Are Labor Standards Elitist?

By Ellen Frank

This article is from the January/February 2000 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the January/February 2000 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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A fundamental demand of many of the Seattle anti-WTO protesters is that trade agreements embody enforceable labor rights. Officials from less developed countries call this demand elitist, arguing that it forces the luxurious standards of rich nations upon those too poor to provide them. Delegates from Brazil, Egypt, Kenya, and India sought to keep labor standards off the WTO agenda. The Pakistani delegation reportedly threatened to "explode the meeting" unless the labor issue was dropped. "Those people outside are not talking for the developing world," delegate Munir Ahmad of Pakistan told the Wall Street Journal. "They say they want a minimum wage for workers? How could you have a minimum wage of $4 for workers in Bangladesh? It's not even 20 cents an hour there."

But core labor standards, like those Clinton signed at a photo op in Seattle, are neither luxurious nor costly. Labor economist Peter Dorman points out that core labor standards can be adopted at all levels of development. "The right to organize and bargain collectively, the right to be informed of hazardous working conditions and act collectively on them, the right of adult workers not to be replaced by convict or child labor, the right to be treated in a nondiscriminatory manner—what do these have to do with whether a country is high-wage or low-wage?"

There is, moreover, ample reason to wonder whether the WTO delegates from poor countries represent the will of the people they govern. A protester from Bolivia claimed that trade has harmed the majority of Bolivians, contending that the WTO delegates "don't care about the people."

Developing countries do, however, have legitimate greivances with the issue. Most poor countries are reeling under foreign currency debts to the rich nations. In their competition for multinational investment dollars and export sector jobs to help pay those debts, poor nations have little to offer besides their "comparative advantage" in exploitable labor and lax health and safety standards. The issue of labor standards in developing countries is not ultimately separable from the broader problem of international debt relief. For debt-burdened countries, losing the U.S. market because they failed to meet international labor standards would be a devastating blow.

To demand higher standards without providing aid to indebted countries engenders suspicion among elites from the poorer countries. In response to Clinton’s sudden insistence on core labor rights, for example, delegate Youseff Boutros-Ghali from Egypt asked, "why, all of a sudden, do industrial countries start feeling concerned about (the welfare) of our workers?" Wealthy countries make noise about labor rights yet benefit in hard currency from the denial of these same rights. Enforceable labor standards, says Dorman, "must be embedded in a larger program of north-south cooperation." Lifting up labor standards in the poorer countries makes sense "only if the forces that press them down are alleviated."  

Ellen Frank teaches economics at Emmanuel College and is a member of the D&S collective.

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