Letter: Sweatshop reform

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The Independent Culture
Sir: I welcome your Global Sweatshop campaign and wholeheartedly support its aim to improve working conditions in factories both North and South.

The ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle at the end of November offers an opportunity to improve co-ordination between the WTO and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) with a view to introducing a requirement into the WTO agreements that minimum labour standards must be respected by WTO members.

This proposal has been stalled in the past because of legitimate fears from poorer countries that such requirements could be used for protectionist purposes. However, if the measures were focused solely on the two "enabling" ILO conventions on freedom of association, right to organise and collective bargaining, there is no risk that northern countries could use the regulation to impose their own, possibly inappropriate, standards on the South.

Rather, workers in the South would themselves be able to bargain for those conditions which are most appropriate in different social and economic contexts. The ILO would still retain its mandate to assess and report on labour standards around the world, and the "teeth" of the WTO would only be used, after agreement with the ILO, as a measure of last resort.

This proposal would only target those producers who are producing for export, but there is evidence that higher standards in the export sector exercise an upward pressure on domestic standards as well.

Your articles have demonstrated only too vividly the dreadful price poor people have to pay where poor labour standards are the norm. This is an issue that cannot be left off the WTO's agenda at Seattle, despite its sensitivity.


(Green Party, South East Region)