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FOCUS March 1996 Volume 3

Workers' Rights in the Age of Free Trade

"Democracy and human rights are not the natural consequences of investment and trade", thus state a Chinese trade union activist in a message to fellow workers' rights activists in a meeting in Kyoto, Japan on the ocassion of the APEC meeting in November last year.

The growing institutionalization of the free trade system in the Asia-Pacific region is inevitable. It has affected countries of varying political orientation. It will without doubt be the priority concern of most countries in the region in the coming century.

What will its impact be on workers?

The participants in the Kyoto meeting argue that there are bases for alarm on the negative impact of the free trade system on the workers in this region. Recent experiences show that severe restrictions on freedom of association throughout the region exist in the context of aggressive economic development programs . They assert that freedom of association and the right to organize are key to the existence of independent trade unions which are essential if workers are to be able to adequately defend their rights. The restrictions include the arrest, detention, torture, harassment and dismissal of trade union organizers; the establishment of free trade zones where labor laws do not apply; the failure to accord legal recognition to legitimate independent trade unions; coercing or compelling workers to belong to trade unions which are controlled by governments or companies; the practice of sub-contracting and individual contracts in order to by-pass the process of collective bargaining; denial of rights of certain categories of workers like migrant workers and domestic workers who are mostly women as well as public sector workers and agricultural laborers; the expansion of underground economies where workers have no access to protection that is offered under national law; and frequent legislative restrictions or other limits placed on the right of association even when this right formally exists in national law.

There is indeed no guarantee that States will come out protecting workers' rights if the same would be construed as becoming less competitive in the free market system. Some would see social clauses in trade agreements as protectionist measures by industrialized States.

South Korea is a case in point. The so-called "miracle on the Han river" comes with an array of restrictions on workers' rights. Korean laws provide that there can only be one union in one company or industry (the one that is reportedly supported by the government), public servants and teachers are not allowed to form their own unions; strikes are prohibited in national or local government offices and designated defense industries; compulsory arbitration is invoked on labor disputes in public enterprises; government labor agency is authorized to interfere in the internal affairs of trade unions; third party intervention on trade union affairs is prohibited; and political activities of trade unions are prohibited. Numerous workers have been arrested or dismissed because of these laws. The South Korean government has continued the deployment of military forces to control strikes. Industrial accidents affecting workers in South Korea is reportedly the highest in the world. Recommendations by the ILO and the Committee of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to revise the restrictive laws have remained unheeded.

International economic meetings between Asian governments and governments from other regions such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) and the Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) largely set aside the human rights issue in general though they may discuss workers' rights in particular.

With an inevitable global free market system, the second question is can workers' rights still be saved?

One proposal meant to address this issue is the inclusion of a social clause in the bilateral/multilateral trade agreements and programs of governments. A recent study organized by the Asia-Pacific Workers Solidarity Links (APWSL) reveals that workers in different countries respond differently to this proposal. Workers in countries which have a long history of industrialization and have struggled to obtain some protection of their rights would not agree to social clauses because of the possibility of diluting, if not withdrawing, what they had fought so hard for. While those with continuing severe restrictions would agree to social clauses. It is even proposed by a workers' group in South Korea to treat the social clause proposal as just one dimension in protecting workers' rights. Environmental and the general human rights principles must likewise be included. And lastly, in countries that are beginning to industrialize and have not developed a complex system of labor law, workers would have neither agreement or disagreement to it.

For the workers, social clauses may actually be employed for economic advantage rather than for a genuine protection of human rights. It can used as a tool to force open markets. The trade policy of the United States may be cited as a concrete example of this case. It is thus not surprising for many Asian governments to resist the inclusion of social clauses in their trade agreements with the more prosperous Western countries (in addition to the fact that they are not keen on considering human rights in their economic programs).

While social clauses are valid measures for protecting workers' rights, their use in a free trade framework does not guarantee their enforcement. The politics of economics will most likely determine the extent of subscription to these measures. In this sense, the words of the Chinese trade union activist (quoted above) are bound to be confirmed as true.


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