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100 days after Seattle: WTO members yet to learn lessons of Seattle debacle

ICFTU ONLINE..., 052/000310/JH, 10 March 2000

Brussels March 10 2000 (ICFTU OnLine): 100 days after the Seattle WTO conference broke down, the ICFTU said today that the continuing paralysis in trade discussions at Geneva showed that the WTO$(B!G(Bs members had failed to grasp the lessons of the battle of Seattle.

The Seattle Conference demonstrated the overwhelming suspicion of globalisation, both in the developing and the industrialised countries, commented Bill Jordan, ICFTU General Secretary. Popular confidence in the multilateral trading system is at an all-time low. Unless there are changes to WTO rules to incorporate social, developmental and environmental considerations, such public opposition to WTO trade talks will only increase.

The ICFTU, International Trade Secretariats and TUAC (1) have long argued that freer trade needs to lead to better working and living conditions for workers all around the world. As competition in export markets and for inward investment becomes increasingly global it is vital that this does not lead to downward pressure on basic human rights. Developing country governments, in particular, are feeling mounting pressure to repress labour standards and artificially lower labour costs to increase their short-term competitiveness. One consequence is the proliferation of export processing zones where the workforce of mostly young women is denied the chance to join trade unions for their protection and in consequence is severely exploited and subject to poor and often dangerous working conditions.

The WTO must demonstrate its responsiveness to social and development concerns in order to avoid a repeat of the debacle at Seattle, stressed Mr. Jordan. In order to rebuild popular support for the multilateral trading system, progress is needed at the WTO on the issue of basic human rights at the workplace, through a working group or forum of the WTO together with the ILO.

The ICFTU has also emphasised that measures are needed to give developing countries the guarantee that they too can get benefits from the international trade system. They need increased technical and financial development assistance and debt relief. In particular, all WTO members must be represented adequately in the Geneva negotiations. The industrialised countries must provide the necessary assistance to help those 30-odd developing countries too poor to have any representation there at all.

Preventing a continuation of the stagnation after Seattle, concluded Mr. Jordan, will require the construction of an alliance for progress at the WTO on all fronts simultaneously: to protect basic labour standards during globalisation, to tackle the concerns of developing countries about fair treatment in the multilateral trading system, and to make the trading system environmentally sustainable. Only that way will it be possible to build a consensus in support of the world trading system.