9:06 AM Jun 3, 1996


Geneva 3 Jun (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- The International Organization of Employers, representing employers worldwide, have rejected linking workers rights to trade or engaging the World Trade Organization on the issue of workers rights or use of trade sanctions to combat child labour and child abuse -- viewing trade sanctions as counter-productive.

Meeting here on the eve of the 83rd annual International Labour Conference, the employers organization while asking employers and their national organizations world wide to act to put an end to exploitative, bonded and dangerous forms of child labour have opposed trade restrictions or sanctions in this area, stressing that it would prove counter-productive.

The tripartite ILC, with its membership of 173 nations, is beginning its 83rd session Tuesday.

Promoting employment, combating child labour and extending labour rights to millions of home workers worldwide are among the main items on its agenda.

The problem of child labour is to be discussed at an informal tripartite, Ministerial level meeting of the Conference on 12 June.

The ILO Governing Body has put on the agenda of the 1998 Conference the question of development of a new international instrument aiming at elimination of most damaging forms of child labour -- including forced or slave labour, work with dangerous substances and child prostitution.

The informal meeting will start the process of standard setting, with the International Labour Office formulating a questionnaire, eliciting views and preparing a report on possible contents of an instrument.

Humanitarian and development NGOs as well as organized labour have been pressing for actions against abuse of child labour, though there is division on how to go about this and whether some trade sanctions should be envisaged. The campaign in recent years has received considerable fillip and visibility, particularly as a result of several media stories of child exploitation in developing countries for commercial profit.

This has led to demands for trade sanctions against countries with child labour and/or for restrictions on imports of goods made with child labour. The issue has got entwined with more general demands for the socalled social clause in trade agreements (bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral) to link labour rights with trade rights.

Linking rights of workers and trade was sought to be given a fillip by some Northern governments like the USA and France at the 1994 Marrakesh Ministerial Meeting that concluded the Uruguay Round and set up the WTO.

But neither this nor any of the other items mooted at Marrakesh as future trade agenda got any consensus, and they were all merely listed as issues raised by one or the other Ministers and that could be taken up (by consensus) at the WTO. Such consensus has been lacking. While discouraging the social clause agenda, the WTO head (and former Italian Trade Minister), Renato Ruggiero, has been working overtime, delivering speeches around the world to promote EU-sponsored Multilateral Investment treaty issue at the WTO.

The ILO Director-General, Michael Hansenne of Belgium, soon after taking over in 1994, also has been pushing the idea of a trade-social clause link on the ILO agenda, but has later changed his stance somewhat in the light of the opposition from a large number of developing country governments and the controversies it created at the International Labour Conference in 1994 June and subsequently, in discussions at the Governing Body (in a Working Party on the Social Dimensions of Liberalization of International Trade).

Discussions within this working party over the last two years has shown overwhelming opposition to any formal trade-labour link at the World Trade Organization -- from most governments (with the US and a few Europeans however favouring it), from all employers, but support from the international unions.

In the face of large opposition from governments and employers, the unions have agreed to temporarily remove the idea of trade sanctions from the discussions and concentrate on efforts to improve effectiveness of the ILO in advancing the rights of workers.

However, several of the governments of the North, including the United States, France and others are still trying to bring the trade-labour rights issue on the agenda of the WTO at its Singapore meeting in December. At the latest meeting of Quad countries (Canada, EU, Japan and the United States), there has been an effort to present a common front -- with Canada and the EU apparently willing to support the US on social clause issue in the WTO in return for US support for Canada and the EU on the investment rights issue in the WTO.

In two resolutions adopted and made public Monday, the IOE has asked employers worldwide to act to end all exploitative, bonded and dangerous forms of child labour and develop policies for its eventual elimination in all sectors.

But the employers group opposed as counter-productive, moves in Europe and the United States to legislate and restrict imports from developing countries identified as having child labour. The IOE also opposed moves for introducing "social clauses" in international trade agreements.

The IOE, representing some 120 national Employer Federations, came out in favour of an "open trade and investment system", leading to economic growth and development, as the best way to raise labour standards.

The IOE said that "simplistic solutions" which would merely throw children out of work without providing alternative means of livelihood for them and their families often put the concerned children in a worse situation and linking the issue of working children with international trade and using it to impose trade sanctions on countries with problems of child labour was counter-productive and jeopardised the welfare of the children. Such trade sanctions, the IOE said, not only run counter to the best interests of the children concerned, but also because they deny the countries concerned the resources needed to eliminate child labour.

"Business is adamantly opposed to such measures to introduce 'social clauses' in international trade agreements," the IOE paper said.

The IOE threw its weight behind the ILO's technical cooperation programme launched in 1991, the International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), supported by extra-budgetary contributions from a number of industrial countries. While initially, when IPEC was launched, the action programmes were run by NGOs, "business must play a leading role on child labour," the IOE said.

This was necessary not only for humanitarian and macro-economic reasons, but also for business reasons, the IOE said. As media, consumers, investors, governments and unions increasingly press companies to address child labour concerns, and as nightly news broadcasts and daily newspapers feature stories about child labour, companies are concerned about the way this threatens their reputation and the competitiveness of their products.

"A positive proactive approach by business will be more effective than a reactive and defensive one - both in defense of businesses' own interest and in the contribution that can be made to the elimination of child labour," the IOE said. For its part, the IOE is to create a database on companies and organizations active in combating child labour, develop an Employer handbook on child labour, and periodically receive and monitor work done by employers to combat child labour.

The IOE, in another resolution said, it "firmly opposes" the idea of a social clause in the rules of the trading system to permit application of coercive measures to enforce labour standards.

Linking labour standards to the multilateral trading system implies use of trade sanctions to enforce compliance, introducing new barriers to trade and negating the objective of economic growth through open world trade.

The IOE stressed that the multilateral system of trade rules and disciplines was based on contractual rights and obligations which, if set aside would destroy the fundamental guarantees and certainty on which trade and investment are based. The WTO has no provision for collective condemnation and application of trade sanctions. To amend the rules to permit imposition by one country of sanctions against another for non-commercial purposes, the IOE said, would destroy the balance of rights and obligations, would fragment and politicize the system and encourage the use of the clause for protectionist purposes. The introduction of a social clause would involve the WTO in punitive measures in matters of domestic governance unrelated to its rule-making mandate and would be rejected by many countries as an invasion of their sovereignty.

The ILO, the employers said, is the proper forum for standard setting to enhance workers condition. But the ILO must show greater creativity and flexibility to enhance its effectiveness. To support its binding conventions and supervisory machinery, it must develop a parallel means of encouraging observance of fundamental core conventions including through ILO technical cooperation programmes, country examinations of employment policy and actions of Member States and workers and employers organizations.