Workers Rights


Trading away workers' rights

This free market globalisation is being driven by some very powerful international institutions, notably the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) - the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They have been acting as a lever to open up more and more countries to the world market.

Governments are told that if they want trade, loans and investment, then they must remove trade barriers, cut public expenditure and promote privatisation, reduce regulation on business, and produce for the world market before their own citizens' needs. As a result, more people, particularly in the developing countries, have been forced into a life of poverty and uncertainty. Governments cannot implement the economic and social programmes that they see fit for their own people.

Who's in the driving seat?

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is an organisation of over 140 member countries. But it is dominated by the industrialised countries including Japan, the USA, European countries, and Canada.

In the WTO, international trade agreements are negotiated and enforced. The WTO can take trade sanctions against any country which refuses to comply with WTO rulings. And its rulings favour free trade. Countries are prevented from strengthening national legislation that might hinder business, such as tougher environmental or labour laws.

Even activities which were previously thought to be the rightful domain of governments - such as education and health services - are being designated as 'trade' and brought into WTO discussions. Fears are growing of the adverse impact this will have on public services, especially for the poorest.

"The WTO seems to be capable of defining just about every issue as 'trade-related' except workers' rights. This amounts to trying to look after all actors in the global economy, except the people."

Guy Ryder, General Secretary, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were set up to encourage global economic stability after the Second World War by giving loans and technical assistance to governments. They have been making policies such as deregulation and privatisation a condition for their aid, under what are termed 'Structural Adjustment Programmes'.

This promotion of big business at the expense of the mass of the world's people has led to intense criticism. Under pressure, the IFIs came up with a new emphasis on poverty reduction. The World Bank announced that basic workers' rights are consistent with reducing poverty. But when strategies are drawn up, the issues of workers, whether rural or urban, are given little attention. Trade unions are barely consulted. Meanwhile, in country after country, World Bank and IMF aid is still conditional on economic policies which violate core labour standards.

It is little wonder that the WTO, IMF and World Bank have been key targets for the 'anti-globalisation' protests of recent years.

Trade unions respond

US unions were among those from around the world protesting in the streets of Seattle when the WTO met there in late 1999. In early 2001, Brazilian and international trade union leaders took part in the huge gathering of social movements in the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, building alternatives to free market globalisation. Since then the World Social Forum has met nine times, five times in Brazil but also in India 2004, in Venezuela and Mali 2006 and in Kenya 2007. The ninth World Social Forum took place in the Brazilian city of Belém, located in the Amazon rainforest, between January 27 and February 1, 2009.


Since 2001, the United Nations has had a presence at the WSF through UNESCO, showing the institutional credibility achieved by the forum, seen by UNESCO as a "prime opportunity for dialogue and a laboratory of ideas for the renewal of public policies" through "critical reflection on the future of societies we want to create and for elaborating proposals in search of solidarity, justice, peace and human rights". [

International trade union leaders also attend intergovernmental meetings at the highest level. Global Unions has offices in Washington and Geneva from where it lobbies the WTO, IMF and World Bank. A key aim is to get international labour standards included in trade agreements, so that countries which do not respect basic workers' rights do not benefit from world trade. Many developing country governments and some unions fear this is protectionism, an attempt to keep out cheaper developing country goods so as to retain jobs in the northern countries. Others agree that workers' rights should be part of trade negotiations, as long as it is based not on punishment but on incentives for governments to improve labour standards.

"We support fair and transparent world trade and the removal of trade barriers, but only if social concerns are addressed. The WTO, World Bank and IMF must be made more transparent and democratic. The WTO must co-operate with the ILO to ensure that trade rules and policies respect and do not undermine labour standards. The ILO must be given equal status to these other international bodies."

Brian Moore, Chair, International Solidarity Committee, ICTU Northern Ireland

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