9:50 AM Jun 12, 1996


Geneva 11 June (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- United States Labour Secretary Robert Reich called Tuesday for a working party at the World Trade Organization that would go into the implementation by all countries of core labour standards and the role WTO could play in this.

Reich also called for an open discussion on this, with a contribution from the ILO, at the WTO's Singapore Ministerial meeting in December.

Reich who had earlier met the WTO Director-General, Mr. Renato Ruggiero, told the media that he sensed a greater willingness among developing countries to discuss the issue than earlier.

In May, Ministers of ASEAN countries formally decided to oppose any trade-labour standards link at Singapore.

The US call on trade and workers rights came at the plenary of the 83rd International Labour Conference, and followed an earlier call from French President Jacques Chirac who had addressed the Conference.

The US and France, before and after the Marrakesh meeting that ended the Uruguay Round, have been pushing in tandem, and with some coordination, the trade-labour rights link at various fora.

Originally they raised it in a wide way and, while talking about core labour standards, also raised the questions of labour rights to ensure that workers in the developing world are able to share in the rising prosperity from the increased trade. Without formally giving it up or abandoning the idea of use of the WTO's trade sanctions mechanism, they have later reduced their demand to acceptance of the issue of core labour standards and a WTO role in implementing them.

They however were blocked at getting endorsement from the OECD Ministerial Conference in Paris in May for WTO to consider it.

This the second time that the US Labour Secretary came to the ILO to raise the issue of linking trade and labour rights. He had done so in 1994 too -- soon after Marrakesh where the US Trade Representative, Mr. Mickey Kantor wanted this to be put on the WTO's future agenda.

After the WTO came into being, Kantor, (who has since become Commerce Secretary), has formally written to Ruggiero asking for workers rights and the question of corruption in trade, particularly government procurement, to be put on the WTO's Singapore agenda.

The US Labour Secretary told the ILC that while the greatest hope for the greatest number of people lay in economic growth and more open trade, the advancement of human condition would not follow automatically, but needed sound policies and practices.

"Let me blunt," Reich said. "If we want to support the continued expansion of the global economy, then we must do more to implement the ILO's core labour standards.

"Moreover, we simply cannot separate our trade discussions from the conditions under which workers produce for the international market. To do so would be to risk failure in spreading the benefits of trade to the greatest number of people, and to risk the popular support necessary for further trade liberalization."

Reich spoke of the progress at ILO on these discussions over the last two years, including on what were "core" labour standards -- freedom of association, right of collective bargaining, prohibition of forced labour, non-discrimination in employment and prevention of exploitation of young children. These, he said, were the essential principles of human rights at work and upon which other labour standards develop as economies grow.

The Clinton administration, he said, would soon ask the Senate to ratify the ILO convention against discrimination at employment and occupation which had received tripartite support within the US.

Also, as part of the program of the ILO working party on social dimensions of liberalization of international trade, the US was ready to have its compliance with core labour standards reviewed, on the understanding that all ILO members would be prepared to demonstrate the same commitment.

The US has not so far ratified any of these conventions and has thus escaped scrutiny of compliance through the ILO supervisory machinery -- a point that its critics have been repeatedly making. Last year, in explaining the reasons for not ratifying several of these conventions, the US had said that one of the reasons it had been unable to ratify the convention on forced labour was the practice of several US states to 'commercialise' prison and hire out prisoners under private contracts. US media reports have brought out that goods and services produced through use of prison labour is marketed in several states.

Reich wanted the ILO to explore, without preconceived notions, all avenues to better implement the ILO commitment to core labour standards, including more technical assistance, better supervisory methods and "stronger methods of persuasion".

But it ought not to mean that use of core labour standards should be pursued as an agenda of protectionism or a method to counter legitimate comparative advantage based on lower wages.

"What we are seeking is a reasoned, middle-ground (and) our interest is in results."

The US Labour Secretary added: "In this new era of economic globalization, we must look anew at how to best implement the core standards that we support. And that surely ought to include a working party in the WTO that can consider what role the WTO might play in achieving the results we seek here in the WTO.

"As members of the ILO who are also members of the WTO, and most of us are, we must seek every opportunity to work towards the objectives of the ILO constitution. That means considering what role the WTO might play in helping achieve our objectives.

"This is not a new challenge. The relationship between work practices and international trade was central to the ILO's establishment. But, the reconciliation of trade rules and labour rules has yet to be achieved. The pace of global trade expansion, meanwhile, has quickened.

"Let us resolve to work towards an open discussion of all our concerns at the Singapore WTO meeting in December. We need the views of the ILO, and the work we have done, to be present in Singapore. We must keep in mind trade is pursued in the interests of our people, who are workers as well as consumers."