Workers' Rights vis-à-vis the WTO: Do We Need a Paradigm Shift?

Date01 January 2008
Workers’ Rights vis-à-vis the WTO:
Do we need a paradigm shift?
Established in 1919,1the International Labour Organization (ILO) has
given birth to more than 180 bin ding con ventions2and 190 nonbinding
resolutions,3on subjects ranging from human rights to occupational safety.4
Despite being one of the oldest pedigrees in international law, however, the
ILO’s enforcement record has proved woeful.
One of the initial problems for this dismal performance can be attributed
to the fact that differing groups of countries have ratified different treaties,
creating a patchwork of inconsistent legal obligations.5Moreover, wherever
such a legal obligation does apply, the ILO’s pro visions for enfo rcement
favour fact-finding and reporting over sanctions. Although the ILO
constitution authorises sanctions in the event of noncompliance, the
language is vague: “In the event of any Member failing to carry out within
the time specified in the recommendations … any other Member may take
against that Member the measures of an economic character indicated … as
appropriate to the case.6
* Ms Harshita B hatnagar and Mr Vinay V. Mishra are both final year st udents of a
B.A. LL.B (Hons) in Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, India.
1Constitution Of The International Labour Organization, Treaty of Versailles, 28 June
1919, Part XIII, 49 Stat. 2713, 225 Consol. T.S. 189, 373 [hereinafter ILO Constitution].
2International Labour Organization, The ILO What It Is What It Does at p 14 from
http://w lic/engl ish/burea u/inf/dow nload/bro chure/pd f/page14. pdf.
Accessed on 3 March 2009.
4Eg Convention Concerni ng Occupational Safety and Health and the Working
Environment, adopted 22 June 1981, 1331 U.N.T.S. 279 (No. 155) (ILO) [hereinafter
Occupational Safety and Health Conv ention]; Con vention Conc erning Working
Conditions in Hotels, Restaurants, and Similar Establishments, adopted 25 June
1991, 1820 U.N.T.S. 445 (No. 172) (ILO) [hereinafter Working Conditions (Hotels
& Restaurants) Convention ]; Convention Concerning Labou r Inspection in
Agriculture, adopted 25 June 1969, 812 U.N.T.S. 88 (No. 129) (ILO) [hereinafter
Labour Inspection ( Agriculture) Con vention]; Conven tion Concerning Food and
Catering for Crews on Board Ship, adopted 27 June 1946, 164 U.N.T.S. 37 (No. 68)
(ILO) [hereinafter Food & Catering (Ships’ Crews) Convention].
5The current lists of ratifications of these conventions are found at
ilolex/english/convdisp1.htm . Last accessed on 29 January 2009 at 7:45 pm.
6Constitution Of The International Labour Organization, Treaty of Versailles, 28 June
1919 art. 419, 49 Stat. at 2729, 225 Consol. T.S. at p 382.
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Consequently, the ability of the ILO and other labour i nstitutions to
safeguard labour rights across the globe still remains to be seen.
In this research paper, the authors aim to discuss at length how a linkage
of trade and labour rig hts can lead to a much needed boost to the
enforcement and maintenance of core labour standards in the changing
world order. It is argued that the same can be achieved by a systematic
inclusion of labour standards within the WTO framework.
The paper is divided into five parts. Part I gives a general overview of the
history of the issues of workers’ rights within the agendas of international
trade institutions. Part II deals with the establi shment of the crucial link
between labour standards and international trade giving a multidimensional
view of the problem. This is done by a two way approach: A. examining the
respective impact of unilateral and bilateral tr ade agreements and WTO
mechanisms on labour measures within contracting states; and B. a
consideration of the rift between the developing and the developed nations
on the issue of such a linkage. Part III of the paper attempts to put forward
a case for the proposed “WTO-Labour” integration by scrutinising the
reasons for the current WTO regime’s failure to protect labour rights.
Subsequently, the authors deal with each of the arguments against the said
“trade-labour” linkage and move on to establish that there is an inevitable
need to negotiate the integration as soon as possible. Part IV of the paper
sketches a possible compromise that could satisfy all the stakeholders and
clear th e path for the proposed “labour clause” within the WTO frame -
work. Lastly, in part V, the paper concludes by urging the opponents of the
“trade-labour linkage to approach the is sue with a bro adened and
futuristic perspective that would be instrumental in shaping of an equitable
and harmonious world.
Workers’ Rights And International Trade Institutions:
Past, Present & Future
The Havana Charter,7the precursor of the International Trade Organization
(ITO), was the first major trade agreement to acknowledge the existence of
a relationship between labour standards and international trade. Article 7(1)
of the Charter recognized that fair labour standards would lead to greater
productivity and advancement in labour conditions.8It necessitated the
removal of unfair labour conditions that created barriers to inter national
trade. The Charter also recognised the need to co-operate with the
International Labour Organization (ILO) on labour-related issues.9After the
7Havana Charter for an International Trade Organization, U.N. Doc.E/Conf.2/78 (24
March 1948).
8Havana Charter, article 7.1 (Fair Labour Standards).
9Havana Charter, article 7.2.
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