Should labor and environmental standards be incorporated into the WTO, or is that the wrong place for them?
When the WTO was established, many environmentalists pushed for an environmental working group in the WTO. They got one, and after five years, many of its most energetic proponents are now saying that this working group has turned into a trade-dominated entity where environmental laws are studied not to safeguard them but rather to figure out how to get rid of them. We don't want to put the environment in the hands of an organization whose charge and worldview is commercial. That would be like putting the Endangered Species Act in the middle of the bankruptcy code. We need to have an entity of equal stature, and we need the WTO to be cut out of national and international environmental policies. Global labor movements now have all the enthusiasm the environmentalists did five years ago about putting standards into the WTO. I personally am very skeptical.
We've built a very strong consensus among labor unions around the world about the importance of incorporating enforceable workers' rights into international trade agreements. These include the freedom of association, the right to bargain collectively and provisions on child labor, forced labor and employment discrimination. The question is how international organizations can support the goal of observing core labor standards. The IMF and the World Bank could include as one of the conditions for loans the observance of these standards. By not having any rules on workers' rights, the WTO makes it difficult for countries to implement and enforce core labor standards. The very absence of rules undermines countries' abilities to enforce them. But frankly we're a long way from having consensus that this is an issue the countries want to discuss. Because the WTO is a multilateral organization, we need to start with some more modest goals of opening a dialogue about what constructive role it can play in promoting core labor standards. Our ultimate goal is to incorporate workers' rights and environmental protections into WTO rules. But we can't start with that. In the short term we hope to force the WTO to acknowledge that its actions have a bearing on labor standards and begin a conversation that will one day lead to a change in the rules.
I think there are problems with standards. The whole purpose of these multilateral agreements is to break down barriers to trade and investment. There's also a problem of enforcement. Can you imagine the US government using the WTO to sanction Indonesia because Indonesia is being nasty to its trade unions? I think labor is taking this tack because it's the easy one to take. Why aren't they a little bolder? Labor should be taking on the multinational corporations on a worldwide scale. There are some examples of that happening recently--but we need a lot more, and not the ceremonial approach of the past. A good example of what could be done was the recent oil workers' strike in Indonesia. The US oil workers' union [now merged into PACE] and the international trade union secretariat launched a pressure campaign on the corporations. And the Indonesian strike was won. There are networks being built between workers in the United States and Mexico and Europe. We need more cross-border exchanges at the rank-and-file level. There are high-level organizations like the secretariats, which sometimes do good things, but have the problem of being federations of federations.
People in the South have been saying that putting the determination of whether goods are being produced in socially acceptable ways in the hands of the WTO is putting it in the hands of the wrong organization. Instead, let's strengthen the ILO, let's strengthen multilateral environmental agreements. Northern NGOs have been too quick to try to use the WTO as an enforcement mechanism. Clearly, environmental groups in the North are on the right track in examining how commodities are made or how fish are caught. But often there's little sensitivity that jobs are at stake in the South. There should be ways that green technologies from the North could be made available to Southern countries at low cost to facilitate cleaner methods of production. With labor, too, the issues are quite complex. It often seems that we're not just talking about extreme sweatshop conditions in the South but about a demand that labor standards overall be radically upgraded. And this does not take into account historical social conditions that exert influence beyond the desire of multinationals for cheaper labor.
It's sometimes said that free trade is like a bicycle: If you don't keep moving forward, you fall over. Has the forward momentum been lost?
A backlash [against globalization] is certainly coming. The challenge for those of us who believe that free trade and global capital are essentially good things if managed correctly is to avoid the backlash by developing progressive strategies to overcome the widening inequalities and the environmental depredations while preserving what's good about globalization. And what's good about globalization needs to be on the table as well. Since the Second World War, globalization has dramatically improved the lives of most of the world's people. It has meant that poor people even in rich nations have access to goods and services that are much cheaper than they would be if we were living in a world of autarky. It means that savings can flow to poorer nations to put people to work.
Reform It or Junk It?
So would you reform the WTO or junk it entirely?
Reform it in every aspect. Reform its rules, reform its processes. We do need a system of international trade rules, but we don't like the rules or the process that exists now. Our primary concern is that the WTO has no provisions protecting workers' rights. The only labor right that is written into WTO rules right now is that countries may restrict imports of goods produced with prison labor. But the other core labor standards are not covered by WTO rules. If a country wants to ban the import of goods made with child labor or place trade sanctions on a country that is violently repressing independent labor unions, the WTO could strike it down as a trade restriction.
I would abolish the WTO. It institutionalizes the historical accumulated advantage of the North, and specifically of the United States. Because of tightened intellectual-property restrictions, industrialization by imitation--the traditional way that countries have industrialized--is no longer an option. All the ways by which trade policies like barriers and quotas have been creatively used for economic development in the past have now been eliminated. The agreement on agriculture is nothing but an effort to consolidate the monopoly over global agricultural trade enjoyed by the European Union and the United States. Yes, we now have a rule-based system and a very strong dispute-settlement system. But basically what this does is reduce policing costs. I think less structure and more fuzziness would serve the interests of the poorer countries. The current set of rules is skewed to the advantage of the rich countries, particularly the United States.