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Saturday, 10 November, 2001, 12:42 GMT
Labour: the missing issue at Doha
Protestors outside the opening session of the WTO meeting
A silent protest was held as the trade talks began
by BBC News Online's Steve Schifferes at the WTO talks in Doha

When the last attempt was made to start a new round of trade talks in 1999, concerns about labour standards dominated the headlines while thousands of steelworkers demonstrated in the streets of Seattle.

When President Bill Clinton indicated that he was sympathetic to calls for labour rights to be incorporated into trade talks, with sanctions for those countries who violated them, enraged developing countries walked out, contributing to the demise of the negotiations.

Core Labour Standards
Right of association and bargaining
No child labour
No forced labour
Now there are three American trade union delegates at the trade talks in Doha.

Among them are the former head of the United Steelworkers of America, George Becker, who believes that American workers are being sold out.

He told BBC News Online that negotiations on core labour standards had actually gone backwards, with the final version of the draft declaration taking out any reference to consultations between the World Trade Organisation and the International Labour Organisation, thus leaving all issues of enforcement to the latter, weaker organisation.

Mr Becker also fears that the new American willingness to discuss anti-dumping legislation will lead to much of US core manufacturing industry being "wiped out," including steel, textiles, and cars.

Developing country relief

The fading of labour rights from the agenda of trade talks has much to do with the new, more pro-business orientation of the Bush administration.

EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy
Pascal Lamy says he backs talks between the WTO and unions
And it has been helped by the fact that the conference is being held in Qatar, where mass demonstrations by trade unionists are not possible.

On Friday Bill Jordan, head of the international federation of trade unions led a group of less than 100 people in a silent protest as the trade talks began.

However, it is also part of the new negotiating strategy which gives more weight to the concerns of developing countries.

They believe that blocking trade in goods because of supposed violations of labour rights would be a form of disguised protectionism.

Amid their concerns that too many difficult issues - including competition, the environment, and investment - are finding their way into trade talks, they are delighted that labour has been left out.

EU sympathetic

It was left to the European Union to make the case for some solidarity with trade unionists.

Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, said that he backed a social dialogue between the WTO and the ILO, and said that the current draft for the planned trade talks "is still too weak on that."

European trade unions, he added, would expect no less.

It is unlikely that the EU will press that position in the trade talks, given the delicate state of negotiations with developing countries.

But Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former head of the UK's biggest union, Unison, was encouraged by the move.

He told BBC News Online that he was encouraged by the EU position, which showed that concerns about social justice will go away.

Mr Bickerstaffe now heads a delegation from Solidar, an alliance of trade unions and NGOs who are campaigning for the inclusion of social rights in the globalisation process.

Both groups have been somewhat marginalised as the end-game of trade negotiations begins.

But as the world economic slowdown intensifies, the issues they want to highlight - rising unemployment in rich countries and growing poverty in developing countries - are unlikely to go away.

And American trade unionists are already gearing up to fight any trade deal in the US Congress, hoping to block a bill for trade promotion authority that is vital if the US adminstration is to be given the power to negotiate a new deal.

Thea Lee, of the AFL-CIO, the US trade union federation, told the BBC that if unions get nothing at Doha, it will strengthen their case in a closely divided Congress.

The WTO may then regret its failure to engage in dialogue.

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