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Trade: Support builds for labour, environment standards

Inter Press Service | 21 March 2007

TRADE: Support Builds for Labour, Environment Standards

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Mar 21 (IPS) — Strong majorities in both developing and developed countries believe that international trade agreements should require governments to abide by minimum labour and environmental standards, according to a new survey of public opinion in 10 countries.

Of the 10 countries covered by the survey released Thursday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) and (WPO), support for such provisions was highest in the United States, Israel, Argentina and Poland. In those countries, nine or more of every 10 respondents said they favoured such provisions.

But more than eight of every 10 respondents in China, Ukraine, and Armenia also said they supported the inclusion of minimum standards in trade accords, according to the survey, which was carried out during the second half of last year.

Of the remaining three countries covered by the survey, support was strongest in Mexico and weakest in India and the Philippines.

"It has often been assumed that when leaders of developing countries argue against including labour or environmental standards in trade agreements, they represent the wishes of their people," said Steven Kull, WPO’s editor and director of its parent organisation, the University of Maryland’s Programme of International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

"However, it appears that these publics would like to see the international community put pressure on their governments to raise their standards," he added.

The survey was part of a 17-nation study to assess attitudes on specific global issues. CCGA and WPO said the survey results will be released issue by issue over the coming weeks and months. In addition to the 10 countries covered in the survey results released Thursday, the larger project included Russia, Thailand, Iran, South Korea, Australia, Peru, and the Palestinian territories.

Many developing country governments have opposed the incorporation of labour and environmental standards in bilateral and multilateral trade agreements because of fears that they would reduce the attractiveness of their economies to foreign investment. They have also charged that such measures have been used to protect domestic industries in the rich countries.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has also opposed such standards — particularly those that require the imposition of severe penalties against offending countries for violations — on the grounds that they interfere with the "free market" and could force the U.S. itself to adopt stricter labour and environmental laws.

But last November’s landslide election victory by Democrats, who now enjoy majorities in both houses of Congress, has forced the administration to alter its position, particularly with respect to labour standards.

Earlier this month, the administration proposed that, in exchange for Congress extending its so-called "fast-track", also known as "trade-promotion" authority to negotiate new trade agreements with other countries that cannot later be amended by Congress, it would require those countries to pass laws that were either "equivalent" to U.S. federal labour law or that comply with the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva. Its current "fast-track" authority will expire in June.

The new survey found near-unanimous support in the U.S. for imposing both labour (93 percent) and environmental (91 percent) standards in trade agreements.

"The American public is clearly concerned that trade agreements fail to protect either workers or the environment," according to CCGA’s Christopher Whitney. "This strengthens the hand of those in Congress who share this apprehension, particularly as the White House increases its willingness to negotiate these issues with Congress in advance of the June expiration of the president’s trade promotion authority."

In the new survey, some 13,000 randomly selected individuals were interviewed by local polling firms in the 10 countries. Each was asked whether countries "that are part of international trade agreements should or should not be required to maintain minimum standards" for working conditions and for the environment.

On the labour question, the U.S. topped the list with the greatest percentage of support, followed immediately by Israel, while, on the environmental question, Israel was the most supportive, with the U.S. claiming the second position. The rankings, in descending order, of the remaining eight countries — Argentina, Poland, Ukraine, China, Armenia, Mexico, India and the Philippines — were the same with respect to both questions.

One of the most interesting findings was the marked contrast between Chinese respondents, 84 and 85 percent of whom favoured labour and environmental standards, respectively, and their Indian counterparts, of whom only 56 percent and 60 percent, respectively, supported the two sets of standards.

Representing nearly 30 percent of the world’s population, the two Asian giants are widely seen as the emerging powerhouses of the global economy that also face serious challenges both in narrowing the gap between their rich and poor populations, containing greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing pollution caused by rapid industrialisation.

Also significant was the gap between the two Latin American countries covered by the survey. While nine in 10 Argentines voiced near-unanimous support for labour and environmental standards, respondents in Mexico, a founding member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which included largely toothless labour and environmental standards, were notably less supportive.

Two-thirds (67 percent) and three-quarters (76 percent) of Mexicans supported labour and environmental standards, respectively.

By far the least supportive of both kinds of standards were Filipino respondents. Despite a long history of exporting workers, many of whom have suffered abuse abroad, only 55 percent of Filipinos said they supported labour standards. They were even more divided with respect to environmental standards. Forty-eight percent said they favoured their inclusion in trade pacts, while 49 percent said they were opposed.

By contrast, 69 percent of respondents in nearby Thailand said they supported environmental standards. Thai respondents, however, were not asked their views about labour standards.

 source: IPS