Vol. IV, Bulletin No.12. June 25, 1999
The Public's Right to Know About the WTO
Imagine walking into a dark theater in the middle of a movie you want to see. Then imagine your frustration when you find that the movie is in a foreign language you don't understand, with tiny subtitles you can't read.
That suggests how it can feel if you try to follow a drama now taking place in preparations for a historic meeting of the World Trade Organization, WTO for short. The climax to this drama will occur at the WTO's ministerial conference in Seattle, Washington, November 29 to December 4, but the agenda for it is being determined at the WTO's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The information available about the issues being discussed there is meager, and often jargon heavy. That's unfortunate because:
Clinton Seeks a 'More Transparent, Accessible, and Responsive' WTO
- The World Trade Organization already has a broad global policy mandate going far beyond trade. As the WTO's former director general once described it, "We are writing the constitution of a single global economy."
- Plans are for the Seattle conference to reinforce and expand that mandate through a new round of negotiations, tentatively called the Millennium Round.
- The WTO's global mandate, which includes protecting the cross-border rights of investors, writers, inventors, trademark holders, and many other types of persons and organizations engaged in business, has a huge gap--it ignores the rights of workers in both developed and developing countries.
The WTO is making some effort to inform the public. Check its voluminous Website at http://www.wto.org. But you'll find precious little about the likely scenario for the Seattle conference. There is a three-paragraph press release on it. Our May 7 Bulletin had a short quote from it. Here's more:President Clinton has called for a new, accelerated negotiating Round to include three different dimensions: global negotiations to open markets in goods, services, and agriculture; a dynamic agenda that delivers results on an on-going basis; and institutional reform to make the WTO more transparent, accessible, and responsive to citizens.Governments are seldom open about the issues that they're debating among themselves (and, remember, the WTO is an inter-governmental organization). For those kinds of insights, you have to search outside governmental and inter-governmental ranks.
The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which represents unions in 143 countries in the developed and developing world, has just issued a statement on the issues that ought to concern the world's policymakers at Seattle. ICFTU affiliates are delivering the statement, titled "A New Strategy for Trade and Development," to governments throughout the world. Although it covers some technical points, the statement does so mostly in non-technical language.
You can find it at http://www.icftu.org/english/els/escl99wtostatseattle.html.
A Union Voice for Abolishing the WTO
Is it possible to reform the World Trade Organization? The ICFTU and many non-governmental organizations think it is. Other critics think the WTO is beyond hope and should be dismantled.
A strong voice for dismantlement got a hearing at a workshop on globalization and free trade held June 12 in Hong Kong under the sponsorship of Greenpeace China and the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee. Gerard Greenfield, education program organizer for the Asia-Pacific region of the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers, presented a paper on "The WTO, the World Food System, and the Politics of Harmonized Destruction." In it he charged, among other things, that:
For these and many other reasons, Greenfield endorses "the mass movements worldwide calling for the abolition of the WTO." He develops his case at great length on the Web at http://www.labournet.org/discuss/global/wto.html. Whatever the merit of his conclusion, the problems he discusses deserve to be read, pondered, and (many of them) corrected.
- The WTO agenda for free trade and free competition in agriculture promotes the "monopolization" of the agri-food industry, the "massive dumping" overseas of subsidized agri-food exports by the major industrialized countries, and greater instability and inequality for farmers and food workers.
- The WTO is planning to "create a global charter for the rights of TNCs [transnational corporations] and further consolidate their power" through the adoption of a Multilateral Investment Agreement patterned on one that failed to win approval in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last year.
How to Jump-Start Worker Rights in the WTO
International trade and investment agreements, as developed over the past 50 years, protect the global rights of capital but ignore the rights of labor. U.S. administrations, pushed by Congress, have made periodic efforts to end that discrimination, but have failed.
Why? Because, says Jerome Levinson of the Washington College of Law, the worker rights rhetoric of negotiators from the U.S. executive branch is not taken seriously by negotiators from other countries.
