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President Bill Clinton
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UK Trade and Industry minister Richard Caborn
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Thursday, 2 December, 1999, 22:12 GMT
Clinton signs child labour ban treaty
children at work Child labour will be banned by the ILO

US President Bill Clinton has signed an international treaty that seeks to ban the worst forms of child labour.

The battle for free trade
"This is a victory for the children of the world, and especially for the tens of millions of them who are still forced to work in conditions that shock the conscience and haunt the soul," Mr Clinton said as he signed.

The treaty, negotiated through the International Labour Organisation (ILO), bans the most egregious forms of child servitude, including slavery and bondage; the use of children for prostitution, in pornography or illegal activities such as drug trafficking; and hazardous work.

It is not wrong for the US to say: we don't believe in child labour
Bill Clinton
On Wednesday Mr Clinton told trade ministers meeting in Seattle that the United States would fight for labour rights to be included in trade legislation.

"It is not wrong for the United States to say: We don't believe in child labour or forced labour or the oppression of our brothers and sisters who work for a living around the world," he told delegates to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting.

Trade unionists are worried about jobs Trade unionists are worried about jobs
But Mr Clinton did not repeat his call, made in a Seattle newspaper interview, for trade sanctions to be imposed on countries who do not meet required labour standards.

That would have led to a major row with the developing countries who make up the bulk of the WTO's membership.

They suspect that the call for action on labour standards is a form of disguised protectionism, designed to exclude the products of poor countries with low labour labour costs from Western markets.

Supachai Panitchpakdi, the commerce minister of Thailand who takes over as director general of the WTO in 2002, said this position threatened to derail the summit.

"I have the feeling that some of the representatives from the developing countries ... might take this opportunity to walk away from any agreement on a new round," he said.

"I know it is an important issue for the United States administration, but to have trade sanctions linked to labour rights violation would be really ultimately highly detrimental."

And Malaysia said that the ILO was the proper place to discuss labour issues.

"The WTO cannot be a forum to resolve and discuss all the social issues in the world," Asmat Kamaludin told delegates.

UK trade minister Stephen Byers, who is trying to broker a compromise deal, fears that the issue could be the key stumbling block in reaching an overall agreement by Friday's deadline.

Help for the poor

In a move to diffuse the row, Mr Clinton announced other trade concessions for developing countries.

He said that he was joining the EU, Canada, and Japan in offering easier access to rich country markets for the world's poorest countries.

protester Violent protests have disrupted the trade talks in Seattle
However, the tariff-free concessions now offered will be available only to a limited group of 40 poor countries who represent a very small proportion (0.5%) of world trade. Furthermore, key sectors such as textiles and agriculture will be excluded.

But Mr Clinton said the US would provide technical assistance to help developing countries "finance another path of growth" that would provide jobs while adhering to environmental standards.

He also said that rich countries should help poorer countries negotiate better trade deals and gain access to the drugs they needed to fight disease.

"The United States will henceforward implement trade policies that make sure countries won't have to go without medicine they desperately need," he said.

The European Union welcomed the US initiatives.

"I am confident that the developing countries will be left in little doubt as to the seriousness of our commitment to place their concerns at the core of the new round," said Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner.

Many developing countries are still angry that they gained little in the last round of trade talks, and they are concerned about the increasing use of "anti-dumping" legislation to exclude their products from the US and the EU.

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See also:
02 Dec 99 |  Business
EU makes biotech concessions
02 Dec 99 |  Americas
Seattle curfew for second night
01 Dec 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Seattle trade talks timeline
24 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
WTO's labour battle
23 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Developing countries fight for free trade
02 Dec 99 |  Americas
In pictures: Day two of Seattle clashes
01 Dec 99 |  Business
WTO boss: Protesters harm the poor
24 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Trade blocs and bullies
23 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Free trade benefits all

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