental human rights and labour standards in the context of the changing modern environment of economic globalization, restructuring, trade liberalization and investment liberalization."

It would relate to the other committees of the Governing Body by providing the possibility in an informal open-ended debate in forum to take a broad overview to discuss difficult and often politically contentions issues which cannot easily be debated in the technical committees of which not all Governing Body representatives are members or in the essentially decision-making environment of the Governing Body itself, she said.

Once issues had been debated in the Working Party and some broad political consensus on directions for future work had bee agreed, the Working Party would then pass specific technical work to be carried out in the different committees as appropriate, having regard to the continuing work and outputs and policy decisions of the other committees and the Governing Body.

As for the focus of such a Working Party, Ms Hartwell said the ILO Committee on Legal Issues and International Labour Standards (LILS) was due to discuss in November the papers on basic labour standards and this work should go ahead. On Child Labour where a very legalistic approach with reference to the existing Conventions was not necessarily the most likely to be effective, it should be discussed in broad policy terms, looking at problems, solutions and different approaches in the Employment Committee.

If further work is seen to need technical cooperation it would go to the Technical Cooperation Committee, and if it was that the Child Labour Convention needed revision it would go to LILS.

Three areas on which Working Party could concentrate would be:

Firstly, the paper on "shared values" which could enable them to further refine and give political direction to the endeavour of the Working Party, drawing on the summary of the debate so far;

Secondly, an examination of the possible role of the ILO in helping member States to achieve social development through economic growth -- including taking account of the new modern context of globalization, liberalization of trade and investment restructuring and other factors.

It would need a new Paper from the ILO Office, describing what form further studies might take.

Thirdly, she said, there should be a broad discussion of different ways in which it might be possible to improve the effectiveness of and strengthening of the ILO standards supervisory system.

Some of these issues are politically contentious and that is why the Working Party might be a appropriate forum for an initial and broad discussion.

Depending on the outcome of the Conference discussion and further discussions in the Governing Body, it might become appropriate at a later stage to divert some aspects of the ILO work o Social Summit followup to the Working Party.

Earlier, she noted that there were major areas of disagreement on which no consensus could be reached and there was an agreement that the in the next stage of the discussions, the working party should focus on areas of broad agreement and not of disagreement.

There was a consensus that the Working Party should not pursue the question of trade sanctions and that any further discussion of the link between international trade and social standards through a sanction-based social clause mechanism should be suspended.

"This is with a clear understanding that it is without prejudice to the known positions of the different groups and governments or their right to pursue those positions in other fora".

The US government delegate reserved his government's position, arguing that the only agreement seemed to be to continue the work of the Working Party. The US he said was not retreating from its position on the question of trade and labour standards. There has to be a discussion and a machinery at some point to enforce it through trade measures if needed.

Indian government delegate, the permanent secretary of the Labour Ministry, S.Gopalan, in effect challenged the narration of circumstances in which the ILO and the working party was taking up the issue. Gopalan said that at Marrakesh no agreement could be reached and the "trade-related labour standards" issue was thrown out of the WTO. The ILO then "jumped" into it, he said. The International Labour Conference had discussed it in the general debate, with many varying views.

But within a couple of hours of its conclusion, the ILO Director-General had proposed the setting up of a working party. Repeating the opposition of the Indian government on substantive issues involved, the Indian Labour secretary said that a very clear majority in the working party was against any trade-labour standards linkage. This idea was just not acceptable - a view made clear at the March NAM Labour meeting in Delhi and here too.

When developing country governments asked for some work to be done at the ILO, they were cautioned about lack of money. But now the working party is to be kept going with a vague and wide-ranging mandate, even though the discussions for which it was set up was over and no consensus seemed possible. "It would be totally immoral and unethical for the ILO to give the impression and signal the developing world that the ILO was fighting the battle of other organizations," he said.

If there is to be a working party, it must focus on how economic growth could be translated into social development and how the benefits of growth could devolve on the working people. It should be explicitly stated that there is to be no linkage between trade and labour standards or sanctions for standards.

Argentina at one stage said that the Chair's summing up should be accepted as otherwise there would be "unilateral trade sanctions".

In the debate, as in the several interventions from the Chair, summing up the discussions there were references to key notes, key themes, shared values and objectives.

Perhaps lacking was the "purpose" which was running through all these -- 'Labour Ministries of the world unite: with a working party on this issue in the ILO other economic ministries are taking note of us and consulting with us, and so we should continue."