Support for international worker rights has strong support in Congress and in the laws Congress has passed, Levinson writes in a new report, but "the American negotiators of these agreements have not been willing to give worker rights as high a priority as they do the protection of investors." Hence, "sensing that reluctance, domestic and foreign opponents of worker rights have been able to muster majorities against them in multilateral negotiations."
Upgrading Role of Secretary of Labor in Worker Rights Matters
The time has come, according to Levinson, to take "unilateral action" on worker rights by enforcing and reinforcing U.S. legislation covering worker rights provisions in the United States' own country-to-country agreements (the bilateral as distinct from the multilateral ones). A key recommendation in his report, issued by the Economic Policy Institute, concerns the role of the U.S. Department of Labor: now it has a peripheral role in trade and investment policy; he would give it a central role on worker rights issues.
"U.S. trade law should be changed to require that the Secretary of Labor certify that a country's workers can exercise worker rights before [U.S.] trade preferences can be granted," Levinson writes. Now that determination is largely in the hands of the U.S. Treasury and the Special Trade Representative, "both of which have an institutional interest in relegating worker rights to a secondary status."
Such initiatives in the United States' own bilateral trade and investment policies are "paradoxically...the only way of eventually forcing open the closed door of multilateral negotiations [in the WTO]," Levinson writes. He sees such a strategy as probably the only hope "to convince the developing countries to come to the table for serious negotiations over how to balance the emerging trade and investment regime with a commitment to core worker rights." At present, he contends, developing nations need only accommodate U.S. corporate interests at the bargaining table.
The full text of Levinson's report, titled "Certifying International Worker Rights: A Practical Alternative," can be downloaded free from the Website of the Economic Policy Institute at http://www.epinet.org. Or contact EPI at 1-800-EPI-4844 for a copy, priced at $5 plus shipping and handling.
Diary: Getting Rid of Rot in My House and Beyond
"Do not be fooled by the appearance of an apparently good piece of wood," the letter warns in bold type. "Paint can conceal rot that has caused extensive damage."
The warning comes in a letter to households in the 32 townhomes that form our little community organization in northern Virginia. Our cedar-sided homes will be painted late this summer, and our neighbor, Jim Pappas, is giving us advice based on what he learned last year through the arduous work of removing wood rot around the doors and windows of his house.
"Wood rot is a bacteria that attacks wet wood," Jim explains, "and removing the infected wood is the only sure way to deal with the problems"--or else it will only get worse and lead to "serious structural damage."
Jim is not a carpenter (he leads a local union of the Communications Workers of America), but his two-page letter is filled with practical advice based on study and practical experience. For example:
Shortly after getting the letter, I sampled the frames of four of the many windows that line our house. My screwdriver probing found rot at the bottom corners of two. I got some comfort by meditating on possible bigger meanings in this bad news. Could the need to eliminate rot, which Jim says is "characteristic of our type of house," be a useful metaphor for the crusade against sweatshops? A few obvious examples of pertinent parallels to Jim's advice:
- "Replacing damaged lumber is only part of the job. (Not what you wanted to hear.) The most important part is preventing it from ever happening again. In many cases the water entered from a broken caulk seam, and caulking every seam is required. Don't shortcut the caulk. In most cases you should remove the caulk and replace it....A pain, but it will last much longer."
- "The best way to find the rot is to probe with a screwdriver at the suspected sites."
New Convention Against 'Worst Forms of Child Labor'
- Don't be fooled by the appearance of an apparently good code of conduct. To know whether the words are painting over extensive rot, you have to probe at suspected sweatshop sites.
- Correcting worker rights abuses is only part of the job. The most important part is preventing them from happening again.
- Failure to remove the rot of sweatshops can cause serious structural damage to the whole global economy, and may already have done so.
Delegates in Geneva from nearly 200 countries on June 17 adopted a treaty-like document calling for "immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor." The document, designated as Convention 182 of the International Labor Organization, can be read at http://www.ilo.org/public/english/10ilc/ilc87/com-chic.htm. For HRFW's comments, see "New ILO Convention: Will It Improve the Odds for Ending Child Labor?" in our May 21 Bulletin.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-12, June 25, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
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