The World Trade Organization and Labor Issues an Overview

The World Trade Organization has many enemies and many controversies. As the international organization that is charged with making trade more liberal, serving as a forum for governments to negotiate trade agreements, “operating a system of trade rules”, and settling trade disputes, the role and the function of the WTO can be difficult to identify as something that stays the same.

When it has come to labor, the WTO has been remarkably incapable to act or to use its enforcement powers despite developing core labor standards at the 1996 Singapore Ministerial conference. This set of core labor standards was supposed to be appointed to the International Labor Organization (ILO), but few, if any committees within the WTO were found to be working on any labor issues.

Worse, the ILO is weak when it comes to having the ability to enforce any labor standards. 

In 1996, the core standards were described as “freedom of association, no forced labour, no child labour, and no discrimination at work (including gender discrimination).” 1

The problems with the WTO and labor involve lack of agreement about enforcement, lack of consensus, and a lack of answers to some questions. There was the issue of protectionism and unfair export advantages to countries that have poor labor practices. Enforcement is a problem where consensus was not going to happen. The bottom line was over countries ability to sanction through trade restrictions on countries that violated the core labor standards.

Finally, the major question asked if the WTO as a body that should be dealing with labor at all.

Today, the WTO is still viewed as an organization that puts labor issues on the back burner while compounding labor problems by globalizing labor issues with the trade agreements that it fosters. Even the WTO agreed, in a joint analysis with the International Labor Organization, that globalization of trade has done little or nothing to improve the lot of workers: there was no evidence that job security, social “safety net” programs or the other core standards problems were being improved.

This is somewhat of a change in attitude and focus, since the WTO is often viewed as an organization that has refused to do anything about labor. But whenever it is found out that labor conditions for the working poor have not actually improved through globalization, a major claim that supported the existence of the WTO is denied. In fact, it seems that labor has become a commodity, itself, thanks to the international trade agreements fostered by the WTO.