Labor Standards and Human Rights: Implications for International Trade and Investment
The establishment of international labor standards linked to market access within the WTO is among the proposals intended to remedy the gross violations of labor and human rights that accompany international trade and investment. Yet, the WTO Charter and, previously, the GATT are virtually silent on the potential inhumanity of globally integrated goods and services markets. Despite intense pressure from the United States and the European Union, the Singapore Ministerial Declaration (December 1996), while acknowledging the importance of international labor standards, identified the International Labor Organization (ILO) as the competent body to establish and monitor labor standards. However, advocates for international labor standards ultimately gained access to the process of rules-setting in the WTO indirectly through Article XXIV governing the creation of customs unions and free trade agreements and, more importantly, the 1971 GSP Decision permitting special and differential treatment of developing country exports. Thus, contrary to the WTO Ministerial dictates, labor standards are now routinely enforced by the prospective loss of preferential tariff concessions and market access. We discuss in this context a mechanism for linking ILO-established labor standards, monitoring by the ILO, and enforcement through the threat of lost trade concessions that emerged fully operational in the 1999 U.S.-Cambodia Bilateral Textile Trade Agreement. Under this agreement, the United States provided Cambodia access to US markets by giving expanded apparel and textile quotas conditional on improved working conditions in the garment sector. We also discuss the labor and human-rights issues that emerge in a globalizing world economy, the market failures that produce labor and human-rights violations, and the role of labor standards in mitigating the most grievous of consequences. We then discuss the evidence on the impact that labor standards have on trade, firm behavior and investment, and on workers, and whether or not there is a race to the bottom, which we conclude not to be the case.
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