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GATT Should Embrace the Rights of Workers

THE more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite astonishing geopolitical changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and despite drastic shifts in world trade patterns, the status quo remains entrenched on labor rights in the multilateral trade negotiations on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in Geneva.More precisely, I refer to the stalled United States proposal for a multilateral GATT working party to examine the relationship of fundamental internationally recognized worker rights (i.e., freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the prohibition of forced and compulsory labor) to the conduct of world trade. The current GATT negotiations are coming to a head with a package of trade liberalization measures to be embraced or rejected by the US and nearly 100 other trading nations during 1992. American trade negotiators are ready to go to the mat to achieve new rules governing trade in services and farm products and better protecting intellectual property rights. Sadly, the rights of working people who make the products and render the services are being ignored. Promoting worker rights in international trade is not a new or radical concept. In the past, international agreements and US policy have stated that worker rights and fair labor standards are necessary to an equitable trading system. Still, GATT negotiators persist in spelling out careful rules with regard to capital subsidies, dumping, and property rights to promote fair competition in world trade, but not for workers. The GATT should renounce and effectively discourage systematic labor repression. Fair competition in world trade should be structured by rules to lift the living standards of workers as well as financiers, corporate managers, entrepreneurs, and consumers. Accordingly, the GATT should establish a working party to thoroughly review the relationship of fundamental internationally recognized worker rights to GATT articles, objectives, and related instruments for the purpose of fulfilling the GATT preamble, which recognizes that international trade "should be conducted with a view to raising standards of living, ensuring full employment and a steadily growing volume of real income and effective demand." This working party would try to clearly establish that it is unjustifiable for any country or any of its industries to seek competitive advantage in international trade through the systematic denial of internationally recognized worker rights. The working party's purview would not include consideration of the comparative advantage that many developing countries, with sizable numbers of unemployed workers, derive from lower unit labor costs in different modes of production. Evidence shows that trade distorted by the systematic denial of basic worker rights is a serious problem for the international community. While many countries - developing, newly industrialized, and developed - are bound by international and national laws to protect such worker rights, the correspondence between law and practice varies greatly. The GATT, which provides a framework of rules for international trade, is the appropriate forum to deal with the economic impact of competition based on distortions caused by the systematic denial of internationally recognized worker rights. Furthermore, only the GATT has an effective dispute settlement mechanism to uphold respect for fundamental worker rights in the conduct of international trade. It would be premature for the US or any other country to fashion a detailed proposal on worker rights and trade. That is why we seek a thoughtful working party to develop more information on the incidence and effects of worker-rights violations and what can be done about them. Consideration should be given to making technical assistance available, especially for developing countries, to enhance respect for worker rights in the conduct of trade. The International Labor Organization also could have an expa nded role in providing such assistance, in addition to conducting investigations and compiling factual reports that would serve as a basis for GATT consultations and actions.

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