Jul 17, 1987


GENEVA, JULY 16 (IFDA/CHAKRAVARTHI RAGHAVAN) – The U.S. efforts to bring into GATT the so-called "workers rights" met with strong opposition Wednesday in the GATT Council, and no action was taken pending continued informal consultations on whether and how to deal with the issue.

In a communication, the U.S. had said that a GATT working party should be set up to look into the "relationship of internationally-recognised worker rights to international trade", and the item had been included in the Council’s "proposed agenda", normally drawn up by the GATT secretariat and the Council chairman.

However, according to third world sources, the wording of the item and the issue being put on the "agenda" ran into trouble, and it was clear that the traditional GATT custom of allowing any contracting party to bring issues on the agenda would not prevail.

According to third world sources, a large number of third world countries made clear that this "customary courtesy" could not be abused by bringing issues not within GATT competence or jurisdiction on GATT agenda, and that the adoption of the proposed agenda in the Council would itself run into trouble, and would not be adopted by consensus.

Third world sources said that had learnt some bitter lessons from the past – when controversial non-GATT issues, like services and intellectual property rights have been smuggled into GATT by putting it on the agenda for study, and getting it considered by a working party or other such mechanisms – and they were determined not to tall into the same trap again.

After prolonged consultations, the agenda was reworded as "communication from the United States on the relevance to GATT of relationship of internationally-recognised worker rights to international trade".

The chairman of the Council, Alan Oxley of Australia further clarified that the inclusion of the U.S. communication "implies no decision on the appropriateness of action in the Council on the subject matter of the communication, which would be a matter for further consultation, nor would it prejudice positions on the GATT’s competence in relation to the subject matter".

In raising the issue, the U.S. delegate, Amb. Samuel reportedly argued that this was an area "increasingly the subject of attention" in his country, and the U.S. believed it deserved serious discussion in multilateral fora, and that GATT was the appropriate place to discuss it.

The U.S. communication said that the objective of raising standards of living for workers in all countries was recognised in the preamble to GATT, and "one indicator of the degree of realisation of such rights in trading countries is the extent to which workers enjoyed international recognised worker rights".

As examples of such rights, the U.S. listed freedom of association, freedom to organise and bargain collectively, freedom from forced or compulsory labour, minimum age for employment of children, and measures setting minimum standards in respect of conditions of work.

Trade based on denial of worker rights, the U.S. argued, did not benefit workers in either exporting or importing countries and ran counter to GATT objectives, and the issue should be considered in the GATT, and the Council should set up a working party for this purpose.

Implicit in the U.S. move, and more explicit in congressional discussions on trade laws and incorporated even now in some of its laws, is the view that imports from countries judged by the U.S. to be violating worker rights could be restrained.

In informal consultations, held before the Council meeting, several third world delegations have challenged GATT competence and jurisdiction, and also the fallacy of GATT trying to lay down rules about which norms of one factor of production (labour) would ensure "fair trade" and rising standards of living for workers, while ignoring other norms for other factors of production.

One third world delegate said that if the U.S. was really serious, it should raise these issues in the ILO, where the conference could make a judgement both on the norms that the U.S. applies and odes not, and also issues of enforceability of international laws and norms in general.

In the 45-minute discussion Wednesday night in the Council, Sweden for the Nordic countries reportedly spoke of the continued interest of Nordic countries in the subject and welcomed the U.S. suggestion for a full discussion. But in the Nordic view the issue should not be used for protectionist purposes.

India said that it was one of those questioning the appropriateness of inscribing the item on the agenda. The Indian views on the suitability of the issue being dealt with in GATT had been made clear in the preparations to the Punta del Este meeting, and at Punta del Este (where the U.S. efforts to put this on the Uruguay round was rejected).

These vies had not changed, and India reserved its position on the substance of the issue.

The council took note of these statements and agreed that consultations on the U.S. request should continue.

The Indian position was supported by nearly a score of third world countries who spoke.

Romania, Nicaragua, and Mexico said the issue was not within GATT jurisdiction, while Brazil said it had taken careful note of the Council chairman’s statement on the adoption of agenda and on GATT’s competence to deal with the issue, and reserved its position.

South Korea expressed "serious misgivings" on GATT’s competence in this, while Cuba insisted this was not an appropriate matter for GATT.

Yugoslavia took a similar position, while Tanzania said prima facie the issue was "irrelevant to GATT".

Argentina felt the issue was "delicate", but appeared willing to consider it in a working group.

Uruguay however said there was insufficient evidence warranting a discussion in GATT, while Chile felt that the matter had to be carefully considered since it had serious doubts on GATT’s competence.

Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand all reserved their positions.

Hong Kong was doubtful of utility of considering the issue in the GATT forum, both because of the issues of competence and the danger of its being used for protectionist purposes.

Nigeria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were among the others who spoke expressing reservations, while the European Community and Israel expressed their readiness to participate in in-depth consultations on the issue.