Jun 17, 1989


GENEVA, JUNE 15 (BY CHAKRAVARTHI RAGHAVAN)— Third world countries in GATT appear to have rejected the idea of setting up a joint GATT-ILO task force to study the issues of workers' rights and their impact on trade.

The GATT Director-General Arthur Dunkel is reported to have been canvassing this idea, but has been unable to get the consent of third world countries in consultations held this week.

The U.S. has been trying to bring the issue of so-called "workers' rights" on to the GATT agenda, using the same tactics as it has in relation to "intellectual property rights", "investment" and "services", namely pre-fixing "trade" before it and arguing that denial of workers’ rights by countries has effects on trade and enables unfair trade and should be dealt with in GATT.

The U.S. efforts are related to its wider neo-mercantilist policies and talk of "fair competition", negating the theories of free trade based on comparative advantage on which the post-war GATT system is supposedly based.

U.S. efforts to include this issue on the agenda of the Uruguay round failed.

Like other such issues that could not be resolved by the ministerial meeting that launched the Uruguay round, it was disposed off by the chairman's explanatory remarks at the Punta del Este meeting to the effect that these matters could be dealt with through the GATT processes.

Last year, the U.S. put the item on the agenda of the GATT Council, where third world nations blocked any action, challenging GATT's jurisdiction and competence to deal with these issues.

Substantively, several of them challenged the U.S. to ratify some of the major ILO conventions before it sought to preach labour standards to others.

Meanwhile came the U.S. omnibus trade and competitiveness act of 1988, vesting sweeping powers in the administration (in violation of U.S. international obligations in GATT) to take trade actions in furtherance of U.S. objectives.

Under its provisions, the U.S. trade representative has discretionary powers to take actions against trading partners and one of the grounds is a determination by the USTR that any act or policy of a foreign country is "unreasonable", and burdens or restricts U.S. commerce.

One of the grounds is "a persistent pattern of conduct" that denies workers the right of association, right to organise and bargain collectively, permit any form of forced or compulsory labour, failure to provide for a minimum age for employment of children or provide standards for minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health of workers.

In bringing the subject before the GATT council, the U.S. has suggested a working party should go into the subject, so that it could tell congress that GATT is dealing with it.

Third world countries did not see it this way, since in the past through such tactics the U.S. first brought extraneous issues on the GATT agenda and then insisted on negotiations in the GATT to find solutions.

If third world countries had any doubts about U.S. mala fides, they have been removed after the initiation recently of actions against Japan, brazil and India under so-called "super 301" for unfair trading, and initiation of actions against several others under "special 30l" over intellectual property rights.

With the U.S. blocked in the GATT Council, and the subject figuring on the GATT council agenda every time, the GATT director -general sought to get the U.S. off the hook by initiating a task force of the GATT secretariat and the ILO office to study the issue.

According to third world sources, the GATT Director-General had originally thought of doing this on his own, merely informing the council about it post-facto.

But third world countries who got wind of this cautioned Dunkel against it, noting that the GATT Director-General had no such authority and could did no more than what he is asked to do.

Dunkel has been holding consultations on this since early this year, wishing to set up a task force, and seeking the concurrence of the GATT Council.

He has been reportedly arguing that the task force could examine the issue of international labour standards and its effects on trade and since this would prejudice no one's position, it should be agreed to.

He is also reported to have told third world delegates that they should take account of the real world and that if no way out was found for the U.S. position, the subject would continue to figure on the agenda every time.

In an effort to help the U.S., at an earlier council meeting, when the issue of trade in toxic and dangerous substances came up and Africans wanted a working party, some of the ICS tried to link it to a working party on the workers’ rights.

But this has only irritated third world delegates and strengthened their determination not to find an easy way out for the U.S.

In so-called "green room" consultations this week, Dunkel reportedly failed to get a consensus.