(Durban 05.04.2000 - Juhani Artto) ICFTU leaders and delegates at the 17th Congress are justifiably proud of the progress made over the last few years by trade union demands to condition international trade with core labour standards. Not long ago such demands had hardly any support outside of the trade union movement, and even the movement itself was split with a large number of third world unions labelling the demands as protectionist.

In Durban the ICFTU has found a single voice for the inclusion of core labour standards in world trade regulations.

At the December 1999 WTO Seattle negotiations, the European Union and the United States were already in favour of adopting core labour standards as part of the international trade regime. This is clearly a triumph for the international trade union movement.

The ICFTU is now ready to increase the pressure to get its demand implemented. Delegates at the 17th Congress are specifying the necessary control and other mechanisms needed to realise core labour standards in practice.

If, or rather when - as the Durban delegates put it - such standards are implemented universally, there will be relief for millions of working men and women, primarily in the developing countries.

The ICFTU Congress is nevertheless strangely silent with respect to the heavy protectionism of the industrialised countries. The European Union, USA and Japan discriminate particularly against commodities in which the developing countries are most competitive: agricultural products, textiles and garments.

Interviewed by Trade Union News from Finland, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the ICFTU Asia and Pacific regional organisation APRO President Ken Douglas were quick to turn the discussion away from tariffs and other trade barriers to other equally relevant issues such as child labour, democracy, lack of transparency and so on.

No interest in win-win, linkages and common public goods?

The protectionism of the industrialised countries, however, is one of the major factors in an equation that causes, perpetuates, broadens and deepens poverty in the third world.

Pekka Ahmavaara, a director of SAK, the largest central trade union organisation in Finland, was more willing to use the right words to describe this problem yesterday in Durban. He characterises the protectionist measures of the industrialised countries, Finland among them, as "civilised selfishness". This is a wording which the Finnish government included a few years ago in its new "development country strategy".

"It is practical realism. In all countries the trade unions primarily protect the immediate interests of their own members, such as preserving jobs and improving the standard of living. This is the tradition", Ahmavaara notes.

"In a broader and a more long-term scenario, a consistent defence of the rights of members in the affluent countries demands greater attention to the global trade structures that prevent the developing countries from exporting their agricultural and other goods to the industrialised countries. This makes it necessary to focus more attention on all barriers to the development of poor countries."

"In the short term it is clear that no single union in any country will voluntarily approve of the removal of production and jobs to other countries or to wage dumping in the name of increasing worker benefits on other continents."

In his manner of distinguishing short and long term perspectives, Pekka Ahmavaara approaches the win-win concept used by the World Bank, which points out that in a long-term analysis, the rich and poor of the world have many common interests. The World Bank refers to the need for global environmental protection, social stability and crime prevention. Similarly, over the longer perspective the increasingly stark division of world wealth will also become a barrier to the development of the wealthier parts of the world.

The OECD has identified the same long-term common interests and calls them linkages. UNDP has also come out with the concept of common public goods, which resembles more recent World Bank and OECD thinking.

ILO General Secretary Somavia:
"Globalisation as we know it today will not survive unless its benefits reach more people"

The most celebrated speaker of the Congress to date, ILO General Secretary Juan Somavia, included in his argument certain important common interests of labour market partners.

"... we have the point that good labour relations are good for enterprise and good for social stability."

"In mainstream ICFTU argumentation barely any long-term common interests are mentioned."

"Is this right and does it offer the most profound intellectual basis for developing the trade union movement? I have my doubts."

"There is nothing wrong in the moral condemnation of corporate power and of governments submitting to the interests of international capital. On the contrary, this has to be voiced clearly - over the whole week in Durban -in the name of the large majority of mankind that nowadays is experiencing the downside of globalisation."

"Globalisation as we know it today will not survive unless its benefits reach more people", Somavia warns the present beneficiaries of globalisation.

Asian imports kill textile and garment industry jobs in Africa

In his interview, Africa's textile and garment worker trade union secretary Jabu Ngcobo threw more light on the complexity of the trade issue. In Africa, textile and garment industry jobs have for many years been in decline. The devastating competition comes mainly from China, India and other Asian developing countries. Also the second-hand clothes collected in affluent countries from people with good intentions deal major blows to Africa's own production and jobs all the way from the Mediterranean to Southern Africa.

Unfortunately, core labour standards do not solve such trade problems. They are but one example of how concentrating on one demand in trade policy and being silent regarding others leaves too much free space for unfair trading. The industrialised countries, as the major engineers of trade regulation problems, must ask why the ICFTU and its Congress delegates so easily bypass those tricky questions of trade.

Is the idea simply to protect ICFTU unity?

Who is worried about Africa's economy? Is anybody outside of Africa concerned about African textile and garment industry jobs?

Or who is concerned about heavily subsidised chicken industry products made in the USA threatening chicken industry jobs in South Africa, and South African chicken industry products in turn jeopardising chicken industry jobs in Mozambique?

The textile and garment industry, and agricultural jobs are highly relevant to the equation determining the immediate future of Africa. Why not speak out on this subject using the right words and in concrete terms – in-between all those solemn declarations about eradicating poverty in Africa?

See also:
Challenge to congress (Business Day - Wednesday, April 05, 2000)