December 3, 1999
U.S. Effort to Add Labor Standards to Agenda Fails
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE and JOSEPH KAHN
EATTLE -- The Clinton
administration failed Thursday to rally
broad support among nations to add
labor standards to the World Trade
Organization agenda, threatening its
most important goal at a meeting
here that has been plagued by sometimes violent protests.
Caught between clashing demands
of poor nations and the American
labor movement, the administration
struggled to work out a compromise
that would have the trade organization set up a study group on labor
standards. Such a move is widely
seen as a first step toward having the
body consider issues like child labor
and workers' rights when setting
But the negotiations, never easy,
stumbled badly after President Clinton stunned the delegates, and even
his own negotiators, when he told The
Seattle Post-Intelligencer this week
that the trade group should at some
point use sanctions to enforce core
labor rights around the world.
His suggestion went well beyond
the official administration line that it
was pushing members of the trade
organization merely to set up a study
group on labor issues -- not to punish
countries that do not live up to the
Western ideas of labor rights.
The president ended his day-and-a-half visit here and left Seattle Thursday.
The meeting is scheduled to end on
The Egyptian trade minister,
Youssef Boutros-Ghali, said the proposal on sanctions derailed any hope
of a compromise agreement on the
"If you start using trade as a
lever to implement nontrade related
issues," Boutros-Ghali said,
"that will be the end of the multilateral trading system -- maybe not
this year, but in 10 to 15 years."
A trade minister from Pakistan,
discussing labor issues at a negotiating session Thursday, used blunt language on the matter, according to
one Western official who was briefed
on the meeting. "We will block consensus on every issue if the United
States proposal goes ahead," the official quoted the Pakistani minister as
saying. "We will explode the meeting."
Administration officials spent
much of the day seeking to calm the
storm that Clinton's comments
had produced. Officials said they
were looking to assure other countries that his use of the word sanctions did not amount to a mandate
for the trade group to dictate labor
standards or to punish countries that
failed to live up to them.
"There's no question that our effort to have a working group of trade
and labor is a tough fight, and one
that has required us to do significant
amounts of outreach to try to explain
what the intent and purpose of this
is," said Gene Sperling, the president's economic adviser. "By no
means would we ever want something dealing with core labor standards to ever be used as a facade or
guise to do anything that would be
harmful to developing countries."
The American labor movement's
campaign to link trade rules with
workers' rights has emerged as a
pivotal issue at the ministerial meeting of the trade organization here,
where 135 nations are wrangling
over a multitude of issues like biotechnology and subsidies for farm
The meeting has been the target of
thousands of protesters, who have
demanded that the trade group do
more to protect the environment and
the interests of workers. The protests, which were marred by an outbreak of violence on Tuesday, dwindled today. But opponents of the
group marched on the King County
Jail this afternoon to demand the
release of 500 people who were arrested as the police sought to restore
order to downtown.
Clinton signed a treaty Thursday
that bars the most abusive forms of
child labor, including the use of children as indentured laborers or in
prostitution, mines and armies.
Clinton said the treaty should be a
model for enforcing other labor
The European Union trade minister, Pascal Lamy, voiced concern
that there was so much friction at the
talks that they could fall apart without fulfilling the goal of setting up an
agenda for a fresh round of talks,
tentatively dubbed the Millennium
Round, that would last for three
years and aim at further reducing
The United States trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, was far
more upbeat, saying the talks were
moving steadily forward. She said
that progress had been made on a
range of issues and that she remained optimistic that members
would agree to a negotiating framework for the future talks.
Angering many developing countries, the American labor movement
has pressed the Clinton administration to make the World Trade Organization allow members to impose
trade sanctions on other nations that
violate basic workers' rights like
prohibitions on child labor and the
right to form trade unions.
The A.F.L.-C.I.O., already upset at
Clinton over his trade deal with
China, pressed him fiercely this
week to gain an agreement that
could ultimately lead to letting trade
sanctions be used against countries
that violate basic workers' rights.
The thousands of protesters who
paralyzed Seattle this week have
also pressed the administration to
use the talks to make W.T.O. rules
what they consider friendlier to labor, human rights and the environment.
But India, Brazil and Egypt, taking
the lead for the developing world,
sought to block the creation of a
panel that could lead to trade sanctions over labor rights. Many ministers from developing countries said
such sanctions could be disguised
protectionist measures that would be
used to ban imports from developing
Clinton's call to link trade with labor
rights. "It is nonsensical," he said.
"The question is why all of a sudden,
when third world labor has proved to
be competitive, why do industrial
countries start feeling concerned
about our workers? When all of a
sudden there is a concern about the
welfare of our workers, it is suspicious."
Administration officials suggested
gingerly that they might move toward a compromise European Union
proposal that would set up a group
outside the World Trade Organization to study the link between trade
and labor rights.
Opposing such a compromise, the
president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., John
Sweeney, insisted at a private meeting with Clinton that any working group should make its recommendations directly to the World
Sweeney's approach, union officials say, would accelerate the
timetable for the trade group to
adopt enforceable labor rights. "I
reiterated to the president how important it was to get these things in
our trade agreements," Mr. Sweeney
said in an interview. "The president
says he's all for it. But he said he's
having a tough time with the developing countries."
White House officials fear that if
they disappoint American labor, that
could badly hurt Vice President Al
Gore, who is counting on unions' support in his campaign for the presidency.
Sweeney indicated that if
disappointed, the unions would redouble their efforts to press Congress to defeat the president's trade
pact with China.
Several trade officials said
Clinton clearly intended to soften developing countries' opposition to an
accord on labor rights by granting
them two large concessions on
Wednesday. He announced that the
United States would cut tariffs on
developing world exports and would
ease patent rules to enable developing countries to buy pharmaceuticals
But the administration was still
having trouble getting the developing
countries agree to a panel that
makes recommendations to the
Word Trade Organization.
The trade minister of Kenya, Nicholas Biwott, said, "The best forum to
deal with such matters is the International Labor Organization." That
organization is an international body
under the United Nations that researches labor issues and promotes
workers' rights, but has minimal enforcement powers.
For years, labor leaders around
the world have complained that the
I.L.O. is a toothless, underfinanced
agency unable to stop child labor or
to protect other rights.
The European Union has proposed
setting up a forum in which the
World Trade Organization, the International Labor Organization, the International Monetary Fund and multilateral groups examine how globalized trade affects workers around
America's organized labor, which
is critical to Gore's political future, wants any such group to be a
part of the World Trade Organization.
"We don't care what it's called,"
Sweeney said. "You can call it
anything you want, so long as it is
done the way we want and is part of