Jul 1, 1986


GENEVA JUNE 27 (IFDA/CHAKRAVARTHI RAGHAVAN) -- The U.S. delegation is reported to have been virtually ridiculed and laughed out Thursday at the GATT preparatory Committee for a new trade round for its efforts to champion the cause of workers’ rights in the general agreement.

If the U.S. is really serious about championing workers’ rights, it should first ratify the ILO Conventions, Argentina is reported to have advised, pointing to the fact that the U.S. has so far ratified only seven of the ILO Conventions as against 63 by Argentina.

The U.S. has sought to include "worker rights" as an issue on the agenda for the proposed new round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations in GATT.

Some GATT delegations have suggested that the U.S. move and its explanatory paper is so vague as to leave the impression that the U.S. trade representative himself is not serious, but merely going through a proforma exercise to satisfy Congress.

There are others who see it as part of a new gambit to keep out goods from third world countries who have emerged as competitive suppliers in a number of industries.

These delegates note that such spurious economic theories as "low-cost suppliers" have been used to erect a discriminatory trade regime against imports of third world textiles and clothing, and the U.S. move is part of an effort to create new protectionist barriers against other third world exports.

Denial of workers’ rights, the U.S. has argued in the paper it has circulated in the GATT, could lead to trade distortions, and should hence be addressed in the new round, with this issue being examined in the context of the relevant GATT articles, the overall objectives of GATT, and the relationship of worker rights to patterns of international trade "with a view to developing a means for dealing with worker rights in the GATT".

Artificially low labour standards in the exporting country, the U.S. has said, could lead to declining standards in an importing country, and thus create pressures for grade-restrictive actions.

The U.S. paper is vague on what it means by workers’ rights, but suggests a GATT examination of direct workplace standards, existence of minimum wages or reasonable conditions of health and safety, and of broad political rights such as freedom of association, the right to organise and bargain collectively, and taking ILO Conventions as a basis to begin with.

While most of the sarcastic comments in the Preparatory Committee on the U.S. moves, according to participants, came from third world countries, New Zealand, among the industrial countries, suggested that the whole issue was being raised as "a platform for protectionism".

In what was seen by others as a reference to conditions of black workers under South African Apartheid regime against whom the U.S. and its allies are reluctant to take any action, the Nigerian delegate is reported to have remarked that in the part of the world he came from "workers" rights are inevitably linked to racism, and forced labour", and he could support GATT consideration of these issues.

Zimbabwe is also reported to have said that workers’ rights should really mean dealing with slave labour conditions, while Zambia supported the view that workers’ rights issue is closely linked to racism, and should be considered together.

A number of African countries are also reported to have spoken, in what another participant described as "rather emotionally" evoking the conditions of slavery to which Africans had been subjected, and African slaves transported to the U.S. to build up its now prosperous economy...

Jamaica reportedly expressed its readiness to discuss workers’ rights in GATT, but with priority to "gross violations".

Chile suggested that workers’ rights should not merely relate to minimum wages, etc., but also the right of a worker "to choose his place of work". Would the U.S. be willing to accept free movement of labour, the Chilean delegate was reported to have asked.

While Cuba expressed its opposition to any discussion of any issue outside GATT’s competence, Brazil is reported to have viewed the U.S. move as "a recipe for failure of negotiations", but suggested the U.S. move was not "a serious proposal".

"We could as well address in GATT disarmament and macro-economic policies which are more relevant".

Singapore suggested that the best way the U.S. could advance workers’ rights would be to allow greater access in its markets to third world exports, so that the benefits of increased earnings and improved standards of living would accrue to workers in third world countries.

India reportedly suggested that more relevant to trade distortion would be issues of environment protection, equitable terms for transfers of technology, and could as well be taken up in GATT.

If the U.S. were really serious about improving standards for workers, liberalisation of trade in textiles and clothing would be the most important step, since the textiles industry was the "mother industry" for industrialisation and development of the third world.