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WTO trade talks fiddling while world system burns

WTO trade talks "fiddling while world trading system burns", say international trade union organizations

Brussels, 28th July 2004 (ICFTU Online): As trade negotiators began a marathon high-stakes discussion at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva on 27 July, the world's largest trade union body the ICFTU, jointly with the Paris-based TUAC and the ITGLWF representing textiles and clothing workers, criticized the WTO negotiations for ignoring the worsening impact of trade on peoples' lives and working conditions around the world.

"Unfortunately, while WTO trade negotiators pore over the fine print of their schedule for completing their Doha Round negotiations, the very basis of support for a multilateral trading system is being cut away from under their feet," commented Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the ICFTU. "Governments must raise their sights and tackle the basic social and development questions at the heart of the inequity and injustice that characterize world trade today. Otherwise they will fail to mobilize support among their own populations for completing, ratifying and implementing whatever trade deal may ultimately be concluded."

By the end of the year, whilst trade negotiators strive to make progress in the "Doha Round" that originally should have been concluded by 31 December 2004, millions more workers in vulnerable sectors around the world will have seen their jobs undermined as multinational companies continue to shift their production to China and other countries where production is cheaper due to violations of basic workers' rights. Nothing in the framework of WTO trade talks being presented this week tackles this social void at the heart of the world trading system.

"Earlier this year, the World Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalisation presented a comprehensive set of recommendations to improve the social coherence of the multilateral system", said John Evans, TUAC General Secretary. "Although five months have passed, nothing in the draft framework for WTO talks comes close to responding to the World Commission's solid proposals to build up the linkages between the WTO and the UN's expert social and environmental agencies, including the International Labour Organisation (ILO) with its mandate to protect workers' fundamental rights."

Turning to the clothing and textiles sector, ITGLWF General Secretary Neil Kearney asked, "Who is going to explain to the 40 million workers, mostly women in desperately poor counties such as Bangladesh and Mauritius, that the jobs carnage in those sectors that will come in 2005 after the end of the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing is good for them?"

Evans added, "The international community should create an emergency clothing and textile forum under the auspices of the UN and with WTO, ILO and OECD participation, as one of the Policy Coherence Initiatives that the World Commission has recommended. That could bring together all relevant organisations, including the social partners, to put in place a plan of action to head off the crises that will surely emerge."

The ICFTU further drew attention to the failure of the draft framework to answer basic questions about the services and development negotiations. "The threat to public services presented by the GATS negotiations at the WTO remains unaddressed," said Ryder. "There is no move whatsoever in the draft agreement to introduce an exemption to protect vital public services like education, health and water from blind trade liberalization."

The draft framework for completing the Doha Round is also very weak on the areas of special and differential treatment for developing countries, despite being billed originally as the Doha Development Agenda. Proposals on cotton do not come close to the demands of developing countries in Cancun, supported by the international trade union movement, to tackle the massive subsidies given to cotton growers in industrialized countries. Demands on developing countries to open up their agricultural markets risk undermining their domestic producers and jeopardizing food production for their people. The tariff reductions that could be required in the Non-Agricultural Market Access (NAMA) talks risk to have an equally devastating impact.

"At the end of the day, multilateral trade talks through the WTO remain a generally better option than the alternatives, but that is little comfort to the workers losing their jobs owing to the WTO's deficiencies", Ryder concluded. "Governments at the WTO must wake up to their responsibility to make world trade function for the betterment of peoples' lives, not their impoverishment and unemployment. Otherwise, they must expect to see a continuing polarization of public opinion against a world trading system that cannot protect peoples' basic rights."

The ICFTU represents 148 million workers through its 233 affiliated national trade union centres in 152 countries and territories. ICFTU is also a member of Global Unions:

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