It was not said in so many words, but that was the thrust of the Canadian government delegates' view on Wednesday evening when she supported endorsement of Ms Hartwell's view and a mandating the working party to continue on the basis of the oral summary which Ms. Hartwell said at that time, she had been unable to present in writing because governments did not have the backup machinery (unlike that provided by the ILO for workers groups and employers)!

The ILO office and the governments of the North and their unions - perhaps for different reasons - resisted a motion in the governing body that as a followup to the social summit, the working party should take up this work. But when the working party seemed deadlocked and unable to go forward, there was talk of "what would the world think of us", and the French delegate even spoke of this being a "matter of honour".

Though Hartwell's summary claimed many areas as agreed or consensus, even her history of the circumstances of the working party was challenged.

In her summary, Ms. Hartwell spoke of "four key themes" :

* debate rooted in the core principles and texts of the ILO,

* the ILO needs to pursue these objectives within the new and changing context of globalization of world economy and liberalization of trade,

* the continuing belief of ILO constituents in the ILO's means of action - setting standards, the fundamental human rights standards, the supervisory system, but also technical cooperation, advisory services and other means of action,

* need to consider ILO's role and means of actions within this global economic context in the wake of the world social summit and the new commitments undertaken there.

She also spoke of a number of areas of agreement -- the seven "shared values" emerging from the debate:

* first: sustainable economic growth is what all countries want, but especially those who need it most,

* second: economic and social growth and development are to a large extent inter-dependent, each helping advance the other;

* third: they require an environment of cooperation, shared by all partners to promote policies which encompass both aspects of development. When the economic situation is poor, the social situation is likely to be poor also. Thus developing countries tend to have poor social standards because they are poor. Correspondingly, where there is economic growth social development is more likely to come too.

* four: the relationship though was not an automatic one, between economic growth, international trade liberalization and social development.

There were many complex factors and interdependencies involved. One had to consider domestic trade, as well as international trade, the levels of and changes in productivity and technology and investment. All of these are also important factors. The effects may vary from country to country according to their different circumstances.

The developing countries in particular hope that trade liberalization will produce social development.

"There is no automaticity nor should one look for a rigid parallelism. Meanwhile, on the path to both economic and social development, it is perfectly legitimate for developing countries to use the comparative advantage of lower costs to compete in world markets."

* five: by the same token, however, while no one should challenge the legitimate right of developing countries to use the comparative advantage of lower costs and no one should use human rights and social standards issues as an excuse for disguised protectionism, no country should deliberately deny workers' rights or attempt to generate artificially lower costs by the denial of workers' rights, forced labour, discrimination against women, exploitation of children or other such abuses.

"Just as we are against protectionism, so the only thing we are aiming to protect here are workers against oppression or forced labour, women and vulnerable groups against discrimination and children against exploitation."

* six: we should on no account allow this debate to develop into a North-South divide of the kind that the ILO has always happily been free of.

* seven: "We are united in wanting to support any initiatives to strengthen the capacity of countries to improve social standards, to adopt and implement ILO instruments effectively, to find new ways to strengthen still further the effectiveness of standards and the standard supervisory machinery and to improve still further international cooperation on these issues. New instruments and means of action may be needed, but in any case we should place the renewed emphasis on improving the ILO's effectiveness in helping improve workers' rights and conditions around the world."

The entire course of this debate, from the time the ILO head re-started it after Marrakesh at the ILC, through the working party, showed a strenuous effort by the ILO office, the workers group and a few Northern governments like the US and France to somehow bring in a labour-trade link -- even if it by starting with some standards to which no one would take exception.

Even on the child labour issue, on which there is perhaps a widespread consensus on need for actions to end such exploitation, Japan's government delegate, Amb. Endo noted that people refer in this connection to the ILO convention no 138. But if a country has a slow level of economic development, the educational services which that country can afford to provide compulsory education up to 14 years, implied in the convention, is not possible, he noted. Such a violation is for economic reasons.

The debate had its in-jokes, which, to outsiders sitting in, suggested the continued hangover of old ingrain habit of the North, and Anglo-Saxon views about their cultural superiority.

Taken aback by Gopalan's questioning of Hartwell's summary of the origin of the issue in the working party, the workers's spokesman, William Brett (of UK) complimented the Indian Labour Secretary Gopalan (a senior civil servant of his country) for "learning from the British about being a good civil servant to represent his government's views and from Americans to filibuster."

Perhaps Gopalan was expected to thank him for his kind references, but did not happen. But it comes easily (to think) that a brown or a black must feel flattered to be compared favourably with a white.

And then, Mr Gray, AFL-CIO, thought he was like Elizabeth Taylor's eighth husband -- he might even have been hauled up for sexual harassment jokes in the United States for such utterances.