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Some Notes on Labour Standards:
For an Independent Stance of the International
Labour Movement

Massimo de Angelis

One of the main problematic issues of our movement today is the question of labour and environmental standards. In the context of last year's failed Seattle round, countries of the North, and especially the U.S., were forced to embrace the rhetoric of labour and environmental standards, as environmentalists and unions voiced their concerns. Many governments of the South, and many NGOs linked to third world countries, rejected the call to link these standards to WTO rules, as countries of the South saw this as an opportunity by the North to mask protectionist measures. 

A South Korean Union has recently correctly pointed out that neither the North's nor the South's position is a progressive one. Indeed, First World governments’ support for labour and environmental standards is slightly suspicious, given the increasing violations of basic human rights occurring in countries such as the U.S.A (whose prison labour, casual workers, and child labour has filled recent undignified statistics). On the other hand, when LDCs (and corresponding supporting NGOs) argue against linking trade to labour and environmental standards, their argument implicitly accepts the market-driven economic logic that has caused so many problems to their societies. In other words, the position of neither North nor South is progressive because they both accept the logic of competitiveness and market. Yet, market promoters of various political tendencies have exploited these contradictions.

A unanimous chorus of neoliberal "boos" was launched against the protests in Seattle, depicted as being responsible for preventing the solution to world poverty. The front cover of December 11th edition of he Economist opens with a picture of the sad eyes of a poor Indian child. The title under the black and white picture announces: "the real loser". The argument is developed further by neoliberal UK secretary of state for international development, Claire Short. Her opinion was quite similar to The Economist. She declared that "the demonstrators in Seattle were wrong" because "trade sanctions against countries with child labour will simply punish the poorest countries and prevent their economic growth." This is of course the LDC position we have discussed before. Her solution is totally market oriented: "Only by reducing poverty and expanding education can we improve their lives. To reduce their poverty, countries need to draw in investment and to sell their exports to pay for the investment." But why? 

To reduce poverty, instead of relying on highly unreliable international investors, we could in principle start to rewrite the structure of property rights, expand the commons, abolish debt and increase social resources for addressing needs (through a global corporation tax, a Tobin tax, etc.). Or listen to another neoliberal, Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky, Chairperson of the Ministerial Conference, who feels "particular disappointment because the postponement of our deliberations means the benefits that would have accrued to developing and least-developed countries will now be delayed, while the problems facing these countries will not be allayed. A package of results is within reach." Yet decades of capitalist accumulation provide ample evidence that, whatever package you put in place, when this is subordinated to the profit and market principle, development and poverty alleviation are always accompanied by underdevelopment and poverty promotion 

It is necessary to open up a debate on these issues, and intervene in these debates in such a way to address precisely the limitation of the market logic. The central issue is whether or not we want to accept the competitive rat race and the arguments locked into it. If there are ways forward, these are all grounded in solutions that go beyond market and competitiveness, and thus the international labour movement ( with other movements) must develop a stance which is independent from both governments in the North and in the South. 

First, I of course support our struggles for trade union rights in all countries, so that workers in all countries have greater space to fight their own battles. 

Second, if we want to link the question of labour standards to a broader political agenda, than labour standards both in the North and in the South can be addressed within a framework of a progressive and systematic exodus from capitalist relations of production. Applied to the question of labour (and environmental) standards, in the short term this means addressing labour conditions within the global economy, both north and south. If raising standards in the South would clearly infringe their competitive position vis-à-vis the country of the North (by affecting relative prices in favour of the North) this however would not be the case if standards are raised in a proportionate amount in both the North and the South. This would not have any effect on relative prices, would improve the lot of both workers of the North and South, and would have as main effect the reduction of surplus that goes in the hand of global corporate power. TNCs of course would be hurt across the board (we cannot make everybody happy, can we?), but not relative to each other. 

Clearly, a global exodus from capitalist relations of production could not only be based on a progressive struggle to raise labour and environmental standards and the consequent reduction of global surplus. Also crucial would be an attack and redefinition of property rights of social means of production, reproduction and communication , that is, the progressive redefinition of spaces of commons. Also, some forms of global taxation must be put in place to finance social and environmental regeneration worldwide in a way which is not subordinated to competitiveness but rather to the needs of people. All these gains would require a big political and social battle, whose main condition is the strengthening of international alliances between labour, environmental and other movements.

On the question of whether we link labour standards with trade (WTO) or leave it to ILO, my tentative answer is this. First, we must bear in mind that WTO can impose legal obligations, while the ILO cannot. This means that important spheres of what used to be national state power has been shifted to the international level. Thus, asking for the ILO (and not the WTO) to address labour standards is like 30 years ago to ask a national consultative agency (and not the government) to address the question of, say, unfair dismissal. The WTO and its power to enforce legal obligation is a de facto reality. Unless we think that we have now the power to smash the WTO and shift all sovereignty back to national states (something very unlikely), we must find ways to disrupt its neoliberal agenda.

